Services need to understand underrepresented communities to better support them

Religion and psychology are often seen as separate or potentially opposing, but I don’t see it that way, writes With You’s Rodean Vafa.

I’m a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist with 10 years’ experience, working for With You in Kent and Surrey’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service. Our service offers free therapeutic support for common mental health difficulties to adults in Kent and Surrey. As someone who identifies as male, and comes from a cultural background with a Muslim majority demographic, I represent a minority demographic of therapists in the UK.

Mental health problems affect everyone, regardless of their race, religion or other cultural backgrounds. That said, historically, people from certain religious communities are underrepresented in IAPT therapy services across the UK. National IAPT data shows that while Muslims made up 5% of the population of England and Wales in 2011, only 2% of those accessing IAPT services are Muslim.

I don’t believe that this means people from these backgrounds are less likely to seek help for mental health issues. Instead, they are more likely to seek help from cultural resources that they are more familiar with. For example, a practising Muslim may be more likely to try to improve their mental health through faith and religious guidance for a number of reasons.

One of these reasons is they might feel that mental health therapy services are not suited to them. In many ways, I feel I can personally understand why public therapy services may not seem like a viable option for certain people in this community. If you don’t see yourself reflected in the service’s workforce, you may feel that staff wouldn’t be able to understand your cultural situation.

According to the IAPT 2020 national census, approximately 86% of all staff is White-British, with Black, Asian and other underrepresented demographics only representing approximately 14% of the total workforce. In this case, a practicing Muslim person may be more likely to seek support from someone who has knowledge of Islam over an expert in mental health. This is something our organisation has recognised, not only internally but across health services in the UK.

To help address this, With You in Kent & Surrey created my role, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion lead, to work on how we better engage with underrepresented communities, with a focus on our local Muslim community. An example of this effort has been the creation of an inclusive calendar to recognise and observe dates not included in the shared British calendar. This helped our team to be aware of important dates like the start of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. By being aware of these dates, we can make adjustments for staff and the people we support. We’re also developing a training workshop for our staff to share knowledge about Islamic values and outreach materials to help us share what we do more effectively with our local Muslim communities.

Religion and psychology are often seen as separate or potentially opposing, but I don’t see it that way. There are several Islamic concepts which deal with mental health that I find to be quite similar to concepts in psychology. For example, the Islamic concept of ‘tawakul’ refers to giving over control to God on things that are out of our hands. A similar concept is also found in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) called ‘tolerating uncertainty’, and is fundamental to the understanding of why people suffer from anxiety. In both Islam and CBT the guidance is to try to let go of habits such as over-worrying to help deal with anxiety.

Islam also has contributed much to the development of psychology. The world’s first mental health hospital and psychiatric ward were constructed in Baghdad, Iraq by Abu Bakar Muhammad Zakaria Al-Razi in 705CE. Seeking help for mental health difficulties is also widely accepted and encouraged by Islamic scholars. The Quran mentions Allah (SWT) creating treatments for difficulties and illness:

“So, verily, with every difficulty, there is relief: Verily, with every difficulty there is relief.” (Quran, 94: 5–6)

Read the full blog post here.

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