Using faith connections to reduce stigma around mental health issues

Patient receiving blood pressure check

Ten imams—Islamic faith leaders—from four mosques in south Minneapolis recently completed a six-month education program created by Fairview Community Health staff that taught them how to identify mental health issues in their communities and provide referral resources for people who need more help.

The imams liked it so much, they asked that the training program be continued—which it is.

Influencing people in the community

“Imams are influencers in the community and we want to work with them to help us with our anti-stigma campaign around mental illness,” says Sahra Noor, director of Language Services and Community Health at University of Minnesota Medical Center.

“In Somali culture, people often attribute a mental health issue to ‘the devil,’” adds Sahra.

“Imams are leaders and faith experts, and people go to them for advice. We want them to be able to explain mental health in a way the community can understand—so that they can encourage people to seek help when they need it.”

Trained to watch for ‘red flags’ of depression and mental illness

The program has taught the imams how to identify the symptoms of depression and mental illness and what treatments are available.

They were given a list of “red flags”—nine signs that serve as guidelines on when to refer a person for additional help.

“I think the program has opened a big window for us as a community, and we request you extend it,” said Imam Ahmed Ibrahim at the end of the first year’s sessions.

The same group of imams is continuing with additional monthly training. Now a three-year project, it will include more in-depth training on specific mental health disorders, substance abuse and spiritual health concepts.

“Some people may think they’re healthy, but may be suffering,” says Imam Sheikh Sa’ad Musse Roble. “We learned from here how to work with those people, how to calm them and talk to them.”

One imam said he talked with a man who was having hallucinations and appreciated knowing where to refer the man for help.

Fairview’s Community Health outreach staff at University of Minnesota Medical Center also organized hour-long presentations about mental health at four local mosques. More than 200 people attended and many expressed interest in learning more about mental health issues. More sessions, co-facilitated by an imam and a mental health professional, are planned for this year.

Identifying local health needs

Investing in this training also makes sense because Minnesota is home to the largest Somali immigrant population in the United States. Somali is now the second most frequently spoken language among Fairview patients after English.

This mental health awareness training has inspired some of the imams to learn more about the health care system. One of them is now enrolled in Fairview’s Clinical Pastoral Education program—which prepares people from many faiths to provide spiritual care in hospital and home care settings.

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