As a young British Muslim, I am frankly startled and somewhat disheartened by the taboo that still surrounds the subject of mental health illnesses, particularly within the Muslim community. I would like to point out that I am only speaking from my personal experience, but after several conversations with some of my close Muslim friends and members of my family, I have found that this is a discussion that is often silenced or not taken seriously enough. And this matters, because silence is potent.
Being born and raised in a Muslim family, I have always come to value the spirit of inner strength and resilience that my faith has inspired in me as part of both a spiritual and personal journey. My parents always tell me that all hurdles are surmountable as long as you put your mind to it and have faith in the all-loving Creator – the classic cliché of mind over matter, I suppose. Fast-forward to my first year at Cambridge with the incessant pressures and often crippling isolation of routine in ‘the bubble’, and I found myself questioning the philosophy I had hitherto relied on. Cambridge seemed impossible. The workload was unbearable and the social pressures inescapable. I was often lonely, driven to tears for no apparent reason and had the constant feeling that I just wasn’t good enough to be here. I had a sudden realisation when speaking to one of my relatives about how to get over these feelings, and they simply said: “you just need to pray more, that’s your problem”. Angry, upset and surprised, I didn’t quite know how to take that snap judgement on the source of all of the negativity in my life. And then it made me think about those young Muslims who are battling with mental illnesses. Whose voices are so often dismissed in the same fashion, or otherwise not listened to at all.
I would argue that the stigma surrounding mental illnesses within the Muslim community stems generally from a lack of understanding about the nature of such ailments. Hence the tragic tendency to dismiss those who suffer from them as simply ‘ungrateful’ or distant from God. The reality is that such illnesses cannot be helped, and simply accusing someone who suffers from depression of spiritual poverty drastically oversimplifies and misrepresents the issue at hand. More tragically, it prevents a significant proportion of young Muslims from accessing the support they need. Ironically, Islam strongly emphasises the importance of spiritual, physical AND mental health. Thus I say that addressing mental health issues is not just important from a medical point of view. It is, indeed, a requirement for Muslims to promote the health of themselves and that of others – but instead, debate is stifled on the matter and a crippling taboo prevents voices being heard.
I’m not dismissing a religious response to issues of mental health, nor am I attempting to undermine the claims of those many Muslims (including myself) who believe that faith in God is a source of comfort when life gets you down. All I ask is that we start to open our minds a little and realise that mental health illnesses are NOT the result of someone being ‘ungrateful’ or ‘lazy’. Attempting to overwrite someone’s reality of depression or mental ailments with the claim that they just need to ‘pick themselves up’ and remember ‘what Islam is all about’ can have some pretty devastating consequences. Every time the voice of a young Muslim is shut down because of their mental health problems, we, as the Muslim community, unwittingly perpetuate the damaging stigmatisation around this topic and contribute to a narrative that is dangerously selective about the voices it wishes to take seriously. And that’s important because it prevents young Muslims from getting the help they need to tackle these issues head-on.
I find great solace in the emphasis that my faith places on the family unit and the concept of the universal ‘brotherhood’ (ummah). I also think mosques and other Islamic community centres play a very important role in encouraging discussion and have the potential to start some programmes to raise awareness, combatting the isolation that so many young Muslims with mental illnesses feel. Yes, there is nothing wrong with believing that God will always be there to turn to, but sometimes we need to talk openly and freely about our problems to someone who can offer the emotional care we need instead of silencing us. There is nothing wrong or ‘unreligious’ about needing support for mental illnesses, and the sooner we as Muslims realise this the closer we will be to embodying the spirit of the ‘Ummah’ that we hold so dear.