Clinical Pearls For Muslim Patients With Suicide Risk

Rania Awaad, MD, Amina Asim Husain, MD, and Belal Zia, MA

August 11, 2021

The United States of America is home to a rapidly growing population of more than 3.5 million Muslims. The American Muslim population is a microcosm of global Islamic culture and religious practice, with heterogeneity across age, sex, ethnic origin, immigration status, socioeconomic background, and religiosity. Muslims in America face stressors, including challenges with migration, language barriers, and acculturation.

Some Muslim subgroups (for example, Black Muslims) face additional, intersectional struggles, such as racial discrimination and multigenerational trauma. These challenges may lead to the onset or exacerbation of psychopathology. Nevertheless, the mental health needs of this segment of the American population remain unmet.

Among mental health problems, suicide is inadequately researched among American Muslims. Global studies from both Muslim majority and non-Muslim majority countries consistently indicate that Muslims have among the lowest rates of suicide in comparison with other religious and nonreligious groups. Overall, this body of literature alludes to suicide resiliency in Muslim populations.

However, these studies may not depict the reality for American Muslims. A new research letter, published by two of us (R.A. and B.Z.) and other colleagues at Stanford (Calif.) University's Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology Lab, highlights the possibility of risk rather than resilience among American Muslims.

In a widely sampled population-based poll, we found that across religious groups in America, Muslims were up to twice as likely to endorse a lifetime history of suicide attempt than other religious or nonreligious groups.

Because of the paucity of suicide research, further inquiry is needed to explain American Muslim evident suicide risk. Nevertheless, our research shows that discrimination and marginalization, both religious and racial, are prominent suicide risk factors in the American Muslim narrative. From 2016 to 2020, almost two-thirds of American Muslims reported facing religious discrimination every year. In 2020, Muslim children in public K-12 systems were twice as likely to face bullying, a third of whom indicated that their bully was a school staff member. While the suicide literature has yet to explore Islamophobia in depth, marginalization and discrimination are demonstrably linked to suicide.

Here are a few clinical pearls that we think will help clinicians meet the needs of these patients:

1. Emphasize the basics. Muslims may be hesitant to engage with mental health practitioners and are often unfamiliar with confidentiality standards. Some may have experience with paternalistic health care cultures where patient privacy is violated. Consequently, some Muslim patients may have concerns that medical professionals can share personal medical history with family members or allied health professionals without obtaining consent. They may worry that private matters will be spread in their community, resulting in stigmatization or discrimination.

Providers should clearly communicate the terms of confidentiality and emphasize patient autonomy over information disclosed outside of the therapeutic partnership.

2. Develop a therapeutic alliance with cultural humility. Since Muslim patients have likely witnessed discrimination, either directly or indirectly, clinicians must adopt a nonjudgmental stance when discussing cultural, religious, or moral values different from their own. Muslim patients may find defending their faith and cultural norms stigmatizing, when faced with clinicians' assumptions.

Providers should be transparent about their knowledge limitations, ask humbly for a partnership of shared learning, and allow the patient to lead where appropriate. Clinicians should develop a working understanding of Islamic values and cultural norms. See below for Muslim Mental Health resources.

3. Assess suicide risk and ask follow-up questions. Some clinicians may not deem suicide assessments valuable for Muslim patients, believing that strong religious values may preclude them from suicide risk. New findings that suicide risk is prominent among American Muslims highlights the necessity for assessment.

Practitioners should conduct thorough suicide risk assessments, including: past and present ideation, plan, intent, means, relevant risk, and resilience factors. Muslims may be culturally inclined to deny ideation, especially when accompanied by family members. Providers should be on alert for incongruent cues in patient affect and behavior.

4. Accommodate inpatient religious practice. Muslims navigate daily religious choices, from prayers at prescribed times to observing Islamic dietary guidelines. During psychiatric admissions, many of these norms are suspended temporarily. Treatments that do not include the flexibility to address these concerns may mirror patients' experiences with Islamophobia. For example, being asked to remove the hijab, even with good cause (that is, self-harm precautions), may trigger familiar discriminatory threats to safety and belonging.

Religious accommodations should be addressed in rounds so that all interacting staff maintain collective accountability for religious needs. Accommodations may require adaptive solutions, such as one-piece pull-on–style hijabs as safer alternatives to rectangular wraps. To prevent pathologizing religious observance, providers should consider meeting with Muslim chaplains and patient advocates, including family members or religious care providers, where appropriate.

Addressing the mental health needs of Muslim patients not only requires cultural humility but knowledge about unique challenges facing this diverse community.

To help further advance understanding of these issues, consider taking the American Psychiatric Association's Muslim Mental Health CME course, which will be taught by Awaad. In addition, we have included a list of resources below.

Further reading

Moffic S et al. Islamophobia and Psychiatry: Recognition, Prevention and Treatment. New York: Springer, 2019.

Keshavarzi H et al. Applying Islamic Principles to Clinical Mental Health Care: Introducing Traditional Islamically Integrated Psychotherapy. New York: Routledge, 2020.

Ahmed S and MM Amer. Counseling Muslims: Handbook of Mental Health Issues and Interventions. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2012.

American Psychiatric Association. Stress & Trauma Toolkit for Treating Muslims in a Changing Political and Social Environment, 2019.

American Psychiatric Association. Mental Health Disparities: Muslim Americans, 2019.

Awaad R et al. JAMA Psychiatry. 2021 Jul 21. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.1813.

Baca-Garcia E et al. J Affect Disord. 2011;134(1-3):327-32.

Institute for Muslim Mental Health:

Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Religious Discrimination in Multiple Forms Impacts Muslims of All Ages: American Muslim Poll, 2020.

Silverman JJ et al. Am J Psychiatry. 2015 Aug 1;172(8):798-802.


Stanford Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology Lab:


Naseeha mental health hotline:

Awaad is a clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. She also serves as associate division chief of public mental health and population sciences, and diversity section chief in the psychiatry department. In addition, Awaad is executive director of Maristan, an organization focused on using authentic traditions to meet the mental health needs of the Islamic community, and is affiliated with the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. Awaad is coeditor of "Islamophobia and Psychiatry: Recognition, Prevention and Treatment" (New York: Springer, 2019), and "Applying Islamic Principles to Clinical Mental Health Care: Introducing Traditional Islamically Integrated Psychotherapy" (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2020).

Husain completed her medical degree from St. George's University in True Blue, Grenada; she is currently a graduate student in the department of public health concentrating on mental health parity in the United States. She also works as a researcher at the Stanford Muslim Mental Health & Islamic Psychology Lab and as an organizer for Team Liyna, a national effort aimed at diversifying the stem cell registry responsible for more than 10,000 new registrants since 2019.

Zia, who has been affiliated with the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, is a PhD candidate and Canada-Vanier scholar in the department of clinical psychology at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg. Mr. Zia is also a psychological associate at the New Leaf Psychology Centre in Milton, Ont. He has no relevant financial relationships.

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