Mental health

Mental health: Muslim students need our attention

Acknowledging the mental health crisis among Muslim students isn’t about preferential treatment but developing bespoke ways to support them, writes Sabah Gilani

Acknowledging the mental health crisis among Muslim students isn’t about preferential treatment but developing bespoke ways to support them, writes Sabah Gilani

6 Mar 2023, 5:00

While schools continue to bear the brunt of a mental health epidemic affecting children and young people, there is little support and training given to staff to aid them in dealing with the multitude of issues that both contribute to and arise as a result.

While no comprehensive data exists, and this is both contributory to and symptomatic of the problem, analysis from Place2Be, a mental health charity working directly with schools, found that the average primary school classroom has four children with a probable mental disorder. According to research undertaken by the NHS in 2022, this rises to 18 per cent of children aged 7 to 16 years.

Figures published by the NSPCC in May 2018, obtained by a freedom of information request, show mental health referrals from schools had risen by more than one-third from 2015 to 2018, with an average of 183 referrals per school made in 2017/18.

When we shine a light on Muslim mental health, specifically amongst school aged children, the picture is bleaker still. Due to the statistical significance of Muslims amongst this young demographic, Muslim mental wellbeing is an issue of national significance.

Muslims, currently the second largest faith group in England and Wales, also possess the youngest age profile. According to data available from the last census, one in twelve schoolchildren in the UK are of Muslim background. The younger age profile makes early intervention and school-focused strategies of acute relevance to Muslim communities.

Despite the growth in prevalence of British Muslims, half of Muslim households are living in poverty and deprivation and face worse outcomes in health and housing. Forty per cent of England’s Muslim population reside in the most deprived fifth of local authority districts. And this comes with a mental penalty.

Muslim mental wellbeing is an issue of national significance

Studies point to higher levels of depression in the Muslim community, which are more chronic in nature. Research undertaken by BCBN revealed that of the young Muslims they surveyed,  53.8 per cent dealt with anxiety, 49.4 per cent suffered from depression and 48.6 per cent from stress. Nearly one in five young Muslims said they had harboured suicidal thoughts “many times”, an almost equal number (18 per cent) said they had done so “sometimes”,  and about one-quarter said they had “occasionally” experienced suicidal thoughts, 24%.

As a community that is overwhelmingly from black and minority ethnic background, Muslims are sometimes more likely to suffer from mental illness such as anxiety disorder and psychosis.

Despite this, Muslim youth are also less likely to access CAMHS. In the context of schools, research also shows that Muslims feel the pressure that the stigmatisation of Muslim identity, and Islamophobia, hold; adversely impacting their mental wellbeing.

These factors point to a perfect storm which schools unfortunately have to weather. Muslim Mind Collaborative, a collective of organisations working to better Muslim mental health, are undertaking extensive research and consultation to help schools in their journey to faith and mental health literacy in schools.

We see this as the beginning of the solution to this problem, with all the positive, long-term implications that early intervention in mental health holds for the individual, community, and society at large.

While some may ask what ‘Muslim mental health’ is – the unspoken implication being whether Muslim children should be getting ‘preferential’ treatment – our research shows us that Muslim children do not feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to schools. In many cases, they feel the need to censor their Muslim identity, with all of the consequences this has on their developing sense of self and well-being.

A school environment which understands their cultural and religious heritage from a place of sensitivity and humility and which is not prone to accepting or perpetuating sensationalist media stereotypes is key to allowing them to express themselves in healthy and productive ways, akin with their non-Muslim counterparts.

This means creating a culture in which children and young people are heard, and in which difference is celebrated and understood on its own terms. This way, we can benefit from a flourishing Muslim student population, and all the long-term benefits that brings for society.

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