ISNA cosponsors a day-long suicide response training at its 60th Annual Convention
By Sundus Abrar
Access to mental health treatment is not something new to Islam. Dating back to the 8th century, maristans (Farsi: a place of healing) were dedicated specialized wards for psychological illnesses within the larger Islamic hospital complex. They later became stand-alone institutions dedicated solely to treating the mentally ill.
In the U.S., Maristan is a registered nonprofit based in California. Along with ISNA, it co-hosted a day-long suicide response training for community leaders at this year’s convention. It was led by Dr. Rania Awaad (co-founder of Maristan; clinical associate professor of psychiatry, Stanford University) and Dr. Sadiya Dhanani (fellow physician, Stanford University).
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Maristan’s training as a model to emulate and create best-practice guidelines in faith-based and interfaith communities that will be disseminated nationally.
Stigma around mental health care is deep rooted within the Muslim community, and suicide is a prevailing concern. Assessing the risk of suicide is challenging, for Muslim families seldom report suicide deaths and attempts they believe it’s a sin. However, it’s still very much present.
“As a North American Muslim community, we have fallen short. Our community has held mental health as a taboo, and suicide as a taboo within a taboo,” said Dr. Awaad. “It has taken far too long for us to acknowledge it.”
“It really is strange that we are not ready to talk about it,” said Farhiya Ahmed, one of the training’s attendees. She was referring to the devastating occurrence of a young engaged couple’s murder-suicide in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio — the third such death by suicide in the state’s Muslim community in three years. The couple was well known in the young women’s halaqa group that she mentored.
Ahmed has an associate’s degree in Islamic studies and is currently pursuing a master’s in psychology. She felt compelled by her community’s uncertainty to make a one-day trip to Chicago solely to attend the training. “I didn’t even know how to verbalize around what happened and what words to use to calm the family and community.”
Attendee Umbreen Akram from Dallas recounts her uncertainty prior to attending the training around how to compassionately respond to a family’s recent loss due to a murder-suicide in the neighboring suburb of Allen. “I didn’t know if I should even attend the janaza. I questioned my intent. Would I be able to truly help beyond just being a spectator?”
A software engineer by profession, Akram also serves as chaplain for a women’s prison and volunteers for Calls for Comfort, a call and text service for Muslimas who need support. She found deep reassurance in Dr. Awaad’s credentials in Islamic law and medicine. “It is important to have both included to understand the religious aspect and medical side of the issue to know how we can genuinely show up and hold space for families affected,” she said.
The training, which occurred on the convention’s final day, enabled community leaders from across North America to participate. It was the sixth event of its kind — but the first at ISNA — and included imams, mosque board members, chaplains, teachers, doctors and therapists from 11 American states and Canada.
“I appreciate ISNA’s support in making this happen. It would have been really difficult to reach smaller remote communities without it,” said Dr. Awaad.
Dr. Dhanani commended ISNA on its approach to addressing mental health and the convention’s relevant sessions. “ISNA’s forward thinking has helped bring this to the community,” she said.
If you or someone you know are in need of mental health support, please refer to resources on https://maristan.org/resources. In the event of a mental health crisis, please call/text the crisis hotline 988.
The Three Stages of Response
Prevention: Having access to mental health and being aware of resources, such as calling 988. The community needs to address mental health issues seriously. Maristan has prepared khutbas on the topic. For more information on Maristan’s Community Suicide Response work specifically please visit: https://maristan.org/muslimsuicideresponse.
Intervention: Addressing individuals with suicide ideation and responding appropriately. Trained professionals have specific guidelines that can ensure that the situation is handled in a helpful way and not escalated.
Postvention: Addressing a suicide loss and guiding the community’s leaders on how to address it in order to avoid a contagion effect and reassure family and community. There are guidelines on how to report/discuss suicide. For example, people should not disclose specific details to prevent other attempts. Instead of saying “committed suicide,” we should say, “death by suicide.” Maristan also has a response team ready in the community to respond to events.
Sundus Abrar is a parent of two, residing in Chicago