“Whosoever knows themselves knows their Lord.” About a year ago, I cited this famous quote by Imam Ghazali to begin an MSU Muslim Students’ Association (MSUMSA) event focused on mental health in Muslim communities. The stigma of needing mental health help runs deep in many communities, and the American Muslim community is no exception. Studies have shown that Muslim Americans are twice as likely to reach out to family members and religious leaders for help, rather than visit a mental health professional.
Therefore, as I was planning this mental health forum, I worried that I might make my peers feel uncomfortable. After all, public vulnerability seemed absent in Muslim communal spaces. However, the way students affirmed one another’s struggles and gathered insights about themselves astounded me. Rather than discomfort, I discovered a sense of relief. They demanded more opportunities to address their mental health needs.
Happy to answer this calling, I sought the advice of Muslim mental health professionals Dr. Farha Abbasi and Dr. Zain Shamoon to create a group called Spartan Shifa. The name comes from the word shifa in Arabic, meaning healing(????). MSUMSA members Sara Zeidan and Zainab Saleh became facilitators to help bring about healing by nurturing self-knowledge and destroying taboos.
Over the next year, we organized with a spirit of compassionate curiosity to realize this vision. We hosted a screening and discussion of Breaking Silence, a film that explores the effects of sexual violence in the Muslim community. In a Valentine’s Day session, Dr. Abbasi taught us about how toxic relationships can mirror unhealthy dynamics in our households. While practicing the basics of mindfulness meditation, we learned about the role of past trauma in shaping our default thought patterns. Eager to learn from people who best understood the challenges our communities face, we recruited HEART, a nonprofit organization of Muslim clinicians based in Chicago, to train us in responding to survivors. All of these research-based efforts and others built foundations of knowledge about wellness for members, some of whom would go on to access therapy and psychiatric services at our university health center.
Student assessments speak to the transformational impact of Shifa. Ayesha Khan, a freshman majoring in Electrical Engineering, notes, “Spartan Shifa has allowed many, like me, to feel comfortable and become aware of topics that may be considered taboo in the Muslim community.” Emotional intelligence stands out as one of these topics. Iraj Ahmad, a freshman majoring in neuroscience and psychology, explains,” Spartan Shifa helped me understand and realize that my emotions and feelings are in fact valid and important, and that I shouldn’t push away my feelings towards situations without dealing with them appropriately and in a healthy manner.” Besides tackling taboo topics, Shifa gave students a home. Zainab Fayyaz, a freshman studying neuroscience, clarifies, “Spartan Shifa has initiated the talk about mental health in our community and is a place for students to go to for support and guidance from their classmates. My favorite part about Spartan Shifa is that Salman encourages the students to speak for themselves and their stories and not just listen to what he is speaking about the topic.”
Overall, Shifa has changed the culture of MSUMSA. Eseraa Ali, a junior studying graphic design, sums it up. “Shifa has been a very great accomplishment for us this year at MSU. It’s always a good feeling to see the Muslim community shift towards becoming a more loving and caring place. Shifa was a great space for Muslims on campus to be able to find solace and companionship amongst their fellow Muslim counterparts and I’m glad it’s something to be continued at MSU. I only hope more MSAs and/or other Islamic institutions begin to implement more inclusive spaces such as Shifa!”
Spartan Shifa has helped create a validating environment for Muslims on campus at Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan, that has reduced the stigma of obtaining mental health help and has given students effective tools to manage emotional difficulties. There are many resources that can be used to help replicate the work done by Spartan Shifa. The Family Youth Institute has developed workshops and training programs that can be used to create programs in your own community. Their infographics are popular and are based on their research. Other online resources can be found with the Institute of Muslim Mental Health and the Muslim Wellness Foundation.
Salman Pervez is a Senior at MSU studying public health and neuroscience who is one of the founders of Spartan Shifa, a community-building group that empowers Muslim students by promoting self-knowledge, help-seeking, and the will to combat social issues. Spartan Shifa holds workshops on topics such as healthy relationships, spiritual wellness, and the lasting effects of historical trauma.