Ending the stigma of mental illness
By Aminah Salim
The Muslim community has not actively addressed its members’ mental health. As a result, many mosques lack the professionals needed to address the various mental illnesses present within their communities. Most Muslim schools have no staff members who are equipped to provide mental health support to their students. Illnesses such as autism, schizophrenia and ADHD, just to name a few, are common. In fact, many of us have a loved one or friend who is suffering from such an illness. For example, ADHD is a common disorder that affects many school-age children, and yet many Muslim children reman undiagnosed.
Then at the start of 2020 came COVID, a pandemic that forever changed the lives of people worldwide. Along with it came an increase in mental health disorders in children — higher rates of anxiety, depression and even suicide.
Many children have been negatively affected by the pandemic’s serious side effects. Their schools were closed as stay-at-home orders were implemented. Isolation from friends and extended family members affected their mental health. Children, who need movement and exercise for their mental well-being, suddenly could not go outside to play or access local parks and recreation centers. In addition, they were faced with food insecurity as their parents’ places of employment and/or businesses had to close — some permanently. With over 6 million COVID-related deaths globally, many children lost one or more loved ones or friends.
Suicide rates have risen among adolescents, and many have lost their enthusiasm for the activities and pursuits that once interested them. Students, including those who had maintained good grades prior to COVID, suffered academically as schools were forced to implement virtual learning. Fear of an uncertain future also contributed to the decline of their mental health. High school graduates found themselves unable to partake in the graduation experience they’d looked forward to for so long. What should have been celebratory was replaced with sadness and, for some new graduates, anger.
As Muslims, Ramadan brings a sense of unity and enjoyment for families. With mosques having to close and families feeling disconnected from the umma during the holy month and Eid, this enforced isolation affected the mood of many families. And as children and teens watched feelings of anxiety, fear and mood changes appear among their parents, they reacted in kind.
Unfortunately, due to the nationwide shortage of mental health professionals, children are dealing with untreated mental health issues. The title of a recently uploaded American Psychological Association article, “Children’s mental health is in crisis,” says it all.
Now more than ever, our Muslim communities need to provide training and education programs in our mosques and schools. Public schools in some areas have begun giving teachers mental health training and adding subjects to the curriculum to address issues ranging from depression to suicide.
Ahmein Watson (LCSW-C LCADC) is the executive director of Healthy Lives, LLC (https://healthylivesmaryland.com), a Muslim-owned behavioral health organization. Established in Baltimore in 2013, its mission is “to create an environment where people can find a safe, professional opportunity to address and manage behavioral health issues.” The holder of a master’s degree in social work with a specialization in mental health and substance abuse, Watson has been working in the field for 20 years.
The organization’s team of licensed and certified professionals has formulated programs for both adults and children. Understanding the importance of addressing children’s mental health issues in real time, among the services he and his team provide are the following: transitional age support; health promotion and training; self-esteem; strengthening communication between parents, youth, teachers, and other adults; and assisting parents and families with obtaining entitlements.
In line with Healthy Lives’ psychiatric rehabilitation service, the children he serves resumed in-person interaction as soon as it was allowed, thereby utilizing outdoor COVID-safe activities in addition to mental health therapy.
Children may be unable to express their feelings and not know how or where to get help. Educating parents and the community to watch for certain behaviors is the first step in learning how to address their mental health issues. On Sept. 21, 2021, the CDC uploaded a list of signs on its website that may indicate a decline in mental health. While each child copes with stress and trauma in their own way, some of the common signs are excessive crying for younger children, acting out or irritability, poor school performance, difficulties concentrating, using drugs or alcohol and disinterest in activities that once interested them.
As we are entering the third year of this pandemic, one important thing is to talk with our children, for reassuring them and talking about their fears and concerns can help them mentally. As the saying goes, “If life gives you lemons, turn them into lemonade.” As COVID numbers rise and another wave is anticipated for the fall and winter, create a fun and positive environment if you find your child back in virtual learning or restricted movement.
If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, talk with their pediatrician or seek out a mental health professional. Suicide is a mental health issue that affects all of us, even Muslims. Never hesitate to address indicators your child may be having suicidal thoughts. Your local crisis hotline or suicide prevention hotline is a good source of information on where to get help in your area. Contact 911 should you find your child attempting or threatening suicide.
Mental health disorders in our community are not going away. Muslim professionals and organizations need to work together to tackle the issues facing our umma. Ensuring that shura boards contain at least one mental health professional is vital. Creating groups and classes led by us and for us as Muslims are also needed. Our children are our most precious assets. Given this reality, we owe it to them to invest in them — including in their mental well-being.
Aminah Salim, a mental health intern pursuing her Master’s degree in clinical social work, specializes in trauma-focused therapy and is the founder of The Salim Foundation. Working in the behavioral health field since 2019, she actively works to bring training, licensed professionals and community education to Muslim communities as well as to end the traditional stigma attached to mental health.
What did you think about this article? Send comments and story pitches to email@example.com. Islamic Horizons does not publish unsolicited material.