Identity and Mental Health: University Muslim students’ experiences of Mental Health

Dr Arif Mahmud, Senior Lecturer in Educational Practice at the University of Roehampton, writes about the barriers Muslim students face in accessing mental health services.

A quote from the blog post by Dr Arif Mahmud surrounded by characters from the Mental Health Research Matters campaign. The quote reads: When working with Muslim students, having cultural competence is fundamental for mental health and wellbeing teams"

There is an estimated 330,000+ Muslim students in UK Higher Education (UKHE) (Bridge Institute, 2018). However, limited research has explored how Muslim student identity impacts on their mental health, wellbeing and subsequently their higher education experiences and outcomes. My latest research explored exactly that. I began investigating Muslim students in UKHE and specifically their experiences with their own mental health and their access to support. Finding out why there was that gap was my priority. Either we assume that Muslim students are fine and don’t need to speak to a mental health worker. Or we establish that they are struggling with their mental health and they’re not using the services for another reason.

I utilised an explorative approach to my research and conducted focus groups with undergraduate Muslim students. What came out of my initial findings with these students was that we can’t assume anything in mental health research. The ‘West’ has historically assumed authority on describing the experiences and needs of Muslims, despite lacking knowledge about the real nature of Islamic tradition, rulings and communities. Muslims are not a homogenous group. They have varying intersectional identities. Therefore the same findings (and subsequent mental health provisions) can’t be applied across all populations.

Starting the conversation

During the conversations with Muslim students who had lived experience of mental health issues, one thing came through. It was clear that they didn’t think the university mental health services were suitable for them. After delving a little deeper, I saw common themes being expressed regarding their experiences of the wellbeing services.

The students felt there was a lot of stigma attached to seeking mental health support, especially at university, when you’re just breaking out on your own and stepping into adulthood. The physical spaces and location of these services made it difficult to be discreet. They felt the stigma of using mental health services was embedded across their peers and teachers, and appeared universally across societies.

Lack of sensitivity towards cultural or religious identities, beliefs or experiences
The majority of the students voiced concerns about the sensitivity university services would have to their cultural or religious identities, beliefs or experiences. Many mental health service teams in UKHE are predominantly white, non-Muslim. This automatically creates a barrier for Muslims who want to access these services. Muslims may feel that they wouldn’t be heard or understood. Students I spoke to also felt that they might be given advice that wouldn’t align with their religious and cultural values. Muslims preferred to be assessed by a professional belonging to the same religion or ethnic group. They felt a Muslim professional might have better awareness of the social, cultural and religious issues to meet their needs.

Lack of awareness of services
There appeared to be a lack of awareness of mental health services for Muslim students. Factors which further compounded this were limited relationships between the wellbeing service teams and the Islamic Student Union. Restricted or ineffective communications from the centralised University systems was noted as a barrier.

Moving forward

Some great suggestions came out of the focus groups which have illustrated areas for consideration. The research has provided insight into some of the gaps in understanding between undergraduate Muslim students and University mental health and wellbeing services with regards to religious and spiritual dimensions of identity. 

When working with Muslim students, having cultural competence is fundamental for mental health and wellbeing teams. This applies to religious and spiritual differences as well as ethnic, gender and other differences. These aspects cannot be worked with in isolation as this research has suggested that experiences cut across contexts. Support services need to understand the interplay between different spaces that a Muslim student occupies and the effects these have on the students’ university experiences and outcomes. 

Cultural sensitivity also needs to be acknowledged by service teams themselves so that they can challenge their own biases. It is important for wellbeing practitioners to be aware of their misconceptions about Islam and Muslims, those they hold themselves, and those held by society. This awareness will help prevent practitioners from oppressing the people that have come to them for help. I would encourage practitioners to learn about Islam and Muslims through various means. Attend seminars or workshops or engage with reading materials.

Lived experience in research

Finally, doing this kind of research, I learned so much from those with lived experiences. I think much more research on mental health and the intersections of our young peoples’ identity is needed. It’s great that this research is more common than it used to be, but we need to do much more. Where does mental health services sit within the intersections of race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, and disability etc? We can’t aim for deep and lasting change without engaging peer researchers with wide ranging lived experiences. Research must be community-led and incorporate interdisciplinary research perspectives. There must be a relinquishing of power by ‘traditional researchers’. It must be handed to those with lived experiences. Those who have real connection within these diverse communities in order to make systematic change.

Find out more about the free webinars on lived experience and more happening this November.