Better health: we’re getting there, but we aren’t there yet. Some of us in the Muslim community have begun leading healthier lifestyles, even promoting fitness programs. We have reminders about eating healthy, being active, and the health aspects of eating the sunnah (a third each for food, drink and air). But we don’t talk much about the health of the mind. And it’s no wonder!
For generations, Muslims have avoided openly speaking about mental health. This silence worsens the condition of anyone suffering with it. If family dares tell anyone about it, it’s usually the imam who is encouraged to perform an exorcism or recite Quran over the poor man or woman. Whether jinn possession or magic, mental health is swept under the family carpet.
So how do you know? Is this a mental or spiritual illness? Is there a difference?
In our Right Minds
As much as we are aware of our physical health, we have to recognize the importance of good mental health. We are told to eat healthy and exercise. While it is important to take care of our bodies, it is equally essential to take care of our mental state. Our physical health and mental health are so interrelated.
Many of us are so unaware of the effects of a poor mental state that we cannot imagine mental health affecting physical health: but it can, and does. Unless we learn to calm the voices inside our heads, analyze our unhealthy habits, resolve our personal traumas and live with purpose, we won’t be able to lead successful lives. No matter how physically fit we are.
Out of our Heads
Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions that affect one’s mood, thinking and behaviour. Some examples include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviours.
There are various signs and symptoms of mental illnesses including: feeling sad, confused, withdrawing from family and friends, anger, inability to cope with stress, and extreme feelings of guilt.
Problems functioning within normal parameters socially, at work or with family are associated with mental illness.
All in Their Heads
In modern western society, mental illnesses are just beginning to be removed from stigma, but only just. There are still a lot of disapproval and discrimination against people with mental illness, even if not severe.
Unfortunately, the Muslim community faces an even greater stigma with regards to individuals struggling with mental illness. The reason for this is because we are told that to “feel” displays weakness, and there is a tendency of correlating mental illnesses with being “crazy.”
Other stigmas amongst Muslims are that all mental illness is inspired by Shaytan, or due to possession by jinn, or the effects of black magic. Often only the religious leadership is approached for help in cases of mental illness in Muslim families, even in western countries.
Feelings from our Past
Some individuals are born with mental disabilities, while others develop them as their lives go on. Mental illness is often a response to suffering through a period of life which negatively affects mental health.
Living through difficult childhood experiences, suffering abuse and traumatic situations, and navigating through life-altering challenges may contribute to a shift in our mental health. There are many factors which cause mental illness aside from life events, such as the strength of a support system, family influences, personal history and even genetics.
Listening to our Hearts
Allah (swt) created us with wavering emotions, to show us that this life is temporary and that we will experience periods of contentment and despair at times. Emotions are a natural human response to situations around us. There are so many heart-softening ayaat in the Quran consoling us for how we may feel.
Therefore, there is nothing wrong with shifting emotions. Allah says in the Qur’an:
فَإِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا (94:6) “Verily, with every hardship comes ease.”
We may feel negative emotions for a period of time. Allah (SWT) helps us overcome those difficulties and seek the path towards ease through self-awareness, remembrance of Allah and professional help if needed.
It is vital that negative emotions are felt, rather than hidden. This is encouraged amongst Muslims, to sweep them away and pretend to be happy when we actually aren’t. The tragic thing about this harmful habit is that it only causes us more hurt and pain, and deepening mental illness. Accepting the emotions as they come will help us recover quicker, inshaAllah.
Some individuals struggle more than others, and may experience extreme feelings of sadness, fear, guilt or shame for longer periods of time. These emotions may interfere with their daily tasks, and affect their relationships. It is completely okay to go at your own pace, as long as you can be self-aware of the impact these emotions are having on you and try to seek help. Just as a physical illness or injury getting to the point where day-to-day function is affected, mental illness interrupting your life needs professional treatment.
It is important to remember that Allah did not create all of us the same. We are all given our unique strengths. As discouraging as it can be to live with certain mental health conditions, we must try our best to remember the good traits Allah has blessed us with.
His Sadness, our Example
What makes sadness worse and more difficult to handle? The harmful thought that we are alone in our experience and pain. We often feel that we are the only ones experiencing sadness, but this is far from the truth. This is why it is so helpful to reflect on the many challenges that were faced by our Prophets and companions to give up hope and remind us that we are not alone.
One of the things that made Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) distressed was the pause in revelation from Allah at the beginning of his Prophethood. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ did not receive a revelation from Allah for 6 months. Then Allah sent down Surah Duha (the Morning Sunlight) to relieve him of his negative feelings and to instill hope in him. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was reminded that Allah is with him, no matter what.
Translation of Surah ad-Duha:
“By the morning sunlight.
And the night when it falls still!
Your Lord O Prophet has not abandoned you, nor has He become hateful of you.
And the next life is certainly far better for you than this one.
And surely your Lord will give so much to you that you will be pleased.
Did He not find you an orphan then shelter you?
Did He not find you unguided then guide you?
And did He not find you needy then satisfy your needs?
So do not oppress the orphan, nor repulse the beggar.
And proclaim the blessings of your Lord.”
(‘The Clear Quran’ Translation, Dr. Mustafa Khattab)
From this beautiful Surah, we learn in the power of Allah’s decree and to always remember that He is watching us, and knows best how to bring us through life.
Coming to our own Rescue
‘Ibadah is a surefire way to cultivate hope in ourselves, as we rely on Allah swt. However, oftentimes we do not realize that a mental illness requires more than turning to faith. At the same time that we cannot remove religion from our treatment of mental illness, we have to also make sure to avoid the belief that it only comes from a lack of religiosity or belief in Allah.
Some Muslims do not believe in getting help, and encourage dismissing feelings. Other Muslims do not seek a proper diagnosis to the issues they are facing, unable to resolve their actions and behaviours. Some that do get a diagnosis may not take steps to get better, because they do not believe in taking medication or psychotherapy.
We often forget that a mental illness requires treatment, just as a physical illness would. There is nothing wrong in utilizing resources that are made available to us in order to get better. There is everything to gain from seeking professional help.There is nothing shameful about this. In fact, it takes great strength to realize one’s limitations and seek assistance.
Support in our Homes
What is happening now? Muslims need to be even more brave than non-Muslims in sharing their mental wellness with their families and communities. However, if we don’t talk about mental illness in our masjids and homes, the deadly silence will continue, and more generations of Muslims will suffer in silence.
In order to work towards change, these conversations, however awkward they might be, must be had amongst Muslims. Family members must step forward to offer the support that is so important to the healing journey of someone with mental illness. Education and guidance from the Quran and Sunnah regarding can work alongside medical and therapeutic professionals to allow families to be part of the solution and not the problem.
Close to Our Hearts
If you have someone close to you who has been brave enough to share with you their concerns for their own mental health, seek professional help for them. To offer even more support, here are our recommendations for offering care to someone with mental illness:
- Remind them of Allah’s decree in our affairs, and that He can ease our hardships for us. Turning further towards Allah through challenges teaches us that He is truly the One we are in need of.
- Share stories of our Beloved Prophet (pbuh) and his companions to illustrate that we are certainly not the first ones to experience difficulties. The life of Prophet Muhammad is indeed full of every kind of test.
- Listening to them describe their experiences, without any judgment.
- Let them know that it is okay to feel the way that they do.
- Encourage them to resort to psychotherapy, anonymous helplines (Nisa Helpline, COAST), and support from family and friends.
- Encourage them to try out new hobbies and interests.
- Give the loved one time and space.
It may seem like a continuous battle to live through mental health challenges. However, we know that nothing in this life is easy. As long as we strive towards productive goals, take small steps towards progress, and trust in Allah, then we know that we can be successful towards improving our mental health.