North Texas Muslim community must talk to young people about mental health
Ten days short of Muslims’ holy month of Ramadan, the Muslim community was shaken by the murder-suicide of six family members in Allen. This family was part of the tight-knit Bangladeshi community. Two brothers allegedly killed themselves and their family after making a suicide pact. Horror, grief and immense sadness took over the entire North Texas Muslim community. Within a week, a barrage of grief-counseling groups, healing circles, Zoom presentations, text check-ins, and Facebook Live sessions popped up all over town. Mental health professionals spoke up and offered resources to families to cope with this tragedy. Muslim faith leaders began dialogues about these incidents in their congregations and with panic-stricken parents looking for solutions. All of this was a well-intended support system for the Muslim community. Ironically, in most of these spaces and conversations, the largest demographic affected by anxiety, depression and suicide was missing: Muslim youth ages 15 to 25. That group is not coming forward and seeking help. Some of the reasons for not reaching out are shame, guilt and social pressures that are commonly associated with the phrase: “What will people say?” Or in the Urdu language, “ loag kiya kahen gai.” When young adults reach out and seek help from mental health professionals, they face a major barrier with a lack of cultural understanding by most professionals and service providers. I have served the Dallas Muslim community for the past 18 years in various capacities, and my main focus has been providing social services with cultural sensitivity and cultural competency. It’s been an eye-opener for me to see that in order to address mental health and trauma, the first step is cultural understanding. I have young people say they feel misunderstood by their parents and when, out of desperation, they reach out to school counselors, those adults have no idea of how to address their issues and problems. These young people tell me that school counselors don’t understand their families and culture. They tell me: “We feel isolated.” This pushes them to turn to their peers to seek help. However, youth often are not equipped with the same resources or knowledge as mental health professionals. Sometimes, this can lead to more harm than good. Resources aside, other young people can often magnify the issues themselves. They are not immune to bullying and stigmatizing mental health. Even if a young person makes it to a mental health professional, counselor or other trained health care specialist, these professionals are not trained in culturally responsive services or strategies. This can often exacerbate the issues, causing feelings of hopelessness. The young person sought help, but it didn’t help. Equally as important in this equation are the parents. In the case of immigrant families, the children are bicultural, feeling pressure to retain their parents’ culture, while conforming to Western society. Parents’ insistence on certain careers adds pressure to excel in academics. Some parents are so hyperfocused on societal and academic work that empathy and compassion are not part of parenting. Sometimes they don’t believe their children are struggling with mental health and tell them it’s a lack of faith. As a parent of young adults myself, I always thought being active in their lives, being a PTA mom, knowing their friends, and creating positive activities was good parenting. But I was taught by my children that having difficult conversations, listening actively and responding with empathy and compassion are also part of parenting. It doesn’t matter if you provide everything under the sun for them. As parents we have the best interests of the children in mind, but we are misguided by our own influences, biases and culture. How do we as parents, community and faith leaders, and health professionals find solutions? The solutions do not lie solely with faith leaders, parents, or mental health professionals. It is a partnership of all. And most of all, the solution has to come from the age group that suffers the most. If that age population is not part of the conversation, then we are all working in our own echo chambers and these incidents will continue. We as parents and community builders must create and facilitate safe spaces for youth to voice their concerns. Young adults are more likely to turn to their friends before anyone else, and equipping these youth with the right tools may be as necessary as faith groups and professionals working together. Faith leaders, mental health professionals and parents have to work together, with young people in the lead, to create solutions. Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor and you just might get published.