By Shehr Bano Hassan
CN: Anxiety, depression,
It’s no surprise that mental health issues in South Asia are considered seriously taboo. Growing up in Pakistan, there were no charities dedicated to mental health, no courses or classes you could take. I didn’t even know what most words like ‘anxious’ or ‘panic’ meant, other than when complaining to my friends about school. When talking to my mum about the absence of these facilities and education, she said ‘we don’t need this stuff because we have faith’. Alarmed at this statement, I realised that somewhere along the road, the love of God, and having a mental illness, had become mutually exclusive.
The shame associated with mental health disorders is a predominant feature of the Muslim community. Sufferers often choose not to disclose their stresses for fear of chastisement or ostracisation from their loved ones. Many are told to ‘pray harder’ because their ailments are seen as signs of ungrateful rebellion away from God, the only one seen as capable of “fixing” them. It doesn’t help that there is a preoccupation with spirit possessions and black magic in many South Asian communities. Sham doctors that treat the spiritual poverty are popular, feeding into the culture of blaming the victim amongst Muslim families.
“I could not pray the depression away. It was looking at me, dead in the eye, begging to be seen.”
For years, I ignored my own mental health for fear of looking weak or being alienated by my friends. It is only when I got to Cambridge that I realised the problem could no longer be ignored. I could not pray the depression away. It was looking at me, dead in the eye, begging to be seen. Naturally, my first instinct was to hide it. Ignore it in the hopes that I could fool everyone around me, including myself. The only one who could see me for who and what I really was, was God. The guilt of disappointing my family, who expected me to be the pious stable Cambridge girl, ate at me every day.
I became angry at myself and afraid of who I could become. I began bribing God. I would pray 5 times a day if I could have one full night’s sleep. I would fast for 30 days if my friends would hate me less. I begged and pleaded for a solution. It was only until I went to a real therapist that I realised I was being crushed by the stigma under which I had been raised. I did not love God anymore, I feared Him.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting that faith in God is an inaccurate reaction to stresses in life. Many people I know have found solace in the arms of religion. Not only does religion provide guidance in the absence of community support, it encourages the idea that someone is always listening, something that I found comforting at times too. However, that does not change the fact that stigma around mental health leaves little room for frank discussion in families, let alone the wider Muslim community.
A dismissal of someone’s experiences of mental illness can be particularly debilitating and discourages openness. Attributing serious ailments such as depression or schizophrenia to a lack of belief in God only works to alienate the most vulnerable in our society. Islam encourages a close-knit community where supporting the wellbeing of your fellow kin is paramount. We must begin to use these teachings as a way of encouraging open discussion about mental health issues, so that young people like me never feel embarrassed at asking for support. Love of God and mental health problems should not be taught to be mutually exclusive. God will love you no matter what, right?