Muslims should realize that mental health issues are real and treatable
By Khalid Iqbal
The murder-suicide of a Bangladeshi family by their sons, Farhan and Tanvir Towhid, as reported in the Washington Post (April 6, 2021), shocked not only a community but the entire nation at the height of mental health discussions amidst a global pandemic. Both young men were reported to have been mentally disturbed for some time and decided to take the entire family with them to resolve their misery.
Salma (not her real name) felt she was being followed and monitored by some authorities 24/7 through an electronic chip “they” had installed in her during one of the hospital procedures she had undergone. She still feels paranoid wherever she goes and unsafe in her own residence, doesn’t turn on her computer because “someone is sitting there, watching me,” cannot work at her job and feels forced to go through the day’s work under tension only so she can keep her job. Although her family supports her, they also taunt her by telling her that she is going crazy.
Before Covid, Asif (not his real name) was a very social person — the life of the party and one of his college basketball team’s top players. But once Covid started, he started feeling extreme anxiety, a feeling that got worse after it killed his close friend. He stopped going out, and didn’t even want to get out of bed. His parents are lost and not sure where to begin or what to do to support their son.
Sadia (not her real name) stopped eating properly because she wants to look good so, according to societal standards, she can “fit in with the crowd.” Her subsequent malnourishment, which causes her to feel dizzy, has led to her fainting a couple of times at school. Noting her situation, her teacher sent her to the school nurse. Sadia said she wished her parents would notice her condition and take appropriate steps to help her, but refused help when her teacher asked her if everything was alright.
Are such events and situations preventable? I had no clear answer to that and other questions until I took the Youth Mental Health First Aid course offered by our county in Virginia (also see https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/).
What is Mental Health?
The World Health Organization defines mental health as the state of well-being, being a person who recognizes his/her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life and work productively and fruitfully, enjoys other people’s company and relationships, and can contribute to his/her community
The following statistics are from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Justice.
- 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year (e.g., anxiety, fear of certain life issues, unable to enjoy life or other people’s company or cope with the normal stresses of life that, for some, lead to depression or extreme suicidal thoughts).
- 1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year.
- 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year.
- 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14, and 75% by age 24.
- Suicide is the leading cause of death among Americans aged 10-34.
National Public Radio’s Aug. 10, 2021, report states that “American Muslims Are 2 Times More Likely to Have Attempted Suicide Than Other Groups.” One reason for this is because while Muslims face the same factors as the general populace, they also have to deal with religious discrimination and the still-pervasive community stigmatization attached to the “mental disorder” label.
Salma, Saida and Asif’s parents never even thought of going to a mental health professional. After attending the course, I asked the parents who I know well if they had considered this path; they both resisted the idea. One mocked me, saying that “one course doesn’t make you an expert.” The attached social stigma prevented them from admitting that their child has a mental health issue and from seeking professional help.
One day, two soccer teammates got into a fistfight. It seemed like a case of racial discrimination, for there was skin color-based name calling. The case was presented to an arbitration board. Both boys’ parents were present, but their reactions were very different. One boy was immediately taken to a mental health professional for assessment and treatment; the other boy, who happened to be Muslim, was scolded. That was the end of his “treatment.”
After observing this case, I wondered why Muslims are so far behind other communities when it comes to understanding mental health issues and being willing to deal with it. As a result, they are less likely to access the mental health resources available to all.
During a recent workshop, I noted several responses that leave us with something to think about: stigma; the myths that Muslims cannot be depressed, God is punishing them or they are spiritually weak; that it is a curse and therefore an untreatable issue; seeking help from within the community is difficult, something that we need to work on; exorcism, a lack of understanding based on the movie; the language barrier and the system isn’t ready to serve Muslims due to religious and cultural misunderstandings.
Muslims need to realize that mental health issues have nothing to do with religion. Depending on Quranic verses only won’t solve these types of illnesses. And besides, many scholars say that treating any disease or health issue properly is important. This involves recognizing that such diseases exist, discussing them openly and dealing with them in a rational way. Our community leaders should invite mental health experts to give lectures, conduct interactive workshops, share their thoughts and experiences, as well as develop a peer partnership to talk and help each other when needed. Not dealing with this ongoing stigma on the individual or community level can lead people to hide their issues and thus delay treatment.
Khutbas, lectures and workshops can help defeat the myths and misunderstandings that may lead to ignoring symptoms and causing harm to their loved ones.
Now in his 50s, Ali (not his real name) remembers having suicidal thoughts during his early teens. He saw himself as a victim of every incident, relationship failure or other mishap. He remembers trying to kill himself many times by cutting his wrist or overdosing on pain medications. His parents always accepted his lame excuses about his cuts or why he slept almost all day without inquiring about his situation and mental condition.
Ali noted the difference between the story of Prophet Yaqoob and his son Prophet Yousuf (‘alayhum as salam), of how caring and understanding Yaqoob was compared to his own father, who seemed to be largely absent from his children’s lives. His mother would worry, while his father usually just laughed it off. Ali promised himself to be a more aware and concerned father.
Research shows that the impact of mental disorders usually begin in early adolescence or early adulthood. In fact, half of all mental disorders begin by age 14 and, if not checked and addressed, can affect the person’s education, personal development, health and social life. This being the case, parents, guardians, teachers, friends and family members can help identify the issue and support and encourage the one affected to seek personal or professional help.
The course pointed out several steps that can be taken, among them assessing the risk to self or others (e.g., suicide or self-harm, gathering or overdosing on medicine, burning, possessing harmful weapons like knives and guns).
One can also look for the following symptoms.
• Emotions. Sadness, anxiety, guilt, anger, mood swings, lack of emotional responsiveness, and feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, irritability, depression and fear.
• Thoughts. Frequent self-criticism, self-blame, worry, pessimism, impaired memory, impaired concentration, indecisiveness, confusion, a tendency to believe that everyone sees you in a negative light, and thoughts of suicide and death.
• Behavior. Crying spells, withdrawal from others, neglecting responsibilities, losing interest in personal appearance, loss of motivation, slowing down and using alcohol or other drugs.
• Physical. Chronic fatigue, lack of energy, sleeping too much or too little, overeating or loss of appetite, constipation, weight loss or gain, headaches, irregular menstrual cycle, loss of sexual desire and unexplained aches or pain.
• General. Talking about no reason to live or life having no purpose, not eating or overeating, and being involved in substance abuse.
Following are some of the common risk factors for self-harm, including suicide, that should be recognized, evaluated and eliminated if possible: Depression (untreated or undertreated), social isolation (loneliness is a major issue for all ages, especially the elderly), major changes in social roles (e.g., new school, retirement, job loss, divorce), the recent death of a loved one, fear of prolonged illness, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, being a victim of abuse, suicidal ideation and behavior, as well as easy access to lethal weapons and/or means
If a family member, friends or educators and any mental health first aider notice an unusual circumstance or behavior, they should approach the individual, be willing to listen non-judgmentally and with acceptance, empathy, positive reassurance and, if needed, with the suggest seeking professional help. One can initiate the conversation by simply saying, “You haven’t been joining us lately at the group coffee break. Are you okay?” or “I noticed you’re not eating and losing a lot of weight. Is everything okay?” or “Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling.”
Muslims need to become involved and learn the skills taught in Adult or Youth Mental Health First Aid through training courses available for free. Become first in the line of support to those in need. Help them feel less distressed. Encourage them to talk about their issues and feelings. Listen to them nonjudgmentally. You can be a vital resource in terms of helping them seek further assistance. Your body language, what you say and being a non-judgmental listener can have a powerful impact.
Empower your community through education and bringing resources to assist those in need. Reach out to mental health professionals and give them a platform to educate others. Help youth and adults help themselves. Make a difference in the life of someone suffering from a mental health challenge by reaching out and offering help. Your actions can be a first step in a person’s journey to recovery.
Khalid Iqbal is founder of Rahmaa Institute (www.Rahmaa.org), which focuses on issues related to marriage, conflict resolution, divorce, domestic violence and anger prevention. In his capacity as the author of “Anger and Domestic Violence Prevention Guide for the Muslim Community” and speaker, he has developed and teaches a comprehensive eight-hour premarital counseling course. He has been married for 50 years and has three wonderful children and 10 grandchildren.
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