Students form Muslim Mental Health Initiative, advocate for inclusive mental health services


Daily file illustration by Emma Ruck

A lack of representation in mental health services provided by Northwestern inspired a group of students to start the Muslim Mental Health Initiative, advocating for more resources on campus.

Katrina Pham, Assistant Copy Editor

As a Muslim student on campus, Weinberg junior Fizzah Jaffer recalls going through a list of over 200 therapists from Northwestern’s Counseling and Psychological Services and not seeing a Muslim counselor listed as a resource.

In response, Jaffer co-founded the Northwestern Muslim Mental Health Initiative to fill a need for community on campus for students struggling with their mental health.

“I wanted MMHI to be a space where everyone felt welcomed and everyone felt like there was something for them,” Jaffer said.

The group formed in the fall of 2019 and launched in late December last year. Since then, members advocated for diversified mental health resources on campus, including the hiring of Sabaahath Latifi, the first Muslim counselor in CAPS.

As a result of the group’s advocacy, CAPS added the Khalil Center, an Islamic mental wellness center, to its referral list. 

MMHI also hosts Ummah Talks, a faith-based discussion on mental health. In April, MMHI partnered with the Khalil Center to organize a “Wellness in Ramadan” discussion, where students were able to hear Latifi speak about spiritual performance anxiety and maintaining spirituality in isolation.

Jaffer said she felt Northwestern’s mental health services were not representative of its student body, which affected the quality of service given to Muslim students.

Weinberg sophomore and MMHI member Hisham Ahmad said when it comes to therapy, students need to feel comfortable expressing themselves. 

“People are unique, and the interactions that you have with them are going to be different… and the way that they respond to therapy is going to be different,” Ahmad said. “We want (students) to have as many options as possible.”

Jaffer said students of Muslim backgrounds in particular can experience difficulties with mental health struggles, since certain religious arguments can invalidate mental health difficulties by attributing them to a lack of faith.

She added that people commonly tell Muslim students with mental health needs that they aren’t praying enough or that they aren’t “religious.” Jaffer said these experiences can be traumatizing.

Students of South Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds often face stigma around seeking mental health treatment, Jaffer added.

“There were just so many factors contributing to negative mental health and a severe lack of resources for them (on campus),” Jaffer said.

Jaffer said sharing Muslim mental health counseling is not meant to be overwhelming or exclusive, but rather, it is meant to provide students with a space to speak with others who have shared experiences with mental health and religion.

McCormick sophomore Fardeem Munir, another member of MMHI, said focusing on resources for Muslim students doesn’t change the overall goal of the initiative.

In providing more mental health services for students, Munir said MMHI aims to help students’ health in the long-term. He said mental health resources can be therapy and counseling sessions, but they can also look like productivity courses that help students handle work and stress.

“One piece of this whole framework of mental health is how you get to a point where you’re not only fine, but you’re leveling up in your ability to mentally handle stress,” Munir said. “(It’s related to) taking on more stuff that makes you more able to do things in the world, like making progress on your dreams or making an impact in society.”

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Twitter: @KatrinaPham_

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