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Health & Fitness Mental-health programs tailored for Muslims gain traction in Canada

Amal Mohamoud, a 32-year-old Muslim woman from North York, who watched her mother struggle with depression.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Tucked in a brick building in north Toronto, a centre with calming blue walls and a sign that reads “where the Mind & Spirit meet” opened its doors last month. While everyone is welcome, the Khalil Center offers counselling and therapy tailored specifically to Muslims.

The not-for-profit organization operates clinics in seven other U.S. locations, but this is the first expansion into Canada. With around 50 per cent of the country’s one million Muslims living in Ontario, Toronto seemed like a natural fit, says Dr. Hooman Keshavarzi, the founder and executive director of the Khalil Center, headquartered in Chicago. The centre offers help for conditions like anxiety, depression, social phobias, substance abuse and family problems by not just focusing on behavioural reformation, but also spiritual elevation.

The Khalil Center is part of a number of organizations trying to provide culturally sensitive mental-health services to Muslims. Last month, McMaster University students kicked off a “Let’s De-stigmatize Mental Health” campaign, which will host workshops and invite mental-health professionals to give monthly lectures at the Hamilton Mountain Mosque.

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Naseeha Mental Health, a confidential telephone help line for young Muslims, based in Mississauga, recently expanded its services and launched a program at Ontario Universities to facilitate discussion about mental health. The Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto has been so effective that over the last two years the University of Toronto Scarborough campus and Ryerson University selected their own Muslim chaplains to provide mental-health services to students.

“There is a growing ecosystem of support and we hope certain mental-health organizations become household names for the Muslim community,” says Amjad Tarsin, the Chaplain at the University of Toronto.

Organizers say events like the New Zealand mosque attack have exacerbated feelings of stress and isolation, increasing the demand for mental-health services. “After the New Zealand attack, some of my patients spent almost their whole session talking about it,” said Ambreen Yousaf, a registered psychotherapist who works with the Khalil Center.

Yet, many barriers to treatment exist, including feelings of shame and stigma, religious and language barriers, not knowing where to turn and the cost of treatment.

Amal Mohamoud, a 32-year-old Muslim woman from North York, watched her mother struggle with depression for eight years, often attributing her symptoms to the “evil eye,” a concept present in many religions and cultures, referring to misfortune that is typically created by another’s envious gaze.

“We didn’t know my mom was depressed, due to the lack of knowledge we had about mental health,” Mohamoud says.

Fearful that she would be admitted to a mental institution if she voiced her hopelessness to a doctor, Mohamoud’s mother opted to pray and seek spiritual counselling instead. When this didn’t work, she turned to a psychiatrist in February of 2017 who prescribed a two-month supply of antidepressants. After the medication ran out, she died by suicide.

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Organizers say offering culturally specific mental-health services is important because some Muslims want to use their faith as part of their overall treatment plan. “I have clients who don’t even identify as Muslim but they come from a Muslim family and they want their therapist to understand their cultural context,” said Huma Saeedi, a registered psychotherapist and outreach manager at Naseeha Mental Health.

Mohamoud, who now speaks at mosques across Ontario hoping her story will help others, says that she understands that her mother died because of a combination of factors. She just wonders if the outcome would have been different if her mother had sought medical treatment earlier.

“There is a lack of information out there. I just want people to know that mental illness has nothing to do with lack of faith. Spiritual healing and medical treatment have to go hand-in-hand,” Mohamoud said.

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