by Aarifah Loonat
[TRIGGER WARNING: Self Harm]
As a brown girl who was brought up in Islam, mental health was never a topic of discussion in my family, especially among the older generations.
There’s a definite stigma around mental illness in the Muslim community. It’s almost as if every Muslim believes that mental illness is a sign that you’re not a good Muslim. Or, Shaytan (Satan) is controlling you.
My Muslim friends and I joke about how, in brown culture, any sign of non-conformity is an opportunity to have the devil beat out of you. We joke about it because it’s the life we know but the lack of knowledge regarding mental health leaves us scarred.
I never learned how to talk about my emotions or the things that upset me. I felt uncomfortable opening up to people. I would bottle everything up and hold it all in.
All the anger, all the pain, all the fear. The good things; I never spoke of them.
I wasn’t taught what to do when you’re in a really terrible mental space or how to prevent my mind from erupting into chaos. I never turned to my parents when I was being bullied for my weight in primary school. I never turned to my parents at thirteen, when I started using a blade to cope with my emotional pain. And, even after they first noticed the pale white scars on my inner forearm, neither parent sat me down to talk to or understand me.
My mom chose to send me to a psychologist, my father chose to forget.
The psychologist I went to is a Muslim woman. She would tell me that there are people in the world with bigger problems than mine. She would threaten to send me to hospitals, saying it would ruin my reputation because it would be on my record all my life.
She made me feel bad for not being happy, which set me on a downward spiral of reckless behaviour and self-harm. Even today, when I speak to my mother about taking medication for my mental issues, she brushes it off because everything seems fine, and I don’t need help.
I should just pray for everything to get better. Although praying can be of help, it can’t be the main fix for mental illness.
I think Islam is a beautiful religion, and it’s the followers that distort and alter it to their taste. In fact, mental health is something important in Islam.
Islam uses spirituality to help its followers live a balanced and meaningful quality of life. The Qur’an acts as a guide for people in emotional distress, teaching relaxation exercises and teaching the reader to be aware of their mind-state.
A hadith, which is a record of traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.), says, “There is no disease that Allah has created, except that He also created its treatment”, mental illness included.
The first psychiatric hospitals were founded in Arab countries, dating back to 705 A.D. Western medicine followed with their first psychiatric asylum being built in the thirteenth century in London.
Frankie Samah, a post-graduate student of the University of Bristol, describes the Oriental evolution of psychology perfectly: “Over a thousand years before Western psychology was constructed, the psychological language of the Qur’an described destructive emotions and harmful conditioning as nafs al-ammara or the commanding self. The Qur’an gives guidance to help overcome the inner turmoil that we can experience, caused by the nafs al-ammara and bring the peaceful self or nafs al-mutmainna into being.”
I’m not exactly sure when the culture of stigma around mental health arose in brown communities, with specific emphasis on Muslims.
I just know that we need to be more aware of mental health issues and how they should be addressed.
Humans have evolved from cave-dwellers to complex, innovative problem-solvers. We went from the discovery of fire to the creation of virtual reality and the Internet.
I refuse to believe we have come all this way and still do not recognise the importance of mental health.
There is no health without mental health, and so we should prioritise a happy mind.