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Muslim beliefs and mental health: good practice guidance

Dr Roz Warden draws on academic literature from the fields of psychiatry and social work to good practice guidance.
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Here we’ll look at how practitioners might respond when faced with certain unfamiliar religious beliefs within the context of mental health. In some situations, questions may arise about how to respond to these beliefs, which may relate to an individual’s understanding of the nature or cause of the distress they’re experiencing. These questions can be particularly important in contexts where practitioners may need to make professional judgments or assessments. This discussion draws on academic literature from both the fields of psychiatry and social work, which I engaged with through my Ph.D. research on Islam, social work and mental health.
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In looking at this issue will explore the impact that Islamic beliefs may have in relation to mental health and why it is so important to engage with the topics of religion and belief within a mental health context.
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One example of where questions may emerge relates to beliefs about jinn. Belief in the existence of spirits known as jinn are commonplace within Muslim communities and are in fact a feature of Islamic theology. The Quran contains numerous passages which mention the existence of jinn and which refer to the notion that jinn many influence an individual. What the nature of this influence is and whether it involves possession is something that Islamic scholars have different views about. But belief in general and the potential for jinn to influence an individual’s speech or actions should be recognised as widespread within Muslim communities. In a mental health context, such beliefs may present a challenge for practitioners who have not encountered them before.
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Questions may be raised about how to interpret them. To what extent are they religiously or culturally endorsed and are part of the individual’s everyday worldview? Could they represent the expression of distress in a context where there is shame or stigma related to having mental health problems? Or might they in fact represent symptoms of a mental health challenge which has religious overtones or has incorporated religious elements? The need for careful consideration of these questions is highlighted by researchers in the field of psychiatry who comment that clinicians must be careful to distinguish between culturally sanctioned belief in spirit possession and obvious psychotic symptoms, lest the patient be treated unnecessarily with antipsychotics.
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On the other hand, clinicians must exercise caution and not assume that all unusual beliefs in a patient from an unfamiliar culture are culturally sanctioned, lest psychosis go undetected and untreated. Social work scholars writing on religion and belief have also cautioned against too readily pathologising an individual’s beliefs as potentially delusional or psychotic without seeking to understand the potential meaning in them. Interpreting distress as being due to the influence of jinn may not only emerge within a mental health context, but in relation to the causation of other illnesses or conditions such as epilepsy or in relation to issues such as substance misuse.
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It is also important to note that beliefs in spirits or in spirit possession are not unique to members of British Muslim communities, but are in fact a feature of multiple cultural and religious traditions around the world. In writing about these scenarios, practitioners and academics have emphasised the following points about responding to unfamiliar beliefs. Firstly, that in engaging with individuals, practitioners should be open minded, respectful, and avoid making any assumptions as a result of particular beliefs being expressed. This includes asking open questions to an individual about their beliefs as well as consulting with religious professionals or scholars should more information about these beliefs be helpful.
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Given the diversity of British Muslim communities, however, it should not be assumed that there is any one particular interpretation or view on a topic. The importance of practitioners being self-aware and reflexive is also linked to this, knowing when to seek knowledge from other sources. Some scholars have described this need to be self-critical as being about having cultural humility, avoiding assumptions may also include being mindful of when it might be appropriate to signpost an individual to receive faith based support. It is widely acknowledged that religion can play an important role in people’s lives, in coping with times of difficulty and distress.
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However, seeking faith based support may not be a universal choice, including where there are concerns about stigma or shame relating to their circumstances or illness. It should also not be assumed that an individual will prefer to receive either solely medical or faith based support or treatment when co-usage may in fact be preferable. Finally, all practitioners are, of course, encouraged to adhere to their professional and organisational protocols when responding to any of the issues addressed here.

In this video, Dr Roz Warden draws on academic literature from the fields of psychiatry and social work to consider some of the practical implications that spiritual beliefs can have for those who provide mental health support for Muslim communities.

Dr Warden uses the example of jinn as a widespread spiritual belief in Muslim communities and explains the complexity of separating out belief in jinn from mental health problems, such as psychosis. She reminds us that belief in jinn, or spirits, can be found in many cultures around the world – this is not an exclusively Muslim belief.

Towards the end of the video, Dr Warden presents a set of good practice recommendations for practitioners when working with Muslims who hold spiritual beliefs that might impact on their mental health. These include: asking open questions; consulting religious scholars, avoiding assumptions, being self-aware and reflexive.

Over to you

Dr Warden encourages practitioners to consider the recommendations that she makes in relation to their own professional guidelines. One of her recommendations is to consult a religious scholar to better understand the impacts of religious beliefs on Muslim mental health.

How would you go about finding an appropriate expert? If you have done this before, share your experience.

If you are a religious practitioner, take a look at the comments and see if you can provide answers to any questions or add your perspective to any comments.

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Understanding Muslim Mental Health

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