Reflections on BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month

At Every Texan, we believe that all Texans, regardless of race, background, gender, and financial status deserve to thrive and succeed in life. However, historical policies have created barriers for people based on their race or ethnicity, often leaving Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) with fewer opportunities and resources than those of their white counterparts. 

This problem and the need for equitable solutions are not unique to Texas — discriminatory policies and practices exist across all borders. Ongoing racism, discrimination, and structural inequalities perpetuated by harmful legislation and cultural norms can cause entire groups of people to feel unsafe, unheard, and unsupported, which can have a direct impact on mental well-being and foster both collective and individual trauma in those communities.

Conversations around mental health should take into account the broad and multilayered experiences of people from all backgrounds. This blog consists of two individual portions, one sharing the experience of a Black woman at a predominantly white institution, and the other sharing from the perspective of a Muslim American. These individual pieces showcase different backgrounds and communities while shedding light on how the widespread inequities in this nation bring about similar, serious implications on the mental health of many different people of color.

Muslim Americans & the Fear of Mental Health Stigma

Sarah Imran, Research & Data Intern

As a Muslim woman who is a daughter of Pakistani immigrants, I am no stranger to stigma, discrimination, and overall disconnectedness from the general American community. I recall “diversity days” in public school where my predominately white classmates gawked at my shalwar kameez, our traditional clothing, and tossed my Pakistani flag around the classroom. I vividly remember the first time I was called a terrorist when boys warned my peers to “stay away from my backpack.” However, I also know the sting of fellow Muslims admonishing how I dress and judging my sexuality. 

I have so much pride in my ethnicity and my religion, as they have gifted me with the qualities that make me who I am today. But these lived experiences and my background have given me a new perspective — one that puts mental health at the forefront of my hopes for the people of my community. 

Dealing with discrimination has been a lifelong fight for many Muslims. These struggles are widely shared and intersectional — according to Pew Research, 58% of Muslims in the U.S. are immigrants, with no single racial or ethnic majority in the population. Many American Muslims deal with the trials of Islamophobia and grapple with the xenophobia and racism that is all too prevalent in the U.S.

A study published in the Journal of Islamic Faith and Practice shows that Muslims suffered increased assaults and intimidation in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s term — in New Zealand, 51 Muslims were shot and killed by two men who claimed to be inspired by Trump as their “symbol of renewed white identity.” Muslims are also directly targeted in the political landscape — the “Muslim Ban” in the U.S. coupled with the rise of nationalist rhetoric, which views immigrants as “other,” have contributed to the negative and discriminatory experiences of Muslim Americans. Even further, research by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) shows that in the Texas Legislature alone there were 16 “Anti-Sharia” bills introduced between 2011 and 2017. Many people, including my own family, left their home country to risk it all for the so-called “American dream,” only to find out that they were not as welcome as they may have thought. 

These events and more have contributed greatly to the general anxiety, depression, and trauma faced by Muslim Americans, and have resulted in many attempts to assimilate to American culture or become “less threatening.” However, this is not a realistic or sustainable option and it can lead to such turmoil that it becomes a matter of life and death. A study released by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2021 found that U.S. Muslim adults were twice as likely to report a history of suicide attempts as respondents from other faith traditions, including atheists and agnostics.

With such stark findings, one would think Muslim communities are able and willing to tackle mental illness for those in need. However, studies also show that many Muslims in the U.S. feel the need to “cast the religion in a good light,” so as to not feed into the stereotypes and discrimination that we face. As a result, mental illnesses get brushed under the rug and almost completely ignored. Shaykh Suhail Mulla, resident scholar at the Islamic Society of West Valley in Los Angeles, said that Muslims won’t seek out mental health services if they fear that their religious identity might be threatened. This fear also impacts Muslims from other identity intersections, particularly queer and trans Muslims who face additional hardships due to a lack of LGBTQ+ inclusivity in the broader Muslim community. Dr. Farha Abbasi, a psychiatry professor at the University of Michigan, said that Muslim teachings support seeking mental health care, and the Quran — the holy book of Islam — emphasizes mental wellness. 

This BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month, I urge my Muslim brothers and sisters, my brown friends and family, and all immigrants and children of immigrants to understand that mental illness is a widely shared human experience by people of every walk of life. It is not shameful to have depression or anxiety, and our experiences as Muslims in America of all genders, sexualities, and backgrounds need to be addressed and discussed more openly so we can heal and raise a generation of healthier, happier Muslims.

Black Women and the Inequity of Care on College Campuses

Isabel Agbassi, Health & Wellness Intern

Being a Black woman navigating college in the U.S. is already a path bound with a rocky mental health journey. Add the fact that I started in the midst of a pandemic and that my university and STEM-related field of study features a Black population of only about 5%, and the end product is a journey where the odds seem stacked against me. 

The social isolation brought on by the pandemic made the transition from high school to college even more difficult. Having to stare at a screen to attend classes, be involved in extracurriculars, talk to friends, and have leisure time took its toll early on — especially when it seemed like everywhere I looked, there were media reports of injustices against people who look like me. 

It often feels like my very existence in these traditionally white spaces is a protest within itself. Despite the fact that I simply want to follow my aspirations and passions, the need to be a “strong Black woman” in the face of adversity is a generational trauma that has been ingrained in our culture and perpetuated by a society that excludes us at every turn. 

 As outlined by the National Alliance on Mental Health Texas, barriers to mental health care for Black Americans include exclusion from services, the stigma of viewing mental illness as a weakness, and provider bias. In the state with the highest uninsured rate in the country, Black adult Texans are among the groups with the worst poverty, and subsequently, uninsured rates.

Black women often face an additional intersectional mixture of racism, sexism, and socioeconomic factors that interfere with access to quality mental health care. These factors contribute to why Black women, a group with historically higher rates of depression, are among the least likely to receive mental health services. And for the Black women who do manage to access care, they face a field with about 4% of therapists being Black.  

Mental health care isn’t one-size-fits-all, especially when it comes to Black women –– at higher education institutions like mine, the care needs simply aren’t met. Limited and non-diverse mental health care professionals often overlook the nuanced understanding required to ensure culturally responsive care. Without campus mental health centers that actively train providers on the historical context of medical racism and mistreatment, stigmas, and cultural competency, mental health care for Black women, nonbinary students, and other marginalized groups is inadequate and can often exacerbate issues.

Higher education institutions are meant to promote the well-being of students but continually fail to fully account for the hidden monster of mental health that persistently interferes with academic retention, especially among underrepresented groups. To truly promote equity and belonging on college campuses, it is imperative that all students are considered across the broad spectrum of mental health care needs.

BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month is an opportunity to highlight the unique mental health challenges and needs of historically oppressed racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. and uplift stories and perspectives from voices that have been silenced and ignored for far too long. This month is a reminder that despite widely diverse lived experiences, we are tied together in our struggles. Now is the time to work together toward uplifting everyone in our Texas community, especially those who face poorer outcomes due to systemic barriers and failures. 

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