The topic of mental health is one that is taboo across many communities and ethnicities. In the Muslim community, those dealing with mental health issues are often stigmatized and left without the much needed support and guidance they require. The role of the in the Muslim community should be one that is all inclusive. It’s important that Muslim institutions stand at the forefront in supporting and addressing mental health just as much as other important topics. With a background psychiatric nursing, I have had first hand experience with Muslims and mental illness. I’ve seen and treated Muslims who have been diagnosed with major depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar, schizophrenia, etc. Many of them have vocalized abandonment of both community and family support due to their illness.
It’s sad to say many of them end up straying away from the Islam or leaving it all together because of the shame and isolation associated with mental illness. Mental health is not an issue that is related to a particular religion or culture. Like all other diseases (i.e. diabetes, cancer, asthma, etc) we are all susceptible. Across all communities, we have subconsciously categorized illnesses into two areas: good diseases that I can mention and bad diseases that I need to keep hidden. We have a tendency to look down on mental illness mainly because we believe that God would not afflict us with such an illness if we believe in Him (swt) and worship Him (swt).
For those of us who were born into Islam, we feel immune to and believe we are inherently “mentally protected” by God so long as we are good Muslims. But growing up, we all remember that one family member that our parents didn’t really talk about and anytime we asked about what was going on with them, our parents would say something like “ if they just prayed a little more or became more righteous they would be cured” and they would tell us to never bring this up again. Experiences like that from a young age lead us to treat mental illness as a taboo topic and disassociate Islam from it. But what about new Muslim converts with mental illnesses? How would we explain that to them? What help would we offer them if we hold this biased belief? Do we simply assume they had to have done something in their past life to get this “punishment”? Do we simply tell them there is no reconciliation between Islam and mental illness? We need to be careful with our incorrect beliefs because we may be the reason a Muslim turns away from Islam. Islam has a place for anyone willing to accept it, there are no second class Muslims or a separate sect for Muslims with mental health conditions. These beliefs lead many Muslims to continue to suffer in silence and avoid social gatherings where they might feel judged by.
The Imam is often times the first line of contact for someone going through any kind of personal issue. This is why the Imam plays a critical role in helping to navigate the brother or sister right direction. Unfortunately some Imams hold the view that any illness or problem is rooted in a spiritual deficiency first and foremost. The person is then again left to make either the “correct” choice of healing with a spiritual remedy (i.e. Quran) or the “misguided” choice of seeking medication and a psychiatrist. Let me emphasize that seeking professional help for mental illness does not mean you no longer rely on God’s help or that God has failed you. Of course the Quran and prayer should be included in the healing process of any illness or affliction but Allah tells us to seek other means of cure just as we would do if diagnosed with “good disease”. The better choice is one that is all inclusive and seeks to put the individual’s best interest at heart. We need to involve the Imam, the family, the therapist, and supportive community members. As the saying goes it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to create awareness and a supportive foundation for change.
This was not written to blame or put down the Muslim community and its leaders. Although we excel in many other areas, this one that needs much improvement. We need to remove the stigma associated with mental illness and the only way to do that is through education and awareness. How and where to start you ask? Through engagement and education we can create a supportive and compassionate space for our affected Muslim families. We need to actively seek out and support Muslims so they do not continue to feel stigmatized and isolated from the only community they’ve identified with.