SYDNEY // Australia's imams have been urged to delegate responsibility for mental health issues to professional therapists and doctors to respond to the complex psychological needs of the country's growing Muslim population.
The call has been made at a seminar in Sydney that has showcased a new course for Islamic religious leaders and community volunteers on basic counselling skills, an initiative that has been ignored by a major constituency. "Interestingly, for the programme that I am conducting around Australia, not one imam has registered," explained Hanan Dover, a forensic psychologist who runs four clinics in Sydney. "I know the imams are quite burnt out. We have a saying 'jack of all trades' but I call the imams 'Mohammed of all trades', because people go to them for every minute issue.
"They have to lead prayers five times a day, they have to do funeral prayers, marriages, look after divorces and family issues. The burden of responsibility on them is quite high but I think they need to be able to refer on to people who have the skills." Ms Dover has advocated a more holistic attitude to ease the hefty workload of clerics to allow them to concentrate on dispensing religious and spiritual advice.
"The best way is to have an integrated approach where the imams, doctors, psychologists and counsellors are working in collaboration. So, there is a network rather than imams assuming responsibility for everything. They [parishioners] can still get the theological information from the sheikh but let them go and get the mediation from those who know how to mediate because the community has a lot of respect for imams and sheikhs but often they come out disillusioned," she added.
Ms Dover's ideas for mosques to harness professional mental health expertise have been supported by the Islamic Council of Victoria. "Our imams are very relevant but we would like to make them more relevant," said Sherene Hassan, the council's vice president. "There is always room for improvement and imams themselves have acknowledged that. They have requested additional professional development. "From what I understand there are imams already utilising Muslim health professionals. I know the imams are keen to get training on this particular issue."
More than 40 per cent of Australian Muslims were born here and while their numbers and influence have flourished, there has also been an increase in demand for psychological therapy. Ms Hassan believes that as the Muslim population matures and becomes more established in Australia, efforts must be made to ensure that its emotional well-being is looked after. "Initially the focus for first generation Muslim migrants was to establish mosques and schools. For second generation Muslims we are working beyond that and trying to service the Muslim community in other ways and be part of mainstream society," Ms Hassan explained from her home in Melbourne.
The Australian National Imams Council has acknowledged that only a few of its members have received formal mental health training. The organisation's spokesman, Sheikh Mohamad Nawas Saleem, said Islamic religious leaders often did not attend training courses because they were "overwhelmed" with work or felt that their lack of proficiency in English would hinder their understanding of expert instruction.
Mr Saleem said those in religious authority should be willing to utilise the help of specialists. "Definitely the imams should be conscious of their own capacity to deal with mental health issues. It is very unprofessional if you are indulging in something you are not trained to deal with. "It is very important for imams if they have found someone who is mentally ill and needs attention from a psychologist or a counsellor to refer them to the professionals."
Recent arrivals to Australia, including refugees from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan who have been held in Australian immigration detention centres, can often suffer from serious psychological problems, where they are overcome by waves of depression and loneliness as well as poor self-esteem and a lack of confidence. "Sometimes because I have gone through the journey like they have, we don't have to spend many sessions for them to describe what they have gone through. I have been through war and know about post-traumatic stress disorder," said Afsaneh Jolan, a child and adolescent psychologist at Ms Dover's treatment centres in western Sydney, who moved from Iran to Turkey with her Kurdish family as refugees and arrived in Australia in 1995. Most of the clinics' patients are Muslims and Ms Jolan, who is fluent in English, Kurdish, Farsi and Turkish, said that proper care could help those badly affected by their past rebuild their lives.
"Yes, they are in a dark place but it is changing. People are seeking more professional help and it makes it easier when a person is from their background, they speak the same language or have a similar faith," she added. "Some of them feel that they are not accepted and feel isolated. They don't want to engage and integrate, so we try and help them do that." firstname.lastname@example.org