What NOT To Say To A Muslim Struggling With Their Mental Health

by Nurul Afiqah
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It’s ironic how difficult it can be to find comfort among religious people when religion itself is supposed to be a source of comfort. Mentally ill people seeking support from among their friends and family in the Muslim community are often met with ignorance wrapped in well-meaning, faith-inspired advice.

I reached out to my Twitter followers with the question,

“What are some unhelpful things Muslims have said to you regarding your mental illness.”

The responses I received are arranged into themes. I have tried to explain why these responses are unhelpful.

 

1. Minimising the problem

“You know, people in Palestine and other Muslim countries have it worse than you. If you think your problems are bad, remember that others are having it worse.”

“If you were a little more grateful for what you’ve been blessed with, you wouldn’t be so sad.”

When a problem is deeply affecting a person, insisting that that problem is small can be very invalidating. Just because you, or someone you know, was able to cope well with a similar problem doesn’t mean that everyone else will be able to. Personal truths are not universal truths. Accept that people’s life experiences will vary greatly.

Writing off mental illness as a problem of ingratitude is also unhelpful. Mentally ill people are often grateful for the various blessings in their lives. They still feel depressed or anxious despite this gratitude. It is important to note that gratitude boosts mental wellness in a neurotypical person but often may not have the same effect for a mentally ill person.

Moreover, many mentally ill people feel guilty for being mentally ill. Calling a mentally ill person ungrateful only strengthens their guilt. Avoid guilt-tripping as it sets back their recovery process.


2. Implying causal relationship between mental health and religiousity

“You’re depressed because you aren’t close to God. Only in God will you find peace.”

“You are depressed/have anxiety because you don’t pray. If you pray, insya’Allah your situation will be better.”

“Cleanse yourself with wudhu.”

“This is what happens when you don’t pray 5 times a day.”

You should read the Quran to deal with all mental illness.”

“You are too caught up with the world’s affairs.”

If mental wellness was directly proportional with religiosity then no religious person would struggle with their mental health. However, the reality is that many religious people struggle too. Similar to how religiosity does not protect one from physical illnesses, it does not protect you from mental illness.

Correlating mental wellness with religiosity is also a kind of victim-blaming. It is as if the mentally ill person is to blame for their own mental illness. Rest assured, nobody wants more for the mental illness to be well-managed than the person struggling with it themselves. Often, existing coping mechanisms have already been exhausted and they have already sought all the help accessible to them. Their mental illness persists because mental illness is complex. No single coping mechanism is sufficient to manage a complex illness. Simply increasing one’s prayer will not help.

 

3. Attacking existing support network of mentally ill people

“You have this and that mental disorder because you don’t associate yourself with the right people thus it affects your mindset (negativity).”

Encourage the healthy relationships that a mentally ill person has. Mentally ill people are prone to socially isolating themselves when their mental health is low, even from people close to them. Suggesting that a mentally ill person should distance themselves from their existing healthy support systems is detrimental to their recovery. Do not take a person’s mental illness as an opportunity to express disapproval of healthy relationships that you personally dislike.

 

4. Insistence that there is a greater purpose/meaning to the suffering of the mentally ill

“You’re being tested.”

“God knows you are strong enough to face this.”

To insist that someone is strong when they feel vulnerable can feel very invalidating. When someone is allowing themselves to express their vulnerability, grant them the safety to do so. Do not impose ideas of strength unto them.

 

5. Equating mental illness with supernatural disturbance

“Your body is infested with jinns!”

“You don’t pray and read the Quran and now jinn have disturbed you.”

“Depression is just shaitaan.”

As mental illness is invisible, it is tempting to attribute it to the Unseen world of jinns and shaitaan. This is not only untrue but unhelpful. A supernatural problem might require a supernatural solution. However, mental illness is a complex problem influenced by many factors of the Seen world. As such, many methods in managing mental illness lie in the Seen world. Self-care, seeking professional help, and strengthening social support systems. These are just a few of many reliable options in the Seen world that mentally ill people can seek to help manage their illness. A person who truly cares about the recovery of their mentally ill friend or family would help them access these Seen world options first.

(Though mental illness is not caused by jinn disturbance, I feel the need to address the tendency for Muslims to correlate jinn disturbance with religious deficiency. It is a concept mentally ill Muslims often have to contend with. Jinn disturbance is not due to a lack of religiosity. Many of our Prophets have been disturbed by jinn. Implying that mentally ill Muslims are simply disturbed by jinn because they are not religious enough often hurts their relationship with God and may serve to distance them from God instead of bringing them closer to God.)

 

6. Demonising people with suicidal thoughts

“Don’t you know suicide is haram.”

“If you feel like you want to die it means your iman is weak. You should never feel that way.”

“How can you say that? You will go to Hell.”

People who are suicidal have reached the point where they are desperate to end their suffering. Due to the stigma surrounding mental illness it takes a lot of courage and trust for someone to open up about having suicidal thoughts. The last thing they want is to be shut down and made to feel heretical for having suicidal thoughts that are beyond their control. Being demonized for having suicidal thoughts can also make one feel alienated from God.

 

7. Discouraging mentally ill person from seeking treatment

“Taking antidepressants can cause problems in the future when you have kids.”

“Allah never said to go to the doctor for things like this.”

There is nothing in the Quran that discourages treatment for illness, be it mental or physical illness. Additionally, God the Most Merciful exhorts us to relieve others of their suffering. Seeing a psychiatrist, counsellor and taking medications can be a great help in managing mental illness. We as Muslims should encourage the mentally ill to seek treatment, not discourage them.

(Literature linking fertility issues with antidepressant usage remains sparse. It is unclear as to whether reduced fertility in women taking antidepressants is due the effects of the antidepressants themselves or due to the underlying depression.)

In conclusion, anyone with a body can become physically ill. Similarly, anyone with a mind can struggle with their mental health. Let’s do better for the mentally ill in our community by creating more safe spaces for them that allow them to feel validated and supported in their experiences.

I would like to thank @anywalien @communstani @elly_ana_ @failedsakura @Fatihah_24 @richteacookie @River_Niles @xemnenas and several others, who would rather remain anonymous, for responding to my Twitter question. This article would not have been possible without their valuable input.

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Nurul Afiqah is passionate about social justice issues, in particular, local interfaith and inter-racial issues. She is strongly introverted and enjoys Kpop and duck content in her spare time.


Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu

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15 Comments

  1. I agree, it is sad that today, Muslims don’t stop to think, what would our Prophet have done ?
    Mental health awareness is much needed today, especially in our masajid, where the need is mainly to tell people, depression is not from the Shaytan, nor is it from a Jinn infestation. Thank you for writing this much needed article ! May people read it, see it and benefit from it ! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Dean, here are some articles on how to respond helpfully to someone who is depressed, having an anxiety or panic attack, & someone who is having a psychotic episode. Your non-judgemental presence and attention alone (without wanting to go straight to problem-solving their situation) can be very helpful. Hope this helps!:

      https://themighty.com/2016/02/texts-to-send-someone-with-depression/
      View story at Medium.com
      https://www.theodysseyonline.com/5-things-to-do-when-your-partner-is-having-psychotic-episode

      May we also suggest this read about depression: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I too wonder about this. Could please provide a guide on what to do? I would prefer to have a reference when dealing with someone who has depression rather than risk telling them the things i am not supposed to.

      My email is yusuf5032@hotmail.com

      Like

      1. Hi Yusuf, here are some articles on how to respond helpfully to someone who is depressed, having an anxiety or panic attack, & someone who is having a psychotic episode. Your non-judgemental presence and attention alone (without wanting to go straight to problem-solving their situation) can be very helpful. Hope this helps!:

        https://themighty.com/2016/02/texts-to-send-someone-with-depression/

        https://www.theodysseyonline.com/5-things-to-do-when-your-partner-is-having-psychotic-episode

        May we also suggest this read about depression: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections

        Like

  2. What is it that we should say then? A lot of articles talk about what NOT to say. What about what to say with specific examples? Please dont get me wrong. Im battling severe ocd myself and my mother is suffering from mild depression. I honestly dont know what to say or do to make her feel better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, yes this is a fair question. Here are some articles on how to respond helpfully to someone who is depressed, having an anxiety or panic attack, & someone who is having a psychotic episode. Your non-judgemental presence and attention alone (without wanting to go straight to problem-solving their situation) can be very helpful. Hope this helps!:

      https://themighty.com/2016/02/texts-to-send-someone-with-depression/
      View story at Medium.com
      https://www.theodysseyonline.com/5-things-to-do-when-your-partner-is-having-psychotic-episode

      May we also suggest this read about depression: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections

      Liked by 1 person

  3. More religious compartmentalization. If you sincerely believe that human thought and personality are driven by incorporeal souls, you ought to not recommend anything other than a spiritual solution.

    Like

  4. A good post. Perhaps, the replies you have provided, providing links to what can/should be done to help could be hyperlinked in the article as well? This will provide readers with access to knowledge on where they can seek assistance given that your article has already informed them of what they shouldn’t be doing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for writing this incredibly important post. I am a Muslim mental health therapist/counselor and have heard many of these issues surface in therapy sessions. Something I’ve found helpful is sharing articles and books about Muslim contributions to the field of psychology. My hope is that when more Muslims learn about these contributions – especially before Freud and other western psychologists – the more receptive we will become to mental health issues.

    Thanks again for writing this!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s easy for religious people to correlate mental issues with spiritual issues. Thankfully a lot more people, and even well-known speakers and Sheikhs, are addressing this issue.

    Like

  7. Thank you very much for addressing this much-needed topic. I think it would be great to translated into other languages so that people, like in Arabic-specking countries, can hear this. Unfortunately, their are even some TV shaykhs who make comments like the ones in the article (ex. “A believer with strong iman will never get depressed.”). I would like to share the link to a website working to address this topic: https://khalilcenter.com/

    And here is a video of a Muslim psychiatrist who, in addition to her clinical work and research, has looked at how Muslims historically have addressed this issue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1uFoW7w798

    She even has a historical paper published in a leading journal showing how a Muslim scholar (Balkhi) diagnosed OCD 1000 years before the West had a definition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25911133

    and she has a lab at Stanford University on Muslims in mental health. http://med.stanford.edu/psychiatry/research/MuslimMHLab.html

    Like

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