Congratulations to Nazila Isgandarova Emm 1T8 (assistant professor, teaching-stream in Islamic spiritual care), who was named a 2021 Service Award winner by the Emmanuel College Alumni/ae Association (ECAA) for her commitment to the area of research in psychotherapy, spiritual care and mental health. EC Connects recently interviewed Isgandarova about her research and pedagogy.
EC Connects: Could you tell me a little bit about your work in your research areas of psychotherapy, spiritual care and mental health?
Isgandarova: I am a registered social worker and registered psychotherapist, working in mental health and spiritual care since 2004. I also volunteer for the Azerbaijani Women's Support Centre and represent the organization in developing a tool kit for religious and spiritual leaders to tackle domestic violence, One Voice, which is the work of many women's organizations. Since I immigrated to Canada, I have observed a lack of understanding of mental health problems and addiction in the Muslim community. Since 9/11, Muslims more than anyone else reported high anxiety, depression, PTSD due to Islamophobia and stigma attached to mental health. Islamophobia made it worse for people to seek help for alcohol, drugs, substance use and gambling problems among Muslims, especially Muslim youth. Even though Canadian Muslims constitute a small portion of the population, up to 6 per cent of inmates in Canadian prisons are Muslims, especially young Muslims, because of illegal drugs. Some of these were raised by religiously devout parents; some of them were not. When I provided spiritually integrated psychotherapy to them, almost all of them reported direct but also a more indirect form of discrimination. Also, when I worked with Muslim women, who were subject to domestic violence, I realized that most of these women are hesitant to seek help for their mental health problems due to stigma and shame. These women preferred to see a Muslim health care provider who would understand them without blaming Islam for their problems. Working with them taught me that these women received very subliminal negative messages about their religion and spirituality most of the time. However, these women also sought meaning in their suffering. Since then, I started reflecting on culturally appropriate mental health services to tackle Islamophobia and strict interpretation of Islam, stigma, denial, and shame around mental health, alcohol and gambling in the Muslim community.
EC Connects: How do you see this work as relevant to our current global contexts (e.g., pandemic, racial/social/political/economic inequities, etc.)?
Isgandarova: COVID-19 revealed stark differences in terms of access to health care and social services. The stigma attached to COVID-19 and mental health silenced many individuals and families about their problems. We noticed that domestic violence incidents increased during COVID-19. Some were left without choice except to take their lives. Some attempted suicide as a final choice to deal with their problems. Many, especially women and children, were afraid that they would be judged or looked upon because not only Muslims, but also many communities, still respond to these problems in a very punitive way. I noticed that most of them tended to isolate themselves. In this respect, I think this kind of work is still very much relevant in local and global contexts. For example, not only Muslim but many non-Muslim women still experience violence. What is sad is that violence against women not only happens between individuals and in the family, but within the community, within the state, and globally. We will have problems such as trafficking of women and forced prostitution, forced sterilization, female infanticide. Muslim women in Canada still need to deal with stereotypes and biases that portray them as oppressed beings. However, we forget that many cultures worldwide, including the Western culture, are still very patriarchal. We need more programs and relevant research in mental health and addiction problems specific to the Muslim community in Canada.
EC Connects: How has this work informed your pedagogy?
Isgandarova: I teach at Emmanuel College and supervise future generations of psychotherapists and spiritual care providers. In my teaching, critical thinking about inequities in our society is important. I always tell my students that mental health problems can be attributed to genetic disposition and other biological factors, but this is not enough to understand and treat mental health problems. We need to think broader and address environmental issues as well. Otherwise, ignoring these factors will worsen inequities, and our clients will find themselves in a vicious cycle of mental health problems. Of course, my work also taught me that self-care is important. So, I always encourage them to practice self-care.
EC Connects: How might this work be relevant outside of the academy (e.g., in faith communities and beyond)?
Isgandarova: I am glad that my work in this field is being seen and valued by both Muslim and non-Muslim colleagues in the field. One of the Muslim social workers, Sumaiya Matin, who is the author of the novel The Shaytan Bride, and practices psychotherapy in the GTA, mentioned that she loved my book Muslim Women, Domestic Violence and Psychotherapy because "this book is how clinical mental health diagnoses are considered, but they are not dominant. What is emphasized is the women’s telling of their experiences/thoughts/beliefs as they are so intertwined with cultural and systemic practices. In his way, the meaning is still the women’s, just shifted in ways that are reflective of what’s true, and what supports them."
EC Connects: What are you currently working on? Current project(s)?
Isgandarova: Currently, I am collaborating with some colleagues to write about intercultural communication concepts in Clinical Pastoral Education and anxiety among first-year psychotherapy students. In addition, I am looking forward to teaching a new course, Trauma-Informed Psychotherapy, at Emmanuel College.
Read "Intercultural Communication Concepts in Clinical Pastoral Education: The Intercultural Experience of Muslim Students," an article recently co-authored by Isgandarova and fellow alumna Sadaf Jamal Emm 2T1 and published in the September 2021 issue of the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. In this article, Isgandarova and Jamal argue that inclusivity and multicultural-theological representation in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is its most valuable component. They explore Muslim students’ interaction, communication, and other processes, including conceptual analysis during their CPE