Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and the interviewees. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of MuslimGirl.com.
When Saif Khan was dealing with the loss of his half-brother, he turned to his local Imam for guidance. “From my experience, Islamic leaders and scholars put mental health off as a Western belief. To them, mental health only surmounts to psychotic or manic episodes and schizophrenia. Your devotion to your faith is your main factor as to why you’re feeling the way you do,” Khan said in an email interview.
The local Imam that Khan went to had dismissed Khan’s feelings of depression as a result of not being religious enough. “When I spoke to my childhood Imam about being depressed, he simply said to pray more often, as a true believer can never feel alone and hopeless. This lack of knowledge that mental health often has genetic or traumatic roots is neglected,” Khan said.
“I suffered emotional trauma when I was 15, which was also deeply intertwined with preexisting coincidence. This event was the death of my half-brother, and it shook my house to its core. This led me to fall into an extreme depression and it eventually manifested in a darker disorder, which I will not name. I was never medicated. I harmed myself, and I suffered sleepless nights. With no legitimate help from my Islamic community, I maintained my faith solely from always reminding myself that God loved me for me, that God knew my pain more than anyone.” But this simply wasn’t enough.
Khan stressed how alone he felt when the Imam did not take his feelings seriously. It led to a dark path that Khan felt could have been avoided had the Imam been more educated on the importance of mental health in the Islamic community.
Most professionals will always say that mental health is important, but sometimes it is just as important to hear about it from someone who is actually dealing with mental health issues, such as Anida.
Anida Masuod is in her late-twenties, and has dealt with the loss of her father recently. In an in-person interview, Masuod said, “Mental health is very important. It’s important because we come from different backgrounds and many people feel like it’s taboo.”
“Most times, people normalize the trauma, but it isn’t [something that should be normalized].”
Masuod emphasized that mental health needed to become a topic we’re comfortable discussing within the Islamic community. She said, “Most times, people normalize the trauma, but it isn’t [something that should be normalized].”
When asked to explain how this stigma surrounding mental health affected her, she said, “Mental health applies to me in ways where it’s not seen.” She went on to say that many people are taken aback when they find out she has mental health issues since she presents herself as a very upbeat person. “I try to focus on what keeps me happy, but it isn’t always easy,” she stated.
Chaplain Yasin Ahmed
There is a lot of controversy when it comes to deciding the importance of mental health in the Islamic community. Amongst most of those interviewed, mental health was viewed as an important issue. Cornell Chaplain Yasin Ahmed emphasized the importance of mental health on college campuses by stating that “an objective of sharia and fiqh is wellness.” He continued to state, “We’ve had shocking suicides in multiple communities over the past two months. We as a community, need to act now.”
“As a college chaplain, I am witnessing the silent epidemic of our community members collapsing from the stigma around mental health…”
In an email interview, Chaplain Ahmed claimed, “As a college chaplain, I am witnessing the silent epidemic of our community members collapsing from the stigma around mental health. We asked our students the number one community issue facing them, and the consensus was mental health.”
Shehara Yoosuf, a clinical psychology doctoral student stated that her motivation to study psychology was rooted entirely in the “lack of mental health awareness in the Islamic community.”
She said, “One of the main issues was that some wouldn’t even think it’s [mental health] a real thing. Many people don’t really know what it [mental health] is, and culturally, people are told not to talk about it.”
However, Dr. Sarah [name kept anonymous at her request] argued the case that mental health was not as prominent in the Muslim community. “We have a strong sense of tribal bonding in our community, so it’s not as relevant for us. That’s why issues such as panic disorders and other mental health issues don’t occur as often [in the Muslim community].”
So, Where Do We Go From Here?
After suffering from trauma, Masuod and Khan know how important mental health is, and how unacceptable it is to dismiss someone who is struggling with their mental health as “not religious enough.” According to Khan, Masuod, and some of the other interviewees, mental health remains a taboo subject to discuss within the Islamic community, and if this doesn’t change, the consequences will be dire.
Most importantly, those interviewed stressed the importance of having an outlet to talk to about mental health issues. As Yoosuf put it, “Communication is key. Even if you only have one person to talk to about this, and be open with in life, that just might be enough to get you through a difficult time and vice-versa…There should be resources available and people should know where to go.”
…holding events in the masjid to bring awareness to mental health issues might be one way to tackle this divide.
Anida said, “I want people to know that it’s okay to feel the way they do, and it’s not taboo. I mean, unfortunately in our community it is, but it shouldn’t be that way.” She discussed how there was a misunderstanding on what mental health issues entailed with the elder generation: “Many times, the elder generations will tell the younger generations that they should just read the Qur’an if they’re going through mental health issues. It’s a huge misunderstanding. Reading Qur’an and having mental health issues are two different things.”
Anida suggested that holding events in the masjid to bring awareness to mental health issues might be one way to tackle this divide. If something is talked about in public spaces, such as a masjid, then it might bring us one step closer to normalizing mental health in the Islamic community.
“The Islamic community needs to know that mental health is not a lack of faith, but a neuro-chemical and psychological imbalance in the mind. Being sad isn’t depression. Living a blessed life does not mean you can’t be depressed. Blaming people only makes things worse. Mental health is not a lack of strength or moral value,” Khan said.
But not all of those who were interviewed believed that mental health was as important to themselves. “It’s not as relevant as it is in other communities,” Dr. Sarah maintained.
Anida concluded with: “Don’t let others, who misunderstand mental health, put you down. Don’t be afraid to seek therapy. I want people to know that it’s okay to feel the way they do and discussing it [should not be] taboo. For me, it [going to therapy]” despite “not being clinically diagnosed with anything was the best thing I ever did.”
As these interviews show, the views on mental health in the Muslim community can vary. While most maintain that it is a very important issue that needs to be addressed more, others believe that the sense of tribal bonding in Muslim communities helps to alleviate this issue.
However, this difference in views highlights the need for a lot more dialogue on the topic of mental health within the Muslim community. Anida is not currently diagnosed with anything, but she is seeking professional help from a therapist to deal with her trauma, which is a step in the right direction for the Islamic community. On the other hand, Khan has sought psychological help from a therapist and is clinically-diagnosed. Even though every day is a struggle for him, he has finally received the help he needs to cope with everything.
If anything is to be taken away from this discussion, it is that there is NO shame in seeking out help. There is absolutely no shame in reaching out to a professional to talk things out.