Caring for Muslim Patients: Understanding Cultural and Religious Factors

By Adam, Balkozar | Current Psychiatry, December 2017 | Go to article overview

Caring for Muslim Patients: Understanding Cultural and Religious Factors


Adam, Balkozar, Current Psychiatry


Patients who are Muslim--followers of the religion of Islam--struggle with a political climate that has demonized them and the continued fallout of terrorist attacks perpetrated by individuals who identify themselves as Muslim. These patients may experience low self-esteem, bullying, depression, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder. (1) Some have expressed feeling judged, labeled, attacked, and subjected to discrimination. Islamophobia and a spike in hate crimes have further marginalized this already vulnerable population. (2) Thus, understanding your Muslim patients is the first step to treating their mental illness.

How Muslim culture might affect care

Muslims are not a monolithic group; they vary widely in their religious adherence, cultural background, and acculturation. Some are American-born, including a significant African American Muslim population. Others are children of immigrants or have recently immigrated, including many who came to the United States because of the ongoing war in Syria. Many can trace their heritage to >50 predominantly Muslim countries. Many Muslim patients want to find a balance between their religious and American identities.

As clinicians, we should not make assumptions based on outward appearances or our preconceived notions of our patients, especially when it comes to gender roles. Our job is to ask how highly personal, individualized decisions, such as a woman's choice to wear a hijab as an expression of her faith and a symbol of modesty factor into our patients' day-to-day lives. Doing so can help build the therapeutic alliance and improve the accuracy of the diagnosis and the appropriateness of treatment.

Mental health clinicians are well aware of the dangers of the social stigma that their patients may experience. (3) These dangers are no different when it comes to Muslim patients, who often may face "double discrimination" for their religion and for having a mental illness. They may seek support from religious leaders, family, and friends before seeing a mental health provider. Some may view their mental illness as a weakness of faith, a punishment by God, or an affliction caused by a supernatural spirit, and therefore may feel that following religious doctrine will resolve their psychological distress. (4) They may need additional encouragement to see a therapist or take psychotropics, and they may prefer specific treatments that reflect their cultural values, such as supplements.

Because some Muslim patients may be more comfortable presenting their psychological concerns as somatic symptoms, they may first seek care from a primary care physician. Some patients may not be open or comfortable enough to address sensitive issues, such as substance use. …

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