Consortium award helps explore Islam as a coping mechanism

Does Islam help Somali youth cope with the crises they face? Can it offer them a sense of stability during turbulent times when they may be far from their cultural roots? Can it promote well-being? And if Islam does serve those purposes, is it possible to tease out just what aspect of its practice is most important?

Eunice Areba received one of the 2013 Consortium Intramural Research Awards to help her explore the answers to these questions. Since 2000, the Consortium has given more than $1 million to University of Minnesota students and faculty to support projects like Areba’s that explore the societal implications of problems in health, environment, and the life sciences. 

Areba is an RN working toward her PhD in Nursing Sciences and is particularly interested in refugee and immigrant mental health issues. Like the people she targets in her study, “Religious Coping, Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety, and Well-being among Somali College Students,” she is a young person from East Africa. Her country, Kenya, has its own population of Kenyan Somalis and she feels a kinship with Somali youth everywhere. “We are very much brothers and sisters,” she says.

According to her award proposal, the Minnesota Somali population has a median age of 25 years, 12 years younger than the median age of the general population. Additionally, she notes “published reports reveal moderate to high rates of anxiety, depression, truancy, chemical use, and trauma among young adult Somalis.”

Shaking up the research model
Including religion in a research study is not the norm, admits Areba, and her professional peers voiced their skepticism. Religion and science don’t mix was the prevailing attitude, but that opinion only fueled Areba’s determination.

“People would say to me, ‘Why are you looking at religion? You’re a nurse!’” she says. “In science and research, religion is seen as almost a hindrance. It is subjective and there’s no way of measuring its effects, so we say it’s not worth studying. But if it’s something that is important to the population we serve, then it also needs to be important to us.”

Areba’s main study instrument is a survey she adapted from a researcher at Bowling Green State University who looked at Christianity as a coping mechanism. As she rewrote the survey, she worked with Somali students, a Somali community advisory board, and an imam to check its accuracy in light of culture, language, and theology. The survey is constructed around rating a series of statements on a scale of 1 to 4 with 1 being “Not at all” and 4 being “A great deal.” The statements refer to what participants did in relation to Islam as they coped with a significant trauma or negative event. Choices include “Sought Allah’s love and care,” “Asked for forgiveness for my sins,” and “Questioned Allah’s love for me.”

Precise and respectful
Areba used the word “Islam” in her survey rather than the generic “religion,” something she changed after getting feedback from pilot participants.

“I wanted [the study participants] to be honest [with their answers] and to receive the survey well and find it genuine and specific,” she says. “I did not want them to feel like I was ‘hiding’ behind the umbrella of ‘religion.’”

Most Somali youth are Muslim, but when filling out demographic information, participants have the option of naming their religious affiliation. They also have a choice of not answering questions that make them uncomfortable.

Areba calls her study “very exploratory” and she’s hoping that the data from it and subsequent research will bring her a step closer to understanding “an inexpensive, accessible, and culturally acceptable coping mechanism” for Somali youth who might be struggling with symptoms of depression and anxiety.

“Minneapolis hosts the largest Somali refugee community in the United States,” says Areba. “The youth are trying to find their footing and I’m hoping my research will benefit those who live here; Somali youth in general; and the educators, healthcare providers, and policy makers who serve them. We need to tap into the potential of these young people and treat the community as a resource.”