Muslims miss out on mental health help when therapists fail to understand faith 

Image credit: Woolf Institute

By Angela Youngman

NHS mental health provision is failing Muslims because therapists and medical practitioners lack cultural and religious awareness, according to a new report, Faith in Mental Health, issued by the Cambridge-based Woolf Institute.

Stigma associated with mental health issues can be found in some Muslim communities, the report says, but this is compounded by Muslims feeling that their faith is routinely ignored by health professionals and is sometimes viewed as a negative influence that should be abandoned.

As a result, many Muslims, including those working in mental healthcare, feel that statutory services do not recognise their identity or understand their faith, and thus do not address their needs.

The report calls for mandatory religious literacy training for health professionals, better understanding of mental health and therapy in Muslim communities and widespread collaboration between faith groups and public services.

Its publication follows a two-year study which included interviews with nearly 40 people involved in Muslim mental health provision.

The project began with an analysis of data showing the extent of the problem: that Muslims are more likely to be exposed to poor housing and poverty, social and economic factors which carry a higher risk of mental health problems.

There were stark discrepancies in mental health care outcomes. Out of 45,999 Muslims referred to NHS Talking Therapies in 2021-22, only 2.65 per cent finished their course of treatment compared with 18.4 per cent of Christians and 39.95 per cent who said they had no religious affiliation.   

A survey by the Muslim Youth Helpline of more than 1,000 British Muslims aged 16-30 found that only 13 per cent found a counsellor. And in statistics on NHS Talking Therapies, Muslims experienced a lower recovery rate at 40.3 per cent, compared with 54.5 per cent for Christians and 49.5 per cent for Jews.

This final report considers why there are such discrepancies and recommends action for the future.

It identifies gaps in policy governing provision of mental health care; lack of knowledge both in religious literacy among health professionals and understanding of therapy in Muslim communities; and lack of consistent collaboration between public services and the many Muslim-led organisations offering wellbeing and mental health care at discounted rates, and sometimes without charge, to their community.

Jamilla Hekmoun, a research fellow at the Woolf Institute, said: “Muslims have a low level of receiving help compared with other faiths, and there is a lack of understanding in terms of the type of support they need. There is a lack of knowledge among counsellors. People have to explain why a hijab is important or concerns about Ramadan.”

She said the report found medical practitioners did not discuss or raise the subject of faith and religion. As a result, mental health treatment was not taking advantage of the way in which faith could create personal resilience and strength.

Dr Imrana Siddiqui, a GP in the London Borough of Newham who was involved in the research, said: “Patients tell me how difficult it is to engage with a therapist when they do not feel they can talk about religion. For therapies to be effective, people have to be able to talk about what matters to them. If they feel a disconnect from the angle of faith and belief, no fully meaningful discussion affecting mental health can really take place.  

“Many feel ashamed that they are feeling depressed and may see it as a punishment from God. Doctors and therapists talk about mindfulness in terms of going to yoga, rather than a belief system where daily prayers might be just as relevant a form of mindfulness to a Muslim.”

The report recommends that the NHS collects more data about religious affiliation and where possible, offers religiously literate therapists and counsellors.

Ms Hekmoun added: “Practitioners need to learn religious literacy and understand how this can help mental health in counselling”.

She pointed to the report’s conclusion that the new Integrated Care Board system delivering health care may bring improvements to working with the community, which she would welcome. She said: “There needs to be much more collaboration between groups and more open discussion”.

And on the attitude towards mental health in some Muslim communities, education is seen as crucial in changing this situation. She said: “There is a need to accept that people can have problems and that they are not due to weakness of faith. By showing that the Prophet, scholars, great people in history have encountered these problems, it encourages people to understand that there is nothing wrong with it, that it is not a weakness.”

The report says the NHS needs to have a standardised approach to faith in its guidelines and Ms Hekmoun gave examples: “We found that the NHS approach in one area can be different to another. For example, people in the NHS authority in Sandwell [West Midlands] were deterred from talking about faith, unlike the NHS area working with the Green Lane Mosque in Birmingham.”

Recognising the scale of the problem, the Woolf Institute is now preparing a range of relevant material based on its research to create better understanding, and indicate where help can be obtained.“Signpost” resource material is being prepared to identify all the relevant faith organisations that can help and case studies will also be made available to show examples of good practice.  

Ultimately, the Woolf Institute believes that there needs to be much more research into the subject of faith and mental health. Above all, mainstream and statutory organisations need to recognise how important the role of faith and belief can be in ensuring mental health support and recovery for all patients.


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