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“Bigotry complicates everything”: a psychologist on how prejudice harms Muslim patients’ mental health

Photo Illustration / Adapted From nik Rahman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Prejudice is bad for our health. Discrimination is a source of chronic stress that keeps us from sleeping well, it weakens our immune systems, and raises our blood pressure. Equally important is its impact on mental health.

And Ben Herzig, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating Muslim patients in the Boston area, sees it all the time.

“I have not had anyone come into my office strictly because their chief complaint was Islamophobia,” says Herzig. “But bigotry complicates everything.”

These days, bigotry is bountiful. In the months since Donald Trump was elected president, it’s become shockingly commonplace for Americans to blatantly dehumanize Muslims and Mexican immigrants — and then use violence against them. Hate crimes against Muslims in the US are at their highest levels since 2001. President Trump may have revised his executive order on immigration, but it still singles out those from Muslim-majority countries.

I called Herzig — who is also a research fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank that studies Islamophobia — to better understand how the rising tide of discrimination harms his patients.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Brian Resnick

How did you come to specialize in serving the Muslim community?

Ben Herzig

I established a pro-bono clinic with one of the local Islamic centers [in Boston]. What was happening was that Muslims weren’t seeking mental health care. There is a lack of providers and a concern that providers either aren’t Muslim or aren’t multiculturally competent. And then there’s another concern that there is a stigma toward mental health.

I went to an imam of a mosque. What he was finding was that during his office hours people were coming to him with emotional problems that he wasn’t really equipped to deal with. We teamed up and he would triage a lot of congregants to me.

I see a variety of patients, but over the years I’ve developed an expertise and interest in treating American Muslim patients. Now, my caseload is maybe 30 percent Muslim, which is astronomical relative to other practices.

So that’s allowed me some insight into how the current political climate is affecting them.

Brian Resnick

Are you a member of the Muslim community?

Ben Herzig

I don’t want to get into my own faith because it’s personal and I have patients [of many different backgrounds].

Brian Resnick

There are a lot of signs that Islamophobia is again on the rise in this country. There’s evidence that hate crimes against Muslims are at their highest levels since 2001. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports there have been four mosque burnings in the past seven weeks. How does this climate affect mental health?

Ben Herzig

I have not had anyone come into my office strictly because their chief complaint was Islamophobia. But bigotry complicates everything else.

If you are an American Muslim who is depressed, it’s going to exacerbate your depression. If you are anxious, it’s going to exacerbate your anxiety. If you are a Muslim under stress, or who is having trouble concentrating, or who is having trouble getting along with other people — all of this is going to add another layer of complication to your life.

Brian Resnick

Have you noticed any specific changes in your patients over the past two years, during the presidential election cycle?

Ben Herzig

There’s definitely a heightened sensitivity and fear about prejudice, but a lot of that was there all along. It just happened to spike over the past couple of years. It spiked after 9/11. It spiked after the Iraq War. And it spiked tremendously [after the election] given that Islamophobia has the tacit approval of so many people in this country. Or that’s what it seems like.

Brian Resnick

I recently reported on new, troubling psychological research that finds many white Americans are willing to admit they think Muslims are “less evolved,” and that, in turn, Muslims feel dehumanized.

Do your patients feel dehumanized? And how?

Ben Herzig

One of the dilemmas that American Muslims face — and certainly my patients face — is if you’re feeling targeted, do you turn inward to your community where you know you’ll be accepted and understood, or do you tolerate the vulnerability of reaching out knowing that in the end it might actually help humanize you?

One of the best ways to counter dehumanization is by exposure. There was one study at least that showed the number one predictor of positive attitudes toward Muslims was whether or not the individual actually knows a Muslim.

But that’s a very difficult [dilemma] to be in.

Brian Resnick

The psychological research predicts that if you feel dehumanized, you’ll feel angry and resentful. Do you see that with your patients?

Ben Herzig

For some Muslims that might be the case.

For the people that I see, more so, it’s about them feeling powerless and not knowing what to do. So there’s anger there, but there’s also an understanding their anger is only going to get them so far, and it’s only going to be counterproductive.

I don’t think everyone’s experiences are the same, but everyone faces a similar problem, which is: “How do I feel comfortable in my own skin as both an American and a Muslim?”

There are these parallel concerns. One is a questioning of what it means to be a Muslim American, given that so many of your fellow citizens voted for somebody whose dehumanizing of you was not a deal breaker. And then there are the very specific concerns about policy. they’re thinking about the very specific policies that may affect them or their families. And they are fearful they won’t have the resources to fight back.

Not all Trump voters are bad people, but when you feel targeted by 46 percent of the population, you are going to be defensive, and that causes people to react in all kinds of different ways. Sometimes they find a positive outlet. Sometimes there’s aggression.

Brian Resnick

How can you help them? You can’t treat the Islamophobia.

Ben Herzig

Part of it is just by having a sympathetic audience. That allows them to process their fears instead of just sitting with them. Oftentimes it’s a conversation that can reorient them to problem-solving approaches: “Let’s think about what you can do.”

It’s also a time to reorient them to whatever spiritual coping strategies they have. That’s not to say, “just have faith in God and everything will be okay.”

I never push a religious coping strategy on anyone unless they voice that religion is an important part of their lives. It’s unethical for me to be religiously pushy one way or the other. But if I have a client who says, “the only thing that’s keeping me going right now is my faith in God.” Then I’m going to say, “well what are you doing to make that faith part of your routine?”

Faith can be very grounding. Religiosity is a protective factor for mental illness, both because there’s a religious community that can be supportive, but also because when you have faith in something, it’s something that can put everything in perspective.

Brian Resnick

Is there anything you think non-Muslims don’t understand about the intersection of the Muslim community and mental health?

Ben Herzig

Muslims are experiencing this dehumanization not just on a religious level, but many of their other identities are also feeling targeted as well.

A lot of American Muslims also fall into some other category that felt targeted by Donald Trump. A number of them are African Americans. Many are immigrants or children of immigrants. We even have some Latino Muslims. LGBT Muslims. Obviously half the Muslim population is female. And there are a number of females who felt targeted by some of the past statements the president has made.

I was speaking to one African-American young woman who is Muslim. She essentially told me, “it’s tough as a Muslim, but I’m really most upset as an African American.”