Health

Islamophobia Is Giving Muslims Mental Disorders

CREDIT: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

A young woman waves an American flag along with others at the beginning of a January 2015 Muslim conference against terror and hate in Texas.

Moments after news of Friday’s Paris attack broke, a wave of racist comments hit the internet. Most of them blamed the deadly act on Muslim populations, despite the lack of any information about the people behind it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t anything new. Muslim-blaming is a now expected reaction to any terrorism attack in the U.S. or abroad. Even though less than 2 percent of all terrorist attacks over the past five years have been “religiously motivated,” and only 6 percent of all terrorism attacks in the U.S. between 1980 and 2005 were committed by Muslims, a few events — 9/11, in particular — have spread a healthy dose of Islamophobia across the country over the past few decades.

At the same time, the population of Muslims in the U.S. has grown to more than 2.6 million. Many of them arrived in North America hoping to escape the discrimination and hate already brewing in their home country, only to be met with rampant discrimination.

Now, researchers are just beginning to explore the kind of toll that Islamophobia can take on the mental and physical health of Muslim-Americans — and it’s unsurprisingly harsh.

“Studies have shown that many Muslims not only experience religious discrimination in their daily lives, but are fully aware of their devalued position in society,” writes a group of Norwegian psychology professors in a 2012 study. Their own study found that perceived Islamophobia has a “distinct effect on Muslim minorities’ health and identification.”

Of the few studies on Muslim health that exist, most identified that daily, repetitive harassment as the biggest factor contributing to long-term mental health issues in Muslim populations.

“Workplace discrimination and ‘chronic daily hassles’, including insults, can increase risk of common mental disorders,” finds a 2005 study by the Boston University School of Medicine. “Parental stress may therefore exacerbate the effects of similar experiences Muslim children face in the school setting, such as the increased verbal and physical harassment.”

In a 2011 study on Muslim-Americans, researchers found that the vast majority of participants said they felt extremely safe prior to 9/11. Following the attack, 82 percent of them felt “extremely unsafe.” The researchers later found many of those studied developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from this constant anxiety and abuse.

And a 2013 study of Muslim women in the United Kingdom who had been the victims of an Islamophobic attack found that nearly all of the women “expressed feelings of humiliation, anger, sadness, isolation, and disgust.” Some of them said they became afraid to leave their home because of this.

While it may be a subconscious act, discrimination against race and religion is also prevalent in medical settings. This factor alone can discourage many Muslims from visiting a doctor. But studies have shown that when Muslims do come in for an exam, many of the doctors they meet are unaware of Muslim beliefs when it comes to health care — and the constant stress they face in a biased country.

“Clinicians must recognize the types of microaggressions their Muslim clients may experience in their everyday lives, as well as potential microaggressions that may occur in therapy,” advises a 2012 report published in the Journal of Muslim Mental Health.

The study goes on to stress the importance of a physician understanding their own biases and stereotypes about Muslims, even if they’re entirely unintentional.

For instance, it explains: “If a non-Muslim female psychologist assumes that a hijab is oppressive against women, she may unconsciously try to steer her client away from covering, instead of understanding the significance of the hijab in her Muslim client’s life.”

Mental illness is often stigmatized in Muslim culture, and many chose prayer or private coping before seeking professional care. Therapeutic interventions, researches suggest, could make it easier for families to discuss problems and accept care.

This bias does not stop at mental health. Muslims face insufficient physical medical care due to similar unconscious discrimination.

Again, many physicians aren’t clear on Muslim culture, including health-related traditions and beliefs — like long fasts, end-of-life care guidelines, or birth customs. This can become dangerous when it comes to nutritional advice, reproductive health, or other specific areas unknowingly influenced by religious belief.

One of the reasons little is known in the medical community about Islamophobia’s health implications is due to the general lack of comprehensive research in the area. While many studies have dissected the public health threats tied to racism in African-American and Latino populations, Muslim-specific health inequities have seen little exploration.

“Prior to 9/11, there was virtually nothing published that related to the mental health of Muslims in the United States,” said Mona M. Amer, a professor of psychology at the American University of Cairo, in a 2011 interview. “After that, there has been a handful of studies.”