Mindfully Muslim: making a difference in the lives of Muslim-Canadians
This week marks Mental Illness Awareness Week from October 3 – 9 where Canadians are encouraged to embrace, celebrate and connect.
In 2007, October was proclaimed Canadian Islamic History Month in recognition of the significant contributions the Muslim community has made to Canadian society. Throughout the month, Canadians are reflecting on the contribution of Muslim-Canadians to our country’s rich history.
In honour of both celebrations, we’re sitting down with Dr. Yusra Ahmad, MD, FRCPC, a community and academic psychiatrist in Toronto. Dr. Ahmad is affiliated with Women’s College Hospital and the University Health Network, is a Clinical Lecturer at the University of Toronto, a council member for the Ontario Psychiatric Association and is a consultant for CTV’s Transplant.
What interested you in becoming a community and academic psychiatrist?
I chose to become a psychiatrist because I love people and their stories. Every one of us is on a journey and I am deeply honoured to bear witness to portions of the human journey for others. I help my fellow travellers to translate their thoughts and feelings into words, to string these words together into narratives, to gain insight into patterns in their lives, to brainstorm creative solutions to their problems, to serve as a compassionate yet steady anchor as struggles abound and to advocate for changes that may help them fare better.
My faith routinely inspires me to do my part in alleviating the suffering of others and to leave the world a better place than the condition in which I found it.
Listening deeply, holding space with compassion and granting a fellow human being one’s undivided attention is an increasingly rare, but essential act that helps that person feel safe enough to heal. There is a beautiful ripple effect when one person is healed. Through that person, I might also help strengthen relationships in families, workplaces and communities.
We are all interconnected and understanding the larger social context of suffering is critically important to me. I believe in strengthening social safety nets through grassroots-level community work. Meanwhile, being in academia helps me have an impact through teaching and research. Finally, working with the Ontario Psychiatric Association allows me to advocate on a larger scale.
You created the Mindfully Muslim group therapy program in 2017 following the impact of repetitive trauma on the Muslim community, beginning with 9/11 and culminating in the Québec City mosque shooting. Tell us more about the program and how it’s making a difference in the lives of Muslim-Canadians.
Mindfully Muslim is a faith-based, culturally safe, trauma-informed, anti-oppressive group therapy program for the Muslim community —although non-Muslim participants have attended as well. The program combines teachings from MBCT (mindfulness based cognitive therapy) with wisdom from the Islamic tradition. Participants have included refugees, immigrants and Canadian-born Muslims from all walks of life. Those who have attended the program have appreciated the integration of spirituality into mental healthcare and found it to be uniquely effective in helping them with their distress. The program is highly holistic, integrating mind, body, emotion and soul. I also blend art with science, integrating poetry with neurobiology, as an example. When I was creating this program, I drew inspiration from my Islamic roots and the rich legacy left to us by Muslim scientists and poets.
Mindfully Muslim is also a “Third Space”. You can’t find a service like this in mainstream medical settings and you also can’t find this in mosques. I am striving to bridge a critical gap and allow clients to safely express their struggles, which emanate from both inside the Muslim community and outside of it.
I am captivated by the idea of a place where cultural, racial, even religious borders become fluid, collapse and dissolve, leading to the emergence of something entirely new, yet deeply familiar, unifying, healing and perhaps, even redemptive. I have been influenced by the work of Homi K. Bhabha of Harvard University in how he conceptualized a “Third Space.” I am also inspired by the spiritual states of merger and annihilation so vividly articulated by wise sages, past and present, particularly in Sufi poetry and Islamic scripture and the idea of dropping into our “fitrah,” an Islamic concept that connotes an innate spiritual longing and a natural constitution that is pure and good.
My greatest dream is to shift the current paradigm in my profession to one that is more inclusive, understanding, holistic and human. I want to put the “soul” or “psyche” back into psychiatry.
Recently, a family of Muslim-Canadians was attacked in London, Ontario due to hate and prejudice. How can allies support the mental health and well-being of their Muslim-Canadian friends, neighbours and colleagues?
Allies can support us by checking in on their Muslim neighbours and friends after such traumatic events. They can also do their part to challenge anti-Muslim rhetoric by learning more about the beauty of the Islamic faith, its incredible impact and fascinating legacy in fields as diverse algebra to medicine and the contributions of current Muslim-Canadians themselves. They can lift up our voices, shine a light on our stories and stand up for us when they hear anti-Muslim rhetoric or witness violence. We need to see serious change in the media, in culture, in politics and in legislation.
Muslims comprise a compelling spiritual and cultural mosaic. Our love for our Creator propels us to have concern for all of humanity and the earth. We have many gifts to offer. Our faith teaches us to be generous, kind, courteous and just, even in the face of hatred and injustice.
What role do you believe that culture plays in talking about mental health and mental illness in the Muslim community, and how can celebrating that culture foster positive mental wellness?
A supportive, open, flexible and confident culture will typically be willing to tackle its internal problems with honesty and intelligence. While mental health and emotional well-being are highly prioritized in Islam and the pursuit of mental health treatment alongside medical and spiritual treatment has historically been encouraged, many Muslims don’t know their own history very well, feel disconnected from their roots and like many other communities, judgments persist that impede individuals from getting help. This is compounded by fears of being misunderstood or of not being taken seriously.
There is also a mistrust of mainstream mental health services and an inability by many secular mental health professionals to welcome the totality of a person including their cultural and faith identities into the therapeutic space. Furthermore, there is a dearth of accessible services that are tailored to the particular needs and issues of communities like the Muslim community. The unfortunate result of all of this is that many people are struggling alone and in silence.
This is why I created Mindfully Muslim. Firstly, to remind people that some of the earliest psychiatric hospitals in the world were in the Muslim world. Secondly, to dismantle harmful misconceptions through dialogue and psychoeducation. Thirdly, to restore confidence, dignity and empowerment by reminding people of their own internal resources for healing and of the collective richness we have to offer, which is more relevant now than ever.
Finally, the groups themselves become seeds for more supportive, open, flexible and kinder communities, ones in which both the individual and the collective are honoured and strengthened, to the benefit of all concerned.
I believe that there is no need to other one another when we are all one.
Thank you Dr. Ahmad for sharing your perspectives. To learn more about Dr. Ahmad’s Mindfully Muslim program, please visit https://www.mindfullymuslim.com/.