Listen up

A telephone and e-mail counselling service for young Muslims won a Community Care Award in the older children and teenagers category, reports Katie Leason

The Muslim Youth Helpline (MYH) received nearly 5,000 enquiries last year and expects to receive about 8,000 this year. Such a high volume of interest demonstrates just how much young Muslims need a dedicated service.

MYH, which provides a confidential telephone and e-mail counselling service, was set up in 2001 by young people frustrated at the lack of support services for young Muslims. They felt that because the help on offer was not faith or culturally sensitive, young people with Muslim backgrounds were shying away from it. Yet young Muslims needed to be able to access support, not necessarily because they encounter different problems but because of the environments in which they live.

“Although the problems are not different from the rest of society they are compounded by the fact that our community is very traditional,” says Shareefa Fulat, director of MYH.

The statistics from 2004-5 show clearly that the young Muslims contacting MYH need help with many of the same issues as their non-Muslim counterparts. Most wanted advice on mental health (30 per cent) or relationship problems (28 per cent), while only a small number (10 per cent) wanted help with religious matters. Other topics raised included abuse, substance misuse, and bullying.

Fulat says: “If you look at our statistics there is little that is related to [being from] an ethnic or religious minority. But there is a faith and cultural context to the problems which makes things more difficult.”

It may be that the young person is caught up in a family cultural conflict, where they want a different lifestyle from what their parents expect. Or in the event of a young girl considering an abortion, there may be additional religious and community implications of her decision. All of the usual youth problems come with what Fulat describes as “an added dimension”. And in the current political climate, some young Muslims may be feeling even more vulnerable. “There is so much media attention on young Muslims. It can make everyone feel that they’re having to answer for the actions of a few or that they are perceived as being part of that group,” adds Fulat.

About half of MYH’s clients are aged between 16 and 25, although some may be as young as 12, and others older than 25. Nearly half live in London, where the project is based, but about 4 per cent come from outside the UK.

Six full-time workers and 70 volunteers staff the project. Most of the volunteers work on the helpline, although some provide online support through, a website where users can find advice or chat to others via a forum.

All of the volunteers are under 25 and from the Muslim community. Before they start work, they undergo a 10-day training course that covers basic counselling skills and topics such as mental health and abuse. Once they are working they can update their skills once a month. They all do one three-hour shift each week to cover the 120 or so weekly enquiries that MYH regularly receives, mostly by phone but also by e-mail and letter. Often clients need to be encouraged, and even supported in person, to use specialist mainstream services.

The project makes sure that young people know it exists by targeting venues such as schools, universities, and GP surgeries with posters and pamphlets. Volunteers also go out to give presentations to groups of young people – such as university fresher fairs – to publicise MYH further.

Some of the prize money from winning the older children and teenagers category at the Community Care Awards will be put towards developing an internet counselling service. This will allow clients to communicate with a counsellor on a one-to-one basis. The rest of the cash will go on improving the IT system.

Fulat says that winning had particular meaning for the team. “We have won awards in the past but this was our peers giving us recognition for the work that we’ve done. That meant a lot more.”

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