Chicago — While many of us look back fondly on the fall of 2019 and the first few months of 2020 — the last moments of “normalcy” before the pandemic hit — I can only recall how much I dreaded each day of my sophomore year of college. My first year hadn’t gone as I’d planned; my summer didn’t shine a light next to how productive my peers had been, and the mere thought of my class schedule turned my stomach into an everlasting pit of unease. I had always known my mental health to be subpar and that I was prone to anxiety, but it wasn’t until I was granted the opportunity for retrospection that I realized how badly I was struggling.
Matters were only made worse by the fact that I kept this all to myself, out of shame and fear. Though the logical part of me knew then, as I know now, that seeking support when you need it is nothing to be ashamed of, years of cultural conditioning had ingrained in me that mental health is not something to be spoken of publicly — let alone acknowledged as a weakness.
Being of Pakistani descent, I only ever hear difficulties discussed in hushed tones and mental treatment referred to as a joke, even amongst members of my own family. Expressions of unwellness are met with disbelief, ridicule, and even chastisement. Many of my fellow South Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African friends (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) have rehashed the stories of trying to explain their feelings of mental illnesses to their families and being told they are simply not praying enough or not following their religion correctly.
Despite the fact that many mental illnesses are inherited and that generational trauma is a massive hurdle for most of us, younger people from various cultural backgrounds are often made to believe by our loved ones that we are either exaggerating our pain or that we are doing something wrong, and mental health is scarcely acknowledged as something real.
Aside from the weight of the taboo on my mind, another obstacle in my path to seeking any mental health treatment was the sheer lack of options. The Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Northwestern remains severely underfunded and overworked despite how badly the students need help and appointments are always completely booked weeks in advance. Living in the dorms as a full-time student limited my resources, save for going to an off-campus provider — which was rather ambitious as I didn’t even know what kind of help I needed: a therapist, a psychiatrist, possibly nothing at all? Moreover, if I did follow the route of professional counseling, I had no idea how to find someone that would meet my needs.
Trying to navigate the logistical side of finding a provider in your area that is affordable and accepts your insurance is overwhelming as it is, and proves to be a barrier for many people in need. For me and others like me, there is the added stress of finding someone who could understand the intersections of all aspects of my identity and how they affect me both mentally and spiritually. At CAPS, it’d be a struggle to find a therapist of color, let alone a Muslim provider. And as it turns out, I wasn’t the only person on campus who felt all of what I felt — the inability to open up and the need for more representation and accessibility in their mental healthcare.
At this time, the Muslim Mental Health Initiative (MMHI) at Northwestern had barely formed. The ideas had been set in motion in the spring of 2019, when a trio of Muslim Northwestern students — now alumni — were inspired by Stanford psychiatrist Dr. Rania Awaad’s speech at the Muslim-cultural Students Association Fall Speaker Event in 2018 and applied for a grant competition to get more resources for our unrepresented community. That plan unfortunately didn’t work, but their efforts were not for waste. The group had made an impression on me and a few others and by the time autumn rolled around, we had decided that our community’s well-being was still something worth fighting for. Thus, MMHI was born.
Months of meetings and working with the administration were both time-consuming and nerve-wracking, but we all knew that our own advocacy was what kept the ball going and we couldn’t afford to let the entire initiative come to a stop. We owed as much to ourselves, and to our fellow students. Islam puts an emphasis on the idea of ummah, a sense of community that transcends national, racial, or any other divisions. And for MMHI, trying to bring more resources to Northwestern was an act of service or our ummah.
As such, every step we took felt incredibly rewarding. By spring of 2020, we had gone through some vetting and successfully managed to get the Khalil Center added as the first Muslim provider to the CAPS referral list of off-campus mental health resources. The Khalil Center is known as “the first Islamically oriented, professional community mental wellness center and the largest provider of Muslim mental healthcare in the U.S.” While the Khalil Center remains the only Muslim resource on a list of 217 resources, our partners at the CAPS office have committed to expanding the range of options and we have full faith that at the very least, the seeds of wellness have been planted for our plans of sustainable care.
Though college campuses often feel like a bubble, ours did not remain untouched by the pandemic or the endless awakenings the U.S. experienced in 2020. Although it felt like the world was caving in, our mental health advocacy seemed more essential than ever. By the summer, MMHI made our official pitch to higher-level administration and we finally received approval for part of our proposal.
Things slowed down for a little bit, but the fall had us busy again with searching and vetting and getting approval for a counselor for our TeleTalk program. Eventually, we found Sabaahath Latifi, LCPC from the Khalil Center to provide free consultations to Northwestern students. MMHI officially launched to the public with the news of this program at the start of 2021, and by the grace of Allah, everything has been running smoothly.
By spring, we were able to expand to include Ummah Talks in our services: community dialogues on topics such as “Wellness in Ramadan” and “Coping with Trauma: Palestine & Beyond” led by Khalil Center psychologists. The Muslim Mental Health Initiative has now been written about twice in The Daily Northwestern, and we are consistently receiving heartwarming support from administration, students, alum, and faculty alike. We can only hope things continue to go up from here.
Many people talk about how Islam is a religion of peace. This is true, but what we do not often discuss is how peace extends to more than just anti-violence; we seek peace of the mind, heart, and soul — and this is what the Muslim Mental Health Initiative seeks to bring to our campus and community.