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March 18, 2015

Farha Abbasi: The journey has begun

March 18, 2015

Farha Abbasi is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and specializes in mental health issues among Muslims. She has been coordinating the Muslim Mental Health Conference, the only event of its kind in the nation, for the past seven years. This year’s event will take place March 26-29 at the Dearborn Inn in Dearborn, Michigan.

I arrived in United States of America from Pakistan in 2000, bewildered, overwhelmed and afraid. Although the details have thus far grown blurry in my mind, the pain is still deeply etched on my soul. The traumatic realization of goodbye had never hit me so hard. Immigration, even if by choice (I came to pursue a career in medicine), is as if everything you know, everything that you are, is being left behind.

Life became uncomfortable and unfamiliar in this vast, new journey I was being thrown into. The impact of this experience led me to change my medical field from internal medicine to psychiatry. I realized a body might be more accepting and forgiving of the trauma, but the mind bears the scars forever.

Fortunately, I was accepted at Michigan State to do my psychiatry training. I grew and thrived in all the love support and unconditional acceptance given to me. I know that I have arrived and I am home again. I, too, am a proud Spartan!

I, more than most, understand how significant this process of integration is, how the way that the host culture receives you can make or break you. This became the focus of my Minority Fellowship Grant through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the American Psychiatric Association. I wanted to work with the Muslim population and their unmet mental health needs. I knew it would be hard to cut through the deep layers of stigma in a culture where mental illness is deemed a spiritual weakness, so I founded Muslim Mental Health Conference, which is now in its seventh year.

When I look back at why and where it all started, I just remember that I was very deeply concerned that the Muslim community was in a post 9/11 trance, living in fear, ambiguity and trauma. It was inevitable that there would be layers of depression, anxiety and stress on top of all the inherent vulnerabilities of culture, religion and mind. It was a society shrouded in silence and secrecy, where perseverance is Godliness, honor is more valuable than wealth, interdependence is intertwined in individuality, men stand in the forefront, yet women carrying the burden of morality.

I knew that even in severe pain, not many would access care, yet I perceived it all around me and knew the loudest scream was the one that was not being heard. As a mental health professional and practicing Muslim, I completely understood the power of my faith and profession. I know that God wants us to be our best; it is inherent in Islam that we carry the spirit of wellness, welfare and well-being.

The Muslim Mental Health Conference became my calling. The conference is the only one of its kind and gives faith-based leaders and mental health professionals the chance to come together for the betterment of the community. Its impact is growing with every passing year, and we now have 40-plus Imams trained in mental health first aid basics. We present the latest research by top international scholars in the field. It is an inclusive conference where Caucasians, African Americans, Shiite, Sunni, new converts – people representing all the diversity within the Muslim faith – are given a voice.

This year the conference will take place March 26-29. The conference this year also passes another milestone with an interfaith initiative in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The focus of this part of the conference will be on training trauma-responsive congregations.

The journey has begun. As the poet said, I know I have miles to go and promises to keep before I sleep, but the dream lives on.

Photo by Derrick L. Turner