Addressing the stigmatization of mental ill-health in the Muslim community

By Laeeqa Saloojee

I can’t quite remember when was the first time I experienced the stigma associated with mental health. At the time, I probably also believed the misconception that depression, anxiety and other mental health illnesses should be non-existent in the life of a deeni-conscious, young female. Fast-forward almost four years later and I feel strongly that it’s high-time that these misconceptions be addressed in our community.

Around mid-June of this year (2018), in the holy month of Ramadhaan, a series of incidents once again highlighted this dire need for us to be discussing mental health in our society – A suicide in the holiest of places, the Haram in Makkah¹, and another much closer to home, The Malmesbury mosque attack in the Western Cape which claimed the lives of several, including the perpetrator who was a mental health patient himself².

You see, the reality is that inevitably mental health issues do affect us. However, it is the stigmatization of seeking help ³ that leads to families being destroyed, suicides, children who grow up in unstable households and the cycle continuing from this generation to the next. There is no shame at all in seeking help for something medically related, whether physical or mental. In fact, in my opinion, it is necessary for the progression of society.

More than two years ago, after more than a year of post-natal depression, my husband and mom encouraged me to see a doctor and find the “happy me” again. I was fortunate to have the support of those close to me. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many others who have been suffering for a number of years, or in some cases a lifetime. These sufferers are often discouraged from those around them to get the appropriate medical attention. What I have found prevalent in our Muslim community, is a lack of awareness and understanding of mental illness and related conditions as a whole. This often leads to what some may deem double-standards, or unfair judgement.  And before the pitchforks are brought out, let me explain myself. Have you ever heard any of the following phrases being spoken to anyone you know of who has suffered from depression or mental illness?

 

“You need to make more duaa”

“You need to find peace in your Qur’aan”

“There must be something wrong with your Imaan (faith)”

“There is no such a thing as depression in Islam”

“Don’t go on medication. You don’t want to be dependent on it“

If you haven’t said it yourself at some point, you surely have heard it. The reality is this: if the same person was suffering from diabetes, nobody would question the person’s adherence to the Sunnah (prophetic way) or the strength of their Imaan and blame the weakness of the latter for their condition. If the same person was obese, no one would ask why the person is not adhering to the sunnah method of eating, just enough to ease their hunger. Why? Because there is an understanding and knowledge that there are other factors that contribute to diabetes and obesity- an underactive thyroid perhaps, genetics or insulin resistance etc.

So why aren’t the same logic and understanding, the same compassion and the support not applied to a person who suffers from a mental illness? From my own experience, a person is not benefiting at all from judgement that is packaged as well-wrapped advice. It may seem harsh, but it’s the reality. Mental illness is NOT a choice. It’s not a ‘state of mind’. People don’t get up and decide that today their mood/s will be imbalanced, that today they will suffer from anxiety attacks or that they will have a manic or depressive episode.

Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues are so much more complex than whether or not you read your salaah with dedication or not. Most importantly, it is not a punishment from Allah because you’re not a good enough Muslim. It is a test, like any other illness. By questioning a person’s Imaan, their inner being, you only add to a toxic stigma and stereotype around the condition and worsen the sufferer’s circumstances in society.

Allah mentions anxiety and fear in the Qur’an:

And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient (Baqarah: 155)

In conclusion, we are all different, we all process things differently. We have different needs, different expectations and experiences in this journey called life. Some of us are driving cars, some riding bicycles, some limping along with a crutch, others without, some in stormy seas and others on a calm sailboat. There’s no equal playing field. The most helpful thing we can do as human beings is not judge the next person’s existence. Listen, even when you don’t understand. Be supportive. We truly have no idea how broken a person may be, how completely patched together their hearts and minds may be or how isolated they may feel throughout this test that they face.

To those who are suffering from mental illnesses my words of solace to you are: If you are suffering and no other person sees it, know that surely Allah knows and He is the most Merciful. May Allah ease your pain, may Allah give you the courage to seek the help you need and may Allah grant you a palace in Jannah (heaven) for your patience. Aameen

 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) 24h helpline: 0800 12 13 14

Footnotes:

¹ https://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/saudi-arabia/man-jumps-to-death-from-roof-of-grand-mosque-in-makkah-1.2233969

² https://www.sabreakingnews.co.za/2018/06/18/malmesbury-mosque-attack-suspect-had-history-of-mental-illness/

³ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3248273/

 

About the author:

Laeeqa Saloojee is a 23-year-old full-time mom of two toddler boys and post-natal depression survivor. In her spare time, she dedicates herself to studying towards her B.Ed degree and savoring life in all it’s serendipitous anomaly. She enjoys writing, reading, traveling and extra long walks in the grocery store, without her kids

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