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One woman’s journey to help destigmatize psychology within the Muslim community

There are countless reasons why people opt out of therapy: not wanting to be labeled as “crazy,” worrying about signs of weakness, privacy concerns from well-known health professionals, finances, worry about job acceptances, mistrust of the healthcare industry, etc.

According to Heather Laird, a Psy.D. candidate in Marriage and Family Therapy, religious beliefs and culture may also lead to hesitancies that she’s trying to help the Muslim community overcome.

“My YouTube show ‘Muslims and Mental Health’ has two aims,” says TCSPP Marriage and Family Therapy student Heather Laird. “The first one is to help clinicians be more familiar with treating the Muslim population. The other is to destigmatize psychotherapy for the Muslim population.

“A lot of the stigmas mirror those in the dominant culture, but there are some that are more specific to the Muslim culture. It’s public stigma and self-stigma. A lot of people who are Muslim with a mental health issue believe that they also have a spiritual deficiency. And depending on exactly what ethnic background they come from, that’s more or less of an issue. You could believe you are weak in your faith, or possessed, or have the evil eye put on you.”

 

 

An outsider may not realize why something as simple as “whispering” (a tradition of tying knots and blowing on them) is akin to a magical spell. Or, that the Muslim community believes in a seen and an unseen world.

“The evil eye itself is part of the unseen. It’s a bit difficult to quantify or explain because it’s part of that unseen world where we don’t really know exactly how it works. But these are the kinds of beliefs that most mainstream Muslims have.”

For a mental health care professional who is unfamiliar with the various cultures that exist in the diverse Muslim community, being able to relate to the patient—or helping the patient relate to the health care professional—can pose a problem.

On her social media channel, which has more than 800 subscribers and 15K views, there are 60-plus shows ranging from miscarriage to domestic violence to depression.

“Every individual who walks through the door of your clinical office may have a different viewpoint,” Laird says. “At the same time, there are groups of Muslims that focus more on their own ethnic culture and expression of that culture than their values as a Muslim.”

Destigmatizing psychology within the Muslim community

Heather Laird

“Every once in a while there will be people who want to see non-Muslim therapists just because they are afraid of being judged by someone in their own community,” Laird says. “And that happens with all communities. Not just Muslims. Trust and a sense of authority are often influential in who is chosen for treatment.

“For Muslims who see themselves as adherent to the practice of Islam, there is often a need for some semblance of authority that says, essentially, ‘It’s OK if you go and see this person. You can trust them with your mind. You can trust them with your soul,’” Laird says. “These factors have to be in place many times for people to be willing to come and see you. To create this type of setting requires relationship building and rapport building. Right now in the United States―although there are therapists who identify as Muslim―I can probably count on two hands the people that are actually recognized as service providers for this community. That’s not to say that there aren’t many more who are providing services, but I’m just speaking of those who are recognized within the community to provide psychological care.”

Laird is working to change that with the opening of the Center for Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology this fall at the University of Southern California.

“There are not enough culturally competent, trained therapists to treat this population,” she says. “One of the things that we will be doing with the Center is training interns who want to work with this population, whether they are Muslim or not. As mentioned earlier, one of the key variables in working with this population is trust. This also applies to being able to conduct research around mental health issues. If you don’t have that trust with the community, you’re not going to be allowed in.”

Pounding the pavement to research mental health care for Muslims

Laird has done more than enough networking to try to recruit and converse with other psychologists, including within the political realm. Under the Obama administration, former senior adviser Valerie Jarrett compiled a group of professionals in the Health and Human Services, which included Laird.

“Of the 12 of us, there were only two or three who would be categorized as mental health professionals. And out of those two or three, I was the only one there who actually saw adolescents. I may have been the only one with a majority caseload of Muslim clients. So we just don’t have enough people or at least identified providers. Many people want to do their work and go home. They have other aspects of life to attend to. But there is a need for more clinicians who are also thinkers to bridge these deficits in the community. Their voices need to help develop this part of the mental health community.”

The upside to not already having more people who cater to the Muslim population is that there’s room for growth. Referring to the think tank in Michigan called the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, in which various papers have been written about the Muslim community, Laird would prefer to see more research to validate the findings from previous papers and future research. So in addition to needing more psychologists working within the Muslim community, researchers are also highly sought after.

As a researcher, speaker, and mental health care professional, these are some of Laird’s most prominent speaking events and achievements while at TCSPP within the past couple of years:

  • Volunteering with different organizations and nonprofits such as MiNDS where she presented on mental health and domestic violence for the Department of Mental Health Los Angeles County to Arabic speaking populations.
  • Receiving a Albert Schweitzer Foundation fellowship, an interdisciplinary scholarship where people from various health care backgrounds—dentistry, surgery, psychiatry, and nursing—work together.
  • Working as a member of a subcommittee for the Department of Mental Health, where her group was given $100,000 a year to divide and decide on programs for ethnic communities, as part of the MHSA funding in the State of California. The subcommittee itself is called the Middle Eastern East European Committee and focuses on projects that speak to Arab, Jewish, Russian, and Armenian people.
  • Presenting to Arabic-speaking college students through a Department of Mental Health Los Angeles County project with the nonprofit Cross Cultural Expressions.
  • Presenting for a 20-hour workshop “Religious Leaders Behavioral Health Training” with the Orange County Department of Mental Health, near LA County. The workshop was geared toward multiple religious leaders to make them more aware of mental health and useful avenues for assistance.
  • A presentation on a genogram project at the International Family Therapy Association conference in Kona, Hawaii.

How genograms can positively influence Muslims’ mental health

Breaking the barriers within the Muslim community about mental health care may come in the form of genograms, a graphical representation of a person’s family, if Laird has anything to do with it.

“Teaching people about genograms may shift patients’ attitudes in a positive direction toward seeking psychotherapy,” Laird says, who spoke at Harvard University earlier this year on the topic. “Showing that your values are congruent with Islamic values and family systems theories may open up enough psychological space for them to say, ‘OK, I don’t think I will be betraying my belief system to go get therapy.’ For a community that has a stigma around going to get psychotherapy, genograms are a big learning point. Through quantitative analysis, Laird found in her research that if genograms were used in the therapy session, patients would be much more inclined to go. That’s a pretty big piece of information for service providers.”

According to Laird, utilizing genograms isn’t just a hunch. Her interpersonal research holds true, too.

“Using qualitative studies, I interviewed approximately 30 families in a Michigan community to help them understand their own genograms,” Laird says. Hoping to publish a book on the research, Laird’s research indicates that different mental health issues fell along different ethnic lines within the Muslim community. In addition to my education at TCSPP, I’ve taken specialty training in trauma-informed therapy and sex therapy and energy psychology.

“What we know through our training in trauma therapies and Family Systems Theory is that trauma can be intergenerational.”

And in addition to family roots, there are also cultural and racial connections that may result in cycles repeating themselves.

“The theory of post-traumatic slave syndrome was developed from looking at the history of American slavery, for example, and how it has affected the African-American community,” Laird says. “In America, the largest population of Muslims are of African-American descent. What I found in my own research is that different ethnic groups have particular mental health issues that can be attributed to or trace back to their own history or ancestry.”

Whether through familial ties, historical ties, or just trying something new within the mental health care community, Laird is determined to help break those stigma barriers for all involved.

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