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Impacts of Islamophobia on Muslim Mental Health

Dr Michael Munnik discusses the impacts of Islamophobia on Muslim Mental Health
© Cardiff University, Michael Munnik

What does Islamophobia have to do with mental health?

This article is written by Dr Michael Munnik, The Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, Cardiff University.

For one thing, it’s important to understand a term that is so important in the social life of British Muslims. Even if an individual has not experienced what they consider an Islamophobic incident, it has characterised how their community is often discussed. That alone can be upsetting. But those who have experienced such attitudes, words, and actions can suffer – mentally and emotionally, as well as physically and financially.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims asked for anonymous reports of experiences of Islamophobia from Muslims in four UK cities. They give examples of these accounts in their report. A student in Sheffield was verbally abused on a crowded bus and had crumpled paper thrown at them, just like classroom bullying; no one on the bus intervened, and the student got off the bus a few stops early. In a twist on what we sometimes call “road rage”, a man in Birmingham with his young children in the car was followed to a petrol station by another driver, who said he didn’t give way in traffic. The angry driver called the man a terrorist loudly and drove away.

In their summary, the APPG report writers had this to say:

“A striking aspect of the anonymous victim testimonies was the impact on the mental health of the victims which often included feelings of isolation, having nobody to turn to, feeling neglected by the police and the sense that there was no point in reporting the crime, avoiding public spaces, or having to move house or school or jobs to put an end to the abuse. This element of the victim testimonies indicated the importance of capturing the impact of Islamophobia within the definition.” (APPG 2018, pg. 53)

These examples suggest personal, day-to-day encounters that can cause lasting distress. Some scholars look to institutions for evidence of Islamophobia or its impacts. PREVENT is a term use as part of the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy. Its purpose is to identify risks to society before they develop into violent, damaging acts. This act of prevention can itself be damaging to people, as they are made to feel suspect just for living their lives. Though the policies of PREVENT look to a broader set of categories than just Muslims, many people feel that Muslims are the main focus. The duty to watch out for potential risks is put on people working in education, in community services, and in the NHS.

Sociologists Tarek Younis and Sushrut Jadhav looked at Islamophobia in the NHS. They interviewed health care workers and sat in on PREVENT training sessions to see what was being asked of workers and how they felt about it. They heard of worries for the patients in care: a psychiatrist spoke of her support for a woman suffering domestic abuse. During treatment, the woman became romantically involved with a Muslim man and converted to Islam. The psychiatrist said that “concerns with domestic abuse during [her] supervision took a backseat to the threat of potential radicalisation”, and that the psychiatrist’s concern with how this was being treated put her at odds with her team members (Younis and Jadhav 2020, p. 619).

This example raises another concern in Younis and Jadhav’s research: the toll of Islamophobia on the mental health of health care workers themselves. Their care for patients may be compromised by the expectation that they monitor patients for government or security purposes. And in their own work relations, they could be perceived as “lax or supportive of abuse” by colleagues for criticising the PREVENT requirements (Younis and Jadhav 2019, p. 418).

Islamophobia underpins words and actions that can harm Muslims in many ways, including their mental health. And for Muslims who seek support for their mental health – whether they are suffering from Islamophobia or from other, unrelated problems – Islamophobia also has implications for the care they receive.

© Cardiff University, Michael Munnik
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