This post is part of a series wherein I, along with 5 other Muslima bloggers from all over the world, write about a range of problems that we found to be prevalent in the Muslim community. In Islam, we are expected to better our character for ourselves, our families and our society. The modern world, however, has created many blocks and complications preventing Muslims and Muslim communities from flourishing and becoming the best they can be. In this series, we try to shed some light on the issues that keep recurring in almost all Muslim communities.
Learn more about the Expanding Horizons: Critical Discussions to Uplift the Muslim Ummah series.
- 1 Why should we care about mental health?
- 2 Almost everyone will experience a mental disorder in their lifetime
- 3 Islam and mental health
- 4 Mental health and Possession
- 5 Psychology in Islam
- 6 Why you need therapy
- 7 Muslims starting the conversation
- 8 The effect of mental health stigma on Muslim women
- 9 What can we do to help?
- 10 Resources
- 11 Contributors
Why should we care about mental health?
As you may or may not know, the world is facing a mental health crisis. And has been for some time. Mental illness accounts for a large part of lost productivity and high costs on society. Because of the stigma against mental illness, we probably don’t actually know the full extent of people affected globally. For example, did you know that “suicide is the leading cause of death in men under 50”? Men’s mental health is just one aspect of mental health that is not talked about often enough.
There is no doubt that mental illness has far reaching economic, health and spiritual effects on society. A WHO study found:
“Untreated mental health problems account for 13% of the total global burden of disease. It is projected that, by 2030, mental health problems (particularly depression) will be the leading cause of mortality and morbidity globally.”
Clearly, it is a serious problem all over the world.
Almost everyone will experience a mental disorder in their lifetime
The mental health crisis for Muslims is no different. Mental health in the Muslim world is in dire need of attention and awareness. As I wrote in my very first post, the reason why I started the Ask Amna project is the fact that Muslims will not seek help for their mental health conditions. This needs to change. We need to stop treating it as a taboo topic and we need to take it more seriously. The reason why it’s important is if we don’t address these issues, it will continue to erode our community.
An American study on mental health in the Muslim community found, “many in [the Muslim immigrant] community live with untreated mental health conditions that not only impact themselves, but impact their family and the larger community….because the stigma of mental health problems and help-seeking behaviour is strong among Muslim immigrants, many go without essential treatment and often unnecessarily struggle with a mental health issue that could be easily resolved with professional help”.
The scientific truth is that most people will suffer “at least one diagnosable mental disorder” in their lifetime.
Unfortunately, Muslims still don’t realise how detrimental mental illness can be. What people don’t appreciate is that having a mental health condition (even if not very “serious”) doesn’t only affect one person, it affects all those around them. For example, marriages often fail because one or both parties won’t seek help for their personal issues. Unresolved mental health problems result in a cycle of trauma and harm that spans generations — not only affecting a parent or a marriage but also their children.
Islam and mental health
The most common issue around Muslim mental health is the strong stigma that exists in the community. I’ve personally experienced being gaslit or ignored when I’ve discussed my mental health problems. There is a common belief that you can pray mental illness away. “You just need to pray more”, “read more Quran”, “be patient and rely on Allah”.
When asked for her thoughts, fellow blogger Andale Seaworne had the following to say:
It is surprising that mental health has only recently come into the limelight to be considered as something important, or at least equivalent to physical health. While Muslims are busy telling those going through mental health issues and disorders to:
“Get over it.”
“It could’ve been worse.”
“The Jinn has taken over you.”
“You are so thankless. You should be grateful.”
They forget that the Quran has an extensive expression of psychology and counselling. For me personally as I studied psychology in my A-Levels, I came across a lot of cognitive psychology in the Quran. The Quran identifies the negative thought patterns, tells them how they have a negative impact on one’s life and on society, reorients man’s priorities and purpose in life and encourages positive and logical thought patterns.
Sentiments like this are unhelpful, especially if someone is suffering deeply. Praying and performing acts of worship are definitely beneficial but it is not enough to heal from a mental health problem. It is crucial that alongside “dua” (prayers) and reading Quran, that people seek professional help.
This is cannot be ignored especially if there is serious mental illness. One thing that can’t be swept under the rug is the issue of suicide. As much as people want to believe that if you’re Muslim you can’t have suicidal thoughts, it is a universal problem and Muslims are not exempt — no matter how devout they may be. Some studies have found that rates of attempted suicide in Muslim countries are similar to those of non-Muslim countries.
Mental health and Possession
As you probably know and will notice from the various voices in this post, Muslims have a strong belief that symptoms of mental health are caused by “jinn” (demons or spirits). As a Muslim, I do believe they exist but I don’t think they are as big a threat as some people make out. A lot of the time, the problems that people blame jinn on can usually be explained by mental illness. I actually had a question from a reader asking if she was cursed where I discussed some of these issues in more detail.
These beliefs have their place and I do believe that some Islamic practices such as “ruqyah” (reciting the Quran to treat ailments) can work in some circumstances for some people, but it is often misused and these practices are used to replace professional help which can be very dangerous. This is often the direct result of stigma around mental illness. The conversations about such practices can be toxic and there needs to be more thought around using professional help alongside spiritual means.
Syeda Atika Yahya expressed her thoughts on this prevalent phenomenon, “who can forget our obsession with jinns, every mental health problem has something to do with jinns. Yes, black magic does happen but we need to acknowledge that in these unprecedented times our mental health is going for a toss. As a community working on this aspect has become the need of the hour.”
Psychology in Islam
Through my experiences with therapy I realised there are a lot of therapeutic methods within Islam. As Andale Seaworne mentioned before, there are many instances in the Quran that encourage positive psychology and healthy coping mechanisms such as a focus on positive thoughts and having faith.
Another example, discussed in more detail in another post I wrote, is using mindfulness and acceptance techniques to help with anxiety and depression. I’ve realised that mindfulness is basically a secular form of prayer. When you pray, you are supposed to focus and bring your attention on one thing very closely.
The time you spend in prayer is meant to be devoted to Allah, with no distractions or disruptions. With mindfulness, the focus is on breathing as a way of calming the mind. When practicing mindfulness, you also have to shut out the world and carve out time for yourself and create peace in your day. I have found the effects on my mental state are very similar. Allah doesn’t need our prayers, but we need prayer to build resilience and peace within ourselves. It is beneficial for us, which is why it has been decreed. Everything in Islam is prescribed to us for a reason.
Also as Andale Seaworne described very well, “Allah is often counselling us, telling us, “Indeed, with every difficulty, comes relief.” (94:5). Furthermore, you see firsthand in Surah Duha and Surah Kausar how Allah is providing moral support to Prophet Muhammad (SAW) during his challenging times. If our prophets needed help for their mental health, who are we to push each other away?”
Why you need therapy
I won’t ever stop talking about how important therapy is because it changed my life. A few years ago, as my regular readers will know, I was in a bad place. I was overweight, unhappy at work, unhappy at home. I didn’t know how to fix it. I was at my wit’s end with nowhere else to go. I had to do something, so I decided to try therapy again.
Once I started working on myself and healing, everything else followed. I lost all the weight I had put on after marriage, I improved my working life and my marriage changed for the better. It helped me become a better Muslim again and improve my connection with Allah. Gaining mental space allowed me to see things more clearly. Therapy helped me realise that I had lost so much of myself in my attachment to the material world and I was just living day by day with no goals and no hope. Just going through the motions.
I have many readers who ask me for advice on what to do about their mental health and most of them have not really considered therapy seriously. They bring up a lot of excuses or are afraid of the stigma of starting therapy. They think it is only for very “serious” cases and for “crazy people” — which so far from the truth. Everyone can seek and benefit from therapy.
“Mental health issues are often looked at as a weakness of a lack of Iman, when it is natural and affects all of us. There needs to be more mental health resources and more conversations about this are needed.
Often, people are shunned or feel ashamed for having mental health issues because people think it indicates being a bad Muslim. Every halaqah [religious informational gathering] or resource for mental health is just to pray more, make more dua, and build a better connection with Allah.
But, while that is a big part of it, it is not enough. We need to have more practical resources and to help people talk and get through the issues they are going through. Another large issue is the fact that people tend to get married and have kids without realising how important mental health is and without realising that they need to be emotionally present for their kids.
The stigma of mental health problems is preventing so many people from getting the help they need and becoming healthy, well-adjusted members of society. As Yasmin put it, if you talk about having mental health problems, many people will tell you to have “sabr” (patience) and perform more acts of worship. All of this is beneficial, butas I described above, if you have a serious problem prayer alone will not be enough to resolve it.
Another extremely important point Yasmin brought up is how getting married with unresolved mental health problems usually leads to a lot of problems. When you suffer from mental illness everyone around you is affected. Your parents, your spouse, your children. Your children will more than likely also develop issues because of your problems. Professional help is so crucial in keeping our communities and families healthy and we, a community as a whole, need to start the conversation and keep it going.
Muslims starting the conversation
If you’ve made it this far into my post, I think you will agree with me when I say: we need to talk about Muslim mental health. Which is what we have sought to do in this post and the rest of the Expanding Horizons series.
Azra Rahman, aspiring writer, notes that despite an increase in “professionals who, thanks to the advent of social media, have been vocal in putting forth facts regarding it“, there is still a lot of work to be done. She goes on to say:
“While we might argue that we need more mental healthcare professionals arising from our community, simple yet effective dialogue can play a huge role in shortening that distance between speculation and understanding.”
It could be as simple as talking about depression, which is still a highly stigmatised topic. A person’s social, economical, personal or financial state has nothing to do with his/her emotional and mental standing. It is like expecting that a doctor doesn’t get sick; or a teacher knows every subject under the sun. Sounds ridiculous? It is. But that is the response which is rampant.
I heard someone say to a non-Muslim that Muslims don’t seek professional help for mental health issues. We make Dua, increase in Dhikr [remembrance of Allah], do other acts of worship and take it as Allah’s qadr [destiny]. I wanted to ask them whether or not they seek help for other forms of illness? I am absolutely sure they do. So if it is normal to seek medical help for fever or a cough; why can’t it be accepted that wanting and accepting help for mental health is normal?
Is that not disregarding the will of Allah?
Ummm….no… Because as far as my little knowledge goes, Ar-Rahman [Allah] has not prevented us from taking care of ourselves in any way. All the acts of worship that He has ordered us to perform, benefit us either physically or spiritually. In most cases, both. Yes, we do have to keep our tawakkul in Him before seeking out sources. Perform and maybe even increase our acts of ibadah [worship]. But also, learn to tie your camel and then place your trust in Allah. Because my dear, we will eventually be judged for our actions.
If, as an individual, you do not endorse going for therapy, that’s fine. As long as you aren’t harming yourself in the process. But but but…do not dissuade others from doing so. Simply because you might have little to no idea of their circumstances and issues. Besides, every individual is different in their make and design. The same thing affects all of us in different ways. What might be normal for us, could be heartbreaking for someone else.
To accept that we do not understand, is the first step towards understanding.“
I would also add to Azra’s thoughts on therapy that not getting yourself therapy could be indirectly harming people. Mental illness is not your fault, but it is your responsibility. Consider the people around you who might be affected by your actions, we all have a responsibility to manage our mental health.
There are more and more Muslim therapists and mental health care professionals bringing their expertise to this space. Have a look at the resources section below for more info on the amazing work that Muslims have been doing in this space.
The effect of mental health stigma on Muslim women
In this series you will have seen how Muslim women are under a ridiculous amount of pressure to be perfect and to carry the burden of everyone around them. They are often blamed when things go wrong and are not afforded the kindness and benefit of doubt many men receive in similar circumstances. It’s a whole other topic, but life as a Muslim woman in a traditional Muslim society is fraught with challenges from all angles.
Syeda shed some light on how mental health stigma can be particularly hard for women:
For women it becomes all the more difficult to discuss her issues as she is constantly judged by society. Something like post natal depression is brushed under the carpet as a normal problem for a new mother. Rather than seeking medical help, the woman is advised to move ahead and go along her usual routine as if nothing happened. She has to find her own way out of her chaos and if she doesn’t she is labelled an incompetent mother.
What can we do to help?
We know that stigma is a problem in the Muslim community. So what can we do to help? The answer is in this post: speak about it! If the topic comes up in conversation advocate for mental health services, validate people’s feelings. Better yet, share your experiences with mental health and the problems you’ve faced in your life (if you have). I’m trying to be more transparent now, I try to be more open with my own struggles, I tell people I have been to therapy and that I’ve struggled with depression. You never know who you might be helping when you share your experience.
You can also try to be there for others. It can sometimes be clear when someone is going through a hard time, try to pay attention and ask them questions. If they do share, don’t gloss over their problems, listen — and I mean really listen. Don’t tell them to pray and be thankful for what they have. Be empathetic and understanding. It’s amazing how healing and supportive it can be just to be listened to.
Lastly: be kind. It seems to sometimes be an alien concept in the world these days. If you don’t like what someone says or it makes you uncomfortable, don’t say anything if it’s judgemental or hurtful. If they haven’t asked you for advice, don’t give it. Give people the benefit of the doubt and make them feel validated. Kindness goes a long way and much farther than anything else.
If you are in the UK and in crisis right now contact 999 or contact Samaritans on 116 123 to speak to somebody.
If you are suffering or think you are suffering from mental illness, there is help out there for you. Apart from the usual mainstream resources, there are a lot of Muslim-focused mental health services now too.
One such example is the brilliant Muslim Counsellor and Psychotherapist Network. They have a directory of UK-based Muslim mental health practitioners. While providing more diverse services, it also helps showcase and promote Muslims in the field.
There is also the Muslim Community Helpline: a confidential, non-judgemental listening and emotional support service. For more information, please visit their website.
Otherwise, if you are in England and need urgent mental health support, the NHS has a list of local helplines you can access. Have a look at them here. It might be useful to save the number in your phone in case you face an emergency.
Thank you to the inspiring women who have contributed to this blog, please check them out and their posts in this series to keep the conversation going!
My name is Andale Seaworne. I’m a regular 21-year-old, Muslim, Pakistani girl navigating through life, sharing knowledge and opinion related to different topics in life from basic moral values with relevance to Islamic teachings to traveling, books, food, personal experiences, observations, interpretations, and anything that comes to my mind. If you want someone to talk to about cheese, chocolate, McFlurry, movies, books, ideas, or basically life in its entirety without any backlash or judgment, I’m your girl!
As part of this series, Andale wrote about Toxicity and Negativity in the Muslim Community and How It Affects the Youth.
Hello! I’m Yasmin, an Egyptian-American Muslim born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I am currently taking a gap year but plan to attend college in the fall of 2021. I recently started my blog Master Peace to help spread more peace, love, and positivity in the world. Through my blog, I want to help people master both inner peace and world peace by tackling different mental health and social justice issues. I also love travel, fashion, and decor, so I try to share my best tips with you as I go through the journey of life!
Yasmin wrote about the hijab: Is it a choice? Does it prevent the objectification of women?
Hello everyone! My name is Azra Rahman. I am a 30-year-old Indian, who immigrated to the US in February of 2013. Since then, I’ve had two kids, started working towards a career in literature, and for the same reason, launched a blog. Being an aspiring writer requires us to be consistent in our efforts and understanding of what goes on around us. My arrival in the USA introduced me to issues and scenarios which I had witnessed within my own family and cultural setting, yet never spoke about. Issues that seemed ‘woke’ to be spoken of on social platforms, yet silenced during a gathering of family and friends. This formed the basis of a desire to talk, first and foremost, within the family, then expand to friends and further.
Azra wrote about Racism in the Muslim Community for this series.
Syeda Atika Yahya
I am a 30 year old South Asian, Muslim woman and a mother of 4 beautiful souls. A huge nerd who loves books equally like her morning tea. A multi tasker who just juggles her home family and new passion of writing. Growing up in the subcontinent I wouldn’t appreciate many of the societies so-called norms but with my exploring of religion came to a conclusion that Islam is much more than the two Eids and jummah. Islam provides far more rights and liberties to a woman than being projected by the media. In a quest to crush those various perceptions around a woman in the subcontinent with the Quran and Sunnah as guide, so that my girls don’t face what I had to. As they say if you want to see a change in the world begin it with yourself.
Syeda wrote about Double Standards in the Muslim Community.