Somali-American Imams Fight Stigma Of Mental Illness

Somali-American Imams have gathered monthly to learn how to spot the signs of mental illness and steer Mosque members to professional help.

Imam Ahmed Ibrahim recently stepped in to help a young Somali-American man who’d grown increasingly withdrawn and gloomy.

At his south Minneapolis Mosque, Ibrahim offered support he had perfected over almost 25 years as an imam: readings from the Qur’an and prayers to recite morning and night. But Ibrahim also did something new: He gave the man a list of local therapists and urged him to seek help.

In the past year, Ibrahim and other Somali-American imams have gathered monthly to learn how to spot the signs of mental illness and steer Mosque members to professional help. Hosted by Fairview Health Services, the training enlists the imams as key allies in chipping away at the stigma of mental illness.

“The reality is that when Muslims face problems, the first place they come is the Mosque,” said Ibrahim. “When we make referrals, people take that seriously.”

The training is among a spate of new efforts nationally to recruit faith leaders — Muslim, evangelical Christian and others — to counter deep-rooted notions of mental illness as a sign of spiritual failing or demonic possession.

Noting the disproportionately low rates at which Muslims seek out professional help, a national (America) survey of 63 imams recently found lingering reservations about western treatments of mental illness.

Presented with a case study of a severely depressed person, imams often saw stress, but they also cited a religious crisis and a weak personality as likely culprits. They rated more active participation in the mosque as most effective and medication as least helpful.

These attitudes are by no means unique to Muslim communities. Efforts are under way nationally to spur more open conversation about mental illness in other faith congregations, more education about mental health in seminaries, and new partnerships between clergy members and clinicians.

Since late 2013, the Minneaplois imams have covered a wide range of topics — depression, addiction, bipolar disorder, and treatment options from cognitive behavioural therapy to medication — in monthly sessions led by a Somali therapist, Ahmed Hassan. During case-study readings and role play, the imams wave red napkins when they hear a “red flag” for mental illness.

Ann Ellison, Fairview’s community and church relations director, said the imams also got guidance on how to weave discussion of mental health into their Friday prayers in a bid to fight stigma. Several mosques hosted workshops after Friday prayer, attended by an estimated 400 people. The project inspired one participant, Imam Sharif Mohamed, to become the first Muslim religious leader to join Fairview’s Clinical Pastoral Education program as resident chaplain.

Imam Sheikh Sa’ad Musse Roble said the training has been eye-opening. He used to think of mentally ill people as running down the street, shedding their clothes and raving. He has come to realize that a mosque member can dress well and speak coherently, but fighting deep problems. He has also come to believe that mental-health professionals can be key partners to “spiritual doctors” like him.

“Religion is still important, but it’s also important to seek help from a scientific perspective,” said Mohamed, the Fairview chaplain. “They are not against one another.”


Source: Mila Koumpilova

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