What Does Psychiatry Have to Do with Religion?

April 7, 2021
Omar Reda, MD

One doctor shares his experiences with religion’s role in the practice.

COMMENTARY

For the most part, the field of psychiatry has looked on organized religions with suspicion, even though majority of sacred texts have paid special attention to emotional wellness and holistic health.

Coming from a Muslim background, I have used my religion as a grounding and healing tool for myself, my family, my small community, and for clients who requested to use God’s words (the Noble Quran) and the authentic teachings and traditions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as part of our therapeutic relationship.

It is usually much easier to introduce religious themes with terminology like “spirituality” and “tending to the soul.” The youth in particular seem to have a difficult time reconciling the religious aspect of their personality with societal expectations. I have asked questions to Muslim youth and their caregivers, but my understanding from Jewish and Christian friends and colleagues is that there are similar themes in all 3 monotheistic religions. However, most of the Muslim community’s negative feelings around Islamic organizations and places of worship comes from a heavy legacy of trauma, caused mainly by the culture of the leadership and from the out-of-context quoting and misinterpretation of a sacred text.

Here are 25 of the most criticized attitudes and practices when it comes to Islamic centers:

1. Lack of trust between the community and its leaders

2. Lack of demographic diversity and representation, especially in positions of leadership

3. Systemic exclusion of certain sects of the community

4. Lack of attractive alternatives to the mainstream culture, especially for the youth

5. Gross violations of the rights of some worshippers, like those with mental disabilities

6. Lack of transparency and culture of secrecy

7. Double standards when treating Muslims and non-Muslims

8. Stigma about psychosocial needs

9. Culture of competition, rather than collaboration

10. Poor interfaith and outreach to the larger non-Muslim community

11. Lack of flexibility of policies and procedures

12. Harsh approach to giving and receiving advice and feedback

13. Underestimation of the role of women

14. Not taking advantage of the talents, skills, and expertise of most worshippers

15. Poor sustainability of programs and resources

16. Reactive, rather than proactive, response to issues

17. Spreading a punitive message of despair, rather than advocating for hope and beauty

18. Weak societal impact, possibly stemming from the attitude of “going back home one day”

19. Rigid adherence to a certain style or school of thought

20. Rare access to new blood and young leaders who speak the cultural language

21. Poor understanding of the American cultural norms, laws, and systems

22. Poor intra-faith dialogue

23. Misusing religion to justify dysfunctions like domestic violence and child abuse

24. Double standards when treating men and women, and boys and girls

25. Minimal representation of Muslims in the media and in politics

Psychiatrists can bridge gaps between the community and religious leaders through psychosocial education that targets stigma, that in turn helps with opening channels of communication and building bridges of trust. I have been blessed to earn the trust of both the Imams and the Muslim community in Portland, Oregon, and it is now common to hear discussions inside the house of God about family dynamics, self-care, emotional intelligence, trauma healing, suicide prevention, and many other psychosocial topics that were otherwise censored.

In Islam, the relationship between the Creator and His creation is a personal and intimate one, you can see the face of God not only in the mosque but in every beautiful act of kindness towards others, the best way to worship the Lord is to serve humanity.

Dr Reda is a practicing psychiatrist, Providence Healthcare System, Portland, OR.