Did you know that it was estimated in 2021 that more than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness?1 More alarmingly, over one in five youth, ages 13-18, are either currently or will potentially suffer from a mental disorder in the future. Psychological illnesses like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder are at an increase and are more common in Islamic communities than Muslims may be prepared to admit. The existing mental health crisis is not widely discussed on the pulpits or circles of Islamic knowledge although it is a growing concern in the U.S., especially for Muslim youth. Reasons for avoiding the topic may be existing attitudes toward mental health as it relates to religious beliefs and the fear of judgment or isolation from fellow Muslims.
The Stigma Is Well Documented
Research has confirmed this trend. In an article in the University of Michigan’s Journal of Muslim Mental Health titled Mental Health Stigma in the Muslim Community, various studies conducted in the decade following the September 11, 2001 attacks in countries like Oman, the United Kingdom, Ethiopia, the United States, and Australia examined perceptions toward mental illness within Muslim populations.2 The studies revealed several key findings. As far as stigma and stereotypes were concerned, both medical students and the general public in Oman held beliefs that mental illness was caused by demonic possession and believed common stereotypes about mentally ill individuals. They also expressed a preference for segregating psychiatric facilities and patients from the community. Ethiopian families reported experiencing stigma, with a significant portion believing that other community members would be unwilling to marry into their family due to mental illness.
With regards to gender disparities, Muslim women were found to avoid seeking mental help due to fear of negative consequences in terms of marital prospects or current marriages. Studies showed higher levels of need for mental health services among Muslim women, while men expressed more negative attitudes toward seeking treatment. In Arab communities in Australia, stigma was identified as a significant barrier to accessing mental health services. Shame and self-stigma were reported among Arab Muslim Americans, contributing to reluctance in utilizing formal mental health services. These studies showed that within Muslim groups there is a significant impact of cultural beliefs and social factors on the treatment of mental health disorders. Therefore, there is a need for targeted interventions to address stigma and improve access to mental health services among the wider Muslim community.
Despite efforts to sweep mental illness under the rug, it is a growing concern with serious consequences. A 2021 survey conducted by JAMA Psychiatry, a monthly peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association, found that American Muslim adults were twice more likely to report a history of suicide attempts compared with respondents from other faith traditions, including atheists and agnostics.3 And there are more stats that are equally alarming:
- In 2021, suicide was among the top nine leading causes of death for people ages 10-64 in the United States.
- Suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 20-34.4
- The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline website reports that more people die by suicide than in car accidents in the U.S.
- Although their hotline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, Muslims are less likely to request assistance or report symptoms.
Being a Muslim living in the West seems to increase the risk of suffering from a mental health problem. The diverse American Muslim community is vast and includes marginalized native and immigrant groups often burdened with generational trauma and displacement. In addition, Muslims in America are particularly at risk of facing discrimination because of their faith, while their access to mental healthcare services may be comparatively lower than that of other demographic groups due to their immigration status and taboos surrounding mental health. All these challenges are mental stressors that can pave the way for disease or exacerbate preexisting conditions.
Nevertheless, Islam offers a unique perspective on mental health that can provide comfort and support to those who are struggling. Both the Quran and the Sunnah emphasize the importance of inner peace, mindfulness, and seeking guidance from Allah in times of distress. Muslims are encouraged to seek medical and spiritual treatment for mental health issues and to approach patients with compassion and understanding. By following the fundamental acts of worship, such as regular prayer, charitable giving, and maintaining strong family and community ties, Muslims can benefit from a holistic approach to mental well-being that addresses both the physical and spiritual aspects of their health. Moreover, by educating themselves and others about mental health, Muslims can help to break down stigma and discrimination within their communities and create a more supportive and inclusive environment for all.
Mental Health in Islam
In Islamic sciences, the heart and mind are both considered essential components of human consciousness and spirituality, and they are believed to be closely interconnected. The qalb, or the heart, is often described as the center of emotions, intuition, and spiritual awareness, while the aql, or the mind, is associated with rational thought, logic, and intellect. The function of the heart goes beyond just being an engine for the body or a vessel for feelings, but also as a source of knowledge and guidance that can lead a person to a deeper understanding of themselves and their Creator. Hence, the verses in the Quran that reference the heart as:
“Those who have believed and whose hearts are assured by the remembrance of Allah. Unquestionably, by the remembrance of Allah hearts are assured."
(Surah Ar-Ra’d, 13:28)
Amazingly, new research at the National Institute of Mental Health (part of the National Institute of Health), has shown that heart health is directly linked to mental disorders. Numerous studies have suggested that the risk for depression is higher in those with cardiovascular disease and vice versa.5 These findings can help reassure Muslims that mental illness is like any other health condition that requires a diagnosis and treatment plan, and for which effective remedies and support are available.
A Bedouin named Usamah ibn Sharik, may Allah be pleased with him, once approached the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and asked:
“‘Oh Messenger of Allah, shall we not seek treatment?’ The Prophet said, ‘Yes, Oh servants of Allah, seek treatment. Verily, Allah did not place a disease but that he also placed its treatment or cure, except for one ailment.’ It was asked, ‘Oh Messenger of Allah, what is it?’ The Prophet responded, ‘Old age.’”
Mental Health in the Quran and Sunnah
Although the importance of mental health is a contemporary issue in the Islamic community, it is a topic widely mentioned in Islamic tradition. Both the Quran and the Sunnah focus on the importance of purifying the heart and mind, to achieve a deeper understanding of the self, the purpose of life, and the human being’s place in this world and the next life. Islam provides human beings with the necessary tools for emotional regulation. When it comes to acts of worship, a mentally ill individual is considered the same as a sick person. In Islamic jurisprudence, there are special rules and accommodations for those individuals who are suffering from mental illness. One such ruling is that a person who is diagnosed as insane is exempt from performing physical acts of worship, including purification, prayer, fasting, and Hajj. Ali ibn Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with him, narrated that the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
“The pen is lifted from three people: a sleeping person until he awakens, a child until he becomes an adult, and an insane person until he regains his sanity.”
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, himself, was accused of being mentally ill by the Quraish elite, in an attempt to discredit his prophethood and his call to monotheism. Allah reassured him in Surah Al-Qalam, beginning with the following verse:
“By the grace of your Lord, you ˹O Prophet˺ are not insane.”
(Surah Al-Qalam, 68:2)
Other prophets dealt with their fair share of traumatic events that would shake their mental well-being, leaving some close to the breaking point. Prophet Yaqub, peace and blessings be upon him, suffered greatly with the disappearance of his son, Yusuf, peace be upon him. So much so, that due to a prolonged period of grief, he lost his eyesight. Allah mentions in the Quran:
“And he (Yaqub) turned away from them (his other sons) and said: ‘Alas, my grief for Yusuf (Joseph)!’ And he lost his sight because of the sorrow that he was suppressing. They said, ‘By Allah! You will not cease to remember Joseph until you lose your health or ˹even˺ your life.’ He replied, ‘I complain of my anguish and sorrow only to Allah, and I know from Allah what you do not know.’”
(Surah Yusuf, 12: 84-86)
Prophet Yaqub turned to Allah for comfort from his depressive state, knowing that there was a greater plan for his son, Yusuf, peace be upon them. However, his strength and reliance on Allah does not invalidate the importance of seeking medical treatment along with spiritual guidance. While worship can provide solace for individuals struggling with mental health issues, seeking medical treatment is equally important in Islam. Mental illness is recognized as a legitimate health condition that requires medical attention, and Muslims are encouraged to seek help from qualified healthcare professionals in addition to turning to Allah for guidance and strength.
In fact, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, provided guidance on how to deal with conditions of the heart and mind. He used to recommend treatments for grief, anxiety, insomnia, and depression.6 One example is the following hadith narrated by Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, in which she reported that the Prophet said:
“Verily, talbina [a porridge made with barley] rests the heart of a sick person and takes away some grief.”
Interestingly, a group of Muslim doctors conducted a study to explore the benefits of talbina for elderly patients experiencing depressive symptoms. The findings showed that consumption of talbina produced significant effects on reducing depression and enhancing mood.7
When Psychology was not Taboo in the Islamic Community
Because of these well-known references in the Quran and the Sunnah, the study of psychology became a topic of interest in Islamic scholarship. Historically, Muslim scholars made important advances in areas such as philosophy, medicine, and mathematics, which laid the foundation for later developments in psychology and related fields. For example, Abu Ali Al-Hussein Ibn Abdullah Ibn Sina, simply known as Ibn Sina or Avicenna, wrote extensively on the nature of the soul and the relationship between mind and body. The Andalusian philosopher, physician and judge Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, explored topics such as perception, memory, and emotion. Other Muslim scholars like Imam Hamid Al-Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun also made important contributions to the study of human behavior and the self.
Some of the very first mental health clinics and hospitals were established by Muslims. The first mental hospital was founded in Baghdad in the 8th century, and others were erected shortly after in Islamic Spain and Egypt.8 Muslim physicians used different techniques to provide relief to both patients and their families – attempting to understand the causes, observing the symptoms, and prescribing appropriate therapy. They employed behavioral therapy, herbal medicine, and spiritual techniques like ruqyah, or the recitation of verses of the Quran or special prayers, to treat mental illness.
Muslims have always been proactive in seeking solutions to problems that afflict humankind. Mental illness is a pervasive issue that affects people of all backgrounds, regardless of religion or social status. As with all challenges in Islam, mental illness should be addressed with the characteristics of mercy, patience, and sound reasoning. While worship and reading the Quran may help alleviate some symptoms, a balanced approach to treatment is necessary to address both the physical and psychological aspects of the condition.
Today, there are many Muslim psychologists and mental health professionals, and younger generations are becoming increasingly empathetic of mental health issues and receptive to therapy. It is important for Muslims to continue to encourage one another to seek professional help and spiritual guidance when needed, as Allah has promised a cure for every ailment and ease after every hardship.
3 Suicide Attempts of Muslims Compared With Other Religious Groups in the US | Health Disparities | JAMA Psychiatry
4 Facts About Suicide | Suicide | CDC
5 NIMH » Heart, Brain, and Body
7 Badrasawi MM, Shahar S, Abd Manaf Z, Haron H. Effect of Talbinah food consumption on depressive symptoms among elderly individuals in long term care facilities, randomized clinical trial. Clin Interv Aging. 2013;8:279-85. doi: 10.2147/CIA.S37586. Epub 2013 Mar 6. PMID: 23493965; PMCID: PMC3593710.
8 How Muslims Developed the First Psychiatric Hospitals in the World | Holistic Healing Series | Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research
Watch this informative series by Dr. Rania Awaad, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, to learn more about how Muslims developed the first psychiatric hospitals in the world:
How Muslims Developed the First Psychiatric Hospitals in the World | Holistic Healing Series | Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research
Read this article debunking mental health myths in the Muslim community from The Family and Youth Institute (The FYI):
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, is worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States:
Call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, dial 988.
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.
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