Farha Abbasi: Muslim Mental Health


An assistant professor of psychiatry, Dr. Farha Abbasi works in collaboration with Michigan State University, the Institute of Muslim Mental Health and the Islamic Center of Lansing with a goal to create more awareness about mental health.

“Be it the Muslim Community, any minority community or any faith-based community, there is a deep-seated stigma about mental illness. There is a silence. No one is talking about it, Abbasi said. “What we see in these communities is that the first responder for a mental health crisis becomes your rabbi, your clergy or your imam. So, I was specifically focused on working with the Muslim community, but I realized it was more applicable to all religious communities.”

“I was fortunate to receive a grant from the American Psychiatric Association as a minority fellow,” Abbasi said. “I was able to start this initiative with the hope that once we have more awareness, acceptance and access – that those in need could start accessing more care.”

In March, Abbasi led the 10th Muslim Mental Health conference in Washington D.C. at the Institute of Peace. The conference is a model training program for faith leaders to gain more awareness about mental illness, and to be able to refer those hurting in a timely manner before crisis happens.

Her biggest goal with the Muslim Mental Health conference is to bring the reality of mental health into the open.

“We are losing kids to substance abuse … mental illness,” Abbasi said. “This fire is actually going to catch up with all of us. We can’t keep saying, ‘This won’t happen to me.’”

Abbasi agrees that millennials are struggling now more than ever with mental illness due to the extreme pressures they face today. From an overwhelming internet/social media information overload to witnessing an economic meltdown, war and terrorism, shrinking job opportunities and growing fees to attend college, Abassi feels the stressors are taking their toll.

“We are also not giving them much hope. We are setting them up not to push themselves. This is a very intelligent generation who is looking to find their way and looking for guidance. They have the capability, but we have to play our roles and take responsibility. We have to move away from what is wrong with them – to what wrong happened to them.”

Abbasi mentions that sudden changes in mental behavior are key to recognizing mental illness as well as changes in functionality –  adding that if a student isn’t keeping up with classes, jobs  commitments and physical health, it could also be sign of trouble ahead.

“We have to look at mental health as much as we look at physical health. If you are balanced, and have a positive attitude, you will eat healthy, your relationships will be, and you’ll have more civic sense and awareness. The more we get stressed and depressed, the more disconnected we become,” said Abbasi.

Abbasi stresses that the public has to look at mental illness on a spectrum.

“It can be acute, temporary, situational or more chronic; which needs long term rehabilitation and services. Early diagnoses and consistent treatment will give you very positive outcomes. To label and stigmatize, you are just doing a disservice,” said Abbasi, who paints an easy to understand picture that compares of how we handle wellness to a tree.

“Instead of the root – we are going to the branches. We keep trimming the branches and trying to fix things and wonder why it’s not blooming. The problem is in the roots; they have to be nurtured.”


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