Over the past few decades, the stigma surrounding mental illness has certainly improved with increased access to care and increased advocacy for treatment. However, the intersectional framework of care received and given to Muslims, and minorities, not only varies in degree but also in ‘kind.’
Muslims hail from a tribal ancestry—a close-knit family unit with similar cultures and traditions. And this holds true today, where the notion that ‘one person’s happiness equals the tribe’s happiness’ or ‘one person’s shame equals the tribe’s shame.’ Although in certain aspects this notion leads to a stronger family unit, it may also be destructive, especially in cases of mental illness.
As a culture, Muslims tend to have a higher degree of stigma towards the advocacy and treatment of mental illness. Studies have shown that few individuals in the Muslim community would consider socializing with a person with mental illness and few, if not none, would consider marriage with such a person [Tabassum, Macaskill, & Ahmad, 2000]. Even if there are Muslims who stand up for the treatment of mental illness, the backlash that they and their families face is considered ‘shameful.’
I can tell you about this from a personal perspective. One year ago, I was suffering from major depression and anxiety. After years of telling my parents that ‘something was wrong and I needed help,’ they finally agreed because my symptoms had spiraled out of control. After treatment, I decided to come out to my friends and family through a Facebook post in the hopes of helping anyone else suffering from mental illness. Around 10 minutes after posting that article, my sisters called me and told me to take it down immediately. Then my mother called me and basically said that there was no reason I had to parade around the fact that I was suffering from depression and that if anyone else found out, I would never get married.
Why is it so incredibly shameful to have a mental illness? In our culture, there really is no word for depression or anxiety or schizophrenia. You’re either seen as ‘crazy,’ ‘pagal’ or ‘majnoon.’ There’s no spectrum and if you show any of these symptoms, you’re labeled as the most extreme of these cases. If we add religion into the mix, it’s seen as a lack of faith or possession by jinn. Of course, as a monotheistic religion, we place our trust in Allah; and what He wills, will be done. But sometimes prayer is not enough. There ARE incredibly religious, orthodox individuals who suffer from mental illness as well. And what I can tell you is that this isn’t because an individual is not praying enough or giving enough charity or doesn’t have a close relationship with God. It is a mix of bio-psycho-socio-spiritual factors.
The biological aspect is a decrease in serotonin, which is a chemical in your brain. (Much like the decrease in insulin in diabetes; however, it is culturally and socially acceptable to take exogenous insulin to bring back the proper levels in your body— yet, it’s not okay to do the same with antidepressants.)
The psychiatric part of it is how an individual copes with stressors in their lives. It is a mix of their resilience and outlook that may play a factor in contributing to mental illness. The sociological factor relates to your family, friends, peers, environment, work, and home. The spiritual factor relates to either religion or one’s spirituality. If a person is depressed, of course, prayer or meditation can definitely help and should be encouraged. There are individuals who find solace in doing so. However, it is important to note that it’s not the only factor contributing to their symptoms.
As a culture, we need to be more open and inviting to those who are suffering from mental illness. We need to be advocates and we need to let them know that they will not become outcasts in our society. Breaking relationships, rejecting individuals for marriage, judging their level of faith, judging their past lives as a punishment for their current state and shaming them for something that is not in their control—Islam has no such teachings. As a faith and as an ummah, we must believe that “There is no disease that Allah has sent down except that He also has sent down its treatment” [Sahih al-Bukhari 5678]. And whether that disease may seem ‘invisible’, it still exists. And it requires treatment. That is Islam. That is our faith and believing that would be the true sign of a Muslim.