Let’s speak about the unspoken for a moment. Isn’t it ironic how the Quran mentions battling trials and tribulations time and again, but so many of us fail to recognize that these hardships aren’t always transparent? That perhaps, pain exists on a much larger scale than we perceive — that it is not always physical?
There is a growing stigma that has surrounded mental illness for generations, particularly within Muslim families and communities. It is a generally taboo topic, brushed off, ignored, and sometimes completely neglected as a legitimate health concern. Rooted in old-school beliefs and cultural traditions, the toxicity encompassing mental health has affected nearly every individual who feels the need to suppress their illness to avoid confrontation and shame.
The illness itself is a burden and the negativity surrounding it only adds to the weight.
Muslims are taught from a young age that prayer solves anything and everything. While it is true that a strong spiritual connection can have a positive impact on one’s overall behavior and attitude, salah and dhikr, or the lack of implementing both, are constantly defined as causes of mental illness. This “rationale” is practically spoon-fed to us throughout our lives; so does it really come as a surprise that a study conducted in 2006 with 35 individuals from an Arab-Australian community found that this stigma was the very reason many were hesitant to access mental health services and facilities? Fear of judgment and fear of expulsion from one’s own community should never be reasons Muslims, young and old, use to justify not seeking the help they need.
The prospects of “not being religious enough” or “not having enough faith in God” breeds guilt within those silently suffering through their illness, leading them to believe “they did this to themselves.” That somehow, they “chose” this when they missed Asr prayer that one time or didn’t say bismillah before digging into a meal.
Another study conducted in 2000 among Pakistani families in the U.K. found that not one person was willing to so much as associate with a mentally ill person, much less consider a close relationship with them. The fear of one’s own illness being dismissed, almost degraded as though it is a test for every person associated with the mentally ill, is another heartbreaking reason many Muslims keep their inner struggles to themselves.
So, the question arises: what can be done to end the stigma surrounding mental health?
The good news is, it’s never too late to start implementing changes in our communities. The root of the problem lies in the fact that so many people, especially among the older generation, are unaware of the fact that mental health is a serious concern. If cancer and heart disease can be the topic of conversation in a Friday khutbah, so can anxiety, depression, suicide, PTSD and autism. Knowledge is everything, when a topic such as this is recognized and not shunned from conversation, it results in a ripple effect of acceptance and acknowledgment.
So many of our peers, friends, and family alike look to their communities for validation. As an active community member, you can take a stand and contribute your efforts in developing programs, such as religiously-based support groups, that welcome Muslims to speak openly about their illness. It’s high time we lifted this veil of shame from anything remotely connected to mental illness. It’s high time we validated the struggles of our brothers and sisters. Let’s start now, and collectively work toward making our communities a safe haven for the generations to come.
*View on The Affinity Magazine: Let’s Address That Mental Health Stigma, My Fellow Muslims