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Here’s What Not to Say to Muslims Battling Depression

Mehran Nazir, a Muslim from California, was described as an extroverted friend and community member before witnessing several calamities that befell his family. The young Muslim man then fell into a dark hole of depression where he would anticipate and envision death when engaged in specific tasks. For example, if Nazir were on a plane, his mind would have dark thoughts of the aircraft crashing. Or if he were driving, he would fall asleep behind the wheel “and end up in a fatal accident.” 

The situation only worsened for Nazir as he isolated himself from close friends and family before reaching the point of nearly committing suicide. After establishing a plan and writing his will, Nazir immersed himself in a hobby that eventually saved his life: journaling. When sharing his struggles online, Nazir’s story provided a safe space for numerous Muslims to come forward and share their stories. 

  • “What will people say?
  • “Keep this to yourself, or people will think you’re insane.”
  • Just read a dua (prayer), and you’ll be fine.”
  • “There’s no such thing as depression or mental illnesses.”
  • “Don’t tell your future spouse about any of this or they’ll leave you.”

These are just some of the several global and daily responses Muslims are met with when they open up about their struggles to community members. 

Mental Health Statistics in the Muslim Community are Appalling

In a 2018 study conducted by the American Psychiatric Association titled, Mental Health Disparities: Muslim Americans, the report states that among Muslim Americans, mental health can be perceived as being “due to the will of God, as a test or punishment” or “an opportunity to remedy disconnection from God” or “possession by evil spirits.” Additionally, some may consider the disclosure of mental illness to be “shameful” due to social stigma. If psychiatric diagnoses are disclosed, Women may have fears about their marital prospects within the Muslim community.

Researchers attribute the high suicide attempt rate to two factors: Religious discrimination and community stigma…

Further, in a 2021 study conducted by JAMA Psychiatry, “U.S. Muslim adults were two times more likely to report a history of suicide [attempts] compared with respondents from other faith traditions, including atheists and agnostics.” According to an NPR news article, “Researchers attribute the high suicide attempt rate to two factors: Religious discrimination and community stigma — both of which, they say, prevent Muslim American communities from seeking mental health services.” In that same article, a Stanford study indicated that U.S. Muslims showed a higher rate of committing suicide than Muslims from Muslim-majority countries due to the increased vulnerability towards “religious discrimination” which can cause mental health illnesses like depression, anxiety, and paranoia. 

Why Do Muslims Shy Away From Speaking About Mental Health?

Within many societies globally, if people experience a minor injury or even a grave illness, community members will come together to recite supplications and pray for the quick and complete recovery of the individual. However, we find that when mental health is a test that people are battling, often, individuals are not even comfortable opening up to their friends and family. Even those that may appear to be the most extroverted and confident, like Nazir, could be battling something major, or darker, and they’re unable to open up to people out of their fear of being made fun of or a lack of understanding and empathy altogether. 

When comparing mental health through the lenses of Islamic theology and Western psychology, an individual notices that while psychology focuses on abnormalities, Islam encourages an individual to look deeper into their human identity. What are the tests they’re facing? What do such tests mean in their lives or their character? 

Prophet Yusuf Experienced Mental Health Setbacks

In Islam, the religion of God has not shied away from explicitly talking about the topics that societies have deemed “taboo.” In fact, within the Holy Book, many personalities have cried out to God during times of mental anguish. One story in particular hauntingly showcases the impacts grief has on a person, and this can be learned in the story of Prophet Yusuf. 

Prophet Yusuf’s story begins with the betrayal he experienced by not just one but nine brothers. Brothers that are meant to be loyal and safeguard one another. The second tumultuous moment in his story is when the emissary of God was accused of a crime that he did not commit. The next trial for Prophet Yusuf was spending a period in prison for said crime, a place where the mental health of individuals is desecrated. For example, forcing inmates to remain in solitary confinement for prolonged hours, even days. 

However, a critical lesson that Prophet Yusuf is teaching communities at large is that Islam has not decreed it haram (forbidden) for individuals to cry, communicate or confide in people and their Lord about their mental health struggles.

When we analyze the life history of the Holy Prophet (PBUH,) we see that he is an emissary of God who was hurt in ways that no other prophet has before. People would throw feces, and stones, and hurl insults at the Holy Prophet (PBUH) about his prophetic mission, his family, and his companions.

As mentioned, women are forced to silence themselves about their mental health struggles on the sad notion that no man will marry them.

But why is it that in today’s time, individuals have developed a habit of keeping all thoughts, emotions, and trauma bottled up within themselves? There is only one answer to this, and it lies within communities. Community members mock them, slander them – they use what a person has said in a moment of vulnerability against them as blackmail. Community members call them “insane.” As mentioned, women are forced to silence themselves about their mental health struggles on the sad notion that no man will marry them. 

Here’s What Not to Say To Muslims Battling Depression

When fellow Muslim brothers and sisters in the community come forward with their mental health struggles, they are faced with negative, demeaning, and guilt-inducing comments that do not offer support or sympathy to the person. Such examples include: 

  • Friends saying “yes” and validating bad habits during the depression. 
  • “When will you get better?” 
  • “Depression means you have low imaan (faith), so you were never really Muslim.” 
  • “Depression is unholy.” 
  • “Everyone is going through the same thing — you’re not the only one.” 
  • “Others have it way harder than you.” 
  • “It’s all in your head — you’re ungrateful.” 
  • “Just don’t think about it; just pray and keep your faith strong; don’t let it control you.” 
  • “Just pray more.” 
  • “How do you expect to get married now?”
  • “Please don’t tell anyone in the community. Think about our family respect and image.” 
  • “There’s no such thing as mental health.” 
  • “People are going to think you’re clinically insane.” 

How to Remove The Mental Health Stigma in Our Community

Sayed Mohammad Baqer al-Qazwini, a renowned Islamic scholar based at the Islamic Institution of America, states, “the first step starts by removing the stigma, secondly, by reaching out for help, whether it’s professional help or reaching out to trusted family members and friends and asking them for help.” However, he emphasizes that this can only happen if the community center has established a safe space for people to come forward and confide in others. Depression and other mental health issues do not pick and choose who to impact — it can drastically affect anyone’s life, which is why we should be prepared and welcoming. 

“And that is something we collectively have to do, my dear brothers and sisters. We need to promote a better environment when it comes to addressing depression and other mental health issues,” Qazwini says

For those that are struggling with severe depression and even suicidal thoughts, Qazwini encourages, “to treat this as a serious situation. Go out to them, reach out to them, and remember the first cause of depression: lack of care. They feel that no one cares about them in the world. We need to show them genuine care. If you show them genuine care, you can help them, you can save lives. Sometimes it is very simple. One small, simple act can save a life, my dear brothers and sisters.” 

An often overlooked Islamic resource that we can do within the comfort of our own homes is to bow down in sujood (prostration) when we are having dark thoughts, and that too by placing our forehead on the earth instead of the carpet. The simple action of prostrating towards God carries numerous spiritual and health benefits that can ease the mind when troubled by dark thoughts. It is also to be noted that not every technique may work for someone who is battling depression or a mental health issue; however, by offering community support, advocacy, resource, and funding for those who cannot afford mental health treatment, we are on the pathway of aiding, volunteering, and protecting God’s creations in a way that pleases Him. 

Remember, God states in the Holy Qur’an, “Such are the ones who believe (in the message of the Prophet) and whose hearts find rest in the remembrance of Allah. Surely in Allah’s remembrance do hearts find rest.” (13:28)