Menninger department’s interfaith event bridges religion, mental healthcare

The topic of mental health manifests itself differently among varying religions, and while the stigma around mental healthcare still exists, professionals at Baylor College of Medicine strive to create access.

At a recent interfaith event, faculty with the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor discussed how religion can play a role in improving the stigma surrounding mental health diagnoses.

On March 30, panelists from different faith groups, including Islam, Judaism and Christianity, discussed specific religious practices, such as fasting, and aspects of mental healthcare. Moderators asked the panelists how each religion perceives mental healthcare and how faith leaders can play a role in improving the stigma that surrounds it.

Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, speaks at a 2023 interfaith event.

People often visit their place of worship to seek help and reassurance for their wellbeing. The panelists agreed that mental health issues have increased among children and adults since the pandemic started in 2020 and urged faith leaders to take those concerns seriously. Attendees were encouraged to ask questions, and throughout the panel, they found similarities among each religion.

Panelists included Imam Abduahad Bogie from the Pearland Islamic Center; Gittel Francis, licensed medical social worker from Joan and Stanford Alexander Jewish Family Service; and Chaplain Virgil Fry from the Institute of Spirituality and Health. Dr. Nidal Moukaddam, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Dr. John Saunders, associate professor and vice chair of DEI at Menninger, served as moderators.

Nearly 80 medical professionals, students, fellows, residents and community members from different institutions attended the event.

After the panel and discussion, attendees socialized with supper. For those observing Ramadan, it was a time they could break their fast.

“This year, the Texas House passed Resolution 532, giving the month of Ramadan sanctity and the authentication that Muslims observe it, so we thought this was the perfect segue to hold an interfaith event,” said Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “Since it was during Ramadan, we attached an iftar to it, and it was very well-received.”

Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan. The iftar is the fast-breaking meal directly after sunset. The event took place from 6:30 to 8 p.m., concluding at sunset. While many attendees were not observing Ramadan, they enjoyed eating while learning more about fasting and abstaining in Islam, as well as others.

“The panel was really informative. They were gracious with their knowledge and time, and I learned a great deal,” Saunders said. “One thing that was particularly exciting was the sense of comradery between everyone who stayed for the iftar.”

Discussing mental health from a place of worship can decrease the stigma that surrounds finding care, Shah said. “Sect leaders need to do as much as possible to reduce it, and faith can help with that.”

By Homa Shalchi Warren