Raising Awareness about Mental Health | SoundVision.com

Raising Awareness about Mental Health

There are a number of variables which indicate that a person is physically healthy. In addition to the usual physical measures, a person’s mental health is also an important part of their overall health and well-being. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the term mental health is defined as our “emotional, psychological, and social well-being and affects how we think, feel, and act.” And it is important at every stage - from childhood through adolescence and throughout our adult lives.

Understanding Mental Health

Mental health and well-being is not a static condition. It is more likely to be in a state of flux and comes into full display in response to life’s challenges. To gain a deeper understanding, it is important to differentiate between mental health and mental illness. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same. An individual can be in a state of poor mental health - stressed, not coping well with anger, feeling anxious - without being diagnosed with a mental illness. On the flip side, a person with a mental illness - like attention deficit disorder or clinical depression - can also exhibit periods of mental and pscyhological well-being.

Many of us will need an assist when it comes to responding in a positive and healthy way to everyday tests and trials. This can be the case for parents who juggle attending to the needs of their children, spouses, and themselves (or attempt to all at the same time!). The need for assistance and support should be seen simply a need, rather than as a weakness. Think of the way we turn to a medical doctor to diagnose whether a sore throat is either a viral or Streptococcus bacterial infection. In these instances, seeking help or the idea of seeing a medical doctor for expert advice, routine testing, and, when necessary a prescription, is the recommended response and even the norm.

Combating Stigma in the Muslim Community

Needing assistance to face a setback like the loss of a job or difficulty managing daily stress or  the breakup of a marriage, can and should be thought of in the same way. A knowledgable counselor or mental health therapist can help to identify unhealthy responses, suggest measures to cope with the stress of life challenges, and even improve communication skills that would prove useful into the future.

Unfortunately, in the Muslim community there are many misunderstandings and harmful attitudes related to mental health and mental illness. These create a stigma against those who are suffering and also discourage individuals and families from seeking the help they need.

Understanding the Myths

The Family & Youth Institute (FYI), a non-profit organization that provides research and tools  to the Muslim community on youth, marriage, parenting, and mental health and well-being, has  identified three common myths about mental health that are prevalent in the Muslim community.

MYTH #1: Muslims don’t have mental health issues.

Many Muslims believe that mental illness is not a problem in our community and don’t tend to offer either compassion, assistance, or support. But research suggests otherwise:

  • 15-25% of Muslim Americans report anxiety disorders
  • 9-30% report mood disorders
  • Young Muslims struggle with depression at rates that are similar to non-Muslim youth

We can look to the Seerah for guidance in this area. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is reported to have cared for his community and listened to their problems and concerns without judgement. It is reported in many ahaadith that his companions loved him because of the way he cared for them, especially in their most vulnerable states.

It was narrated from Ibn ‘Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, that the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said: 

“The Muslim is the brother of his fellow Muslim; he does not wrong him or let him down. The one who meets the needs of his brother, Allah will meet his needs. Whoever relieves a Muslim of distress, Allah will relieve him of distress on the Day of Resurrection.”

(Bukhaari and Muslim)

MYTH #2: Dealing with a mental illness is a sign of weak faith.

Many people in our communities subscribe to this misunderstanding and stigma. It is especially troubling when those in positions to provide spiritual counseling believe that mental illness is a sign of weak iman or faith. Spiritual support can always help to provide balance in any crisis, but there are many biological reasons for emotional and mental anguish, such as a chemical  imbalance in the brain or a genetic predisposition to mental illness, which have nothing to do with one’s iman. For others, trauma can be the root cause of mental health challenges and/or mental illness.

It is extremely important that we take the best of Islamic guidance and medical science to support the needs of individals and families in our community. The two are NOT mutually exclusive. Harkening back to our rich Islamic history can provide important context. Here are several examples that were highlighted in the FYI resources:

  • There is a well-document example in the Seerah. In what is known as the “Year of Sorrow,” Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, experienced multiple hardships - he was boycotted by his own people, lost his uncle Abu Talib and his wife Khadijah, may Alah be pleased with her, and then was rejected and stoned by the people of Taif. These hardships persisted over a period of time, one of the most difficult times in the Prophet’s life.
  • The Quran also reports that many of the prophets experienced pain and mental anguish, too, including Prophet Yacub, peace be upon him, whose distress over the loss of his young son Yusuf, caused him to go blind with grief. 

“And he (Yaqub) said, ‘Oh, my sorrow over Yusuf,’ and his eyes 

became white from grief because of the sorrow that he suppressed.” 

(Surah Yusuf, 12: 84)

  • In the 9th century, a Muslim scholar named Abu Zayd Al-Balkhi argued that humans are composed of a body and a psyche, and that we can face health and sickness in both of them. His treatise Sustenance of the Soul summized that the same way our bodies experience fever, headaches, and pain, our minds can experience psychological symptoms such as anger, sorrow, fear, and panic. “He recognized that mental illness was an affliction to be treated, not a sin to be met with punishment or shame.”

Surely, none of us would dare suggest that the struggles of these righteous servants of Allah were weak in their faith. And we should not cast that judgement on our Muslim brothers or sisters who are experiencing the challenges of tests and trials related to their mental health either.

MYTH #3: The field of mental health is a modern invention and not a part of our tradition as Muslims.

In fact, Muslim scientists were at the forefront of work in the mental health fields. In addition to Al-Balkhi, others include Al-Razi, Al-Ghazali, Ibn Al-Jawzi and Ibn Sina who all wrote extensively about emotions, the connection between the mind and body, mental disorders, and also psychological treaments. Their work also inspired the first psychiatric hospitals in the world - in the 8th century, The Bimaristan in Baghdad, and later in the 14th century, The Qalawun Hospital in Cairo. Back then, caring for the ill was seen as a societal obligation, and that included those who suffered from mental illness. These hospitals were often supported with Zakat funds through the Islamic state and also developed holistic treatments that included medication, music and physical therapies. May Allah forgive us for how far we are today from offering this same response!

Taking Action for Change

Making a positive change for Muslims who are experiencing mental health challenges in our communities will require action in two specific areas. The first is to remove the stigma and judgement associated with emotional distress, trauma, and mental illness. Each and every one of us can help in this area by treating one another with compassion, care, and respect. And equally important, we must be active in providing resources that can provide assistance and support.

Here are a few steps that can and should be implemented at our local masjids.

1. Establish a directory of local Muslim mental health practitioners and resources.

It is important to identify trained and licensed practitioners who can help individuals and families who are struggling. Sound Vision has also collected resources in the U.S. and Canada. Access these articles for resources:

It is especially important to make this information readily accessible to everyone in the community. Recognizing that stigma can discourage people who need help from reaching out, it is also important to ensure that these resources can be accessed in a private manner.

Resources can be posted on a community bulletin board, housed on the masjid website, made readily available as a handout in the administrative office, with the imam, or in the Islamic school.

2. Organize community education lectures about mental health. 

Practitioners can be brought in to provide information on issues such as domestic violence, substance abuse, depression, stress and anger management, effective parenting practices, and more. These can be Muslims and non-Muslims who have expertise in various areas.

3. Train community leaders to be more knowledgable and sensitive in this area. 

Community leaders - including imams, board members, administrative staff, and educators -  should be required to attend training to become better equipped to attend to mental health challenges. Many local health departments offer this type of training.

One reliable national resource is called Mental Health First Aid USA. This is a public education program that introduces participants to risk factors and warning signs of mental illnesses, builds understanding of their impact, and overviews common supports. Learning options are available in-person and online. To get more details about these programs visit here.

4. Establish local social service programs of our own.  

Large masjids and community centers should provide even more support by hiring social workers and providing direct social services. This can run the gamut from assistance with paper work for locally available resources (Zakat, food stamps, health care, housing assistance, etc.), to individual and family counseling, to support groups.

If we let the common adage “want for one another what we want for ourselves” be our guide, we can live up to both our Islamic guidance and legacy to raise awareness about mental health in the Muslim community. May Allah SWT help all of us to be sensitive and compassionate to those in need, to create an environment of trust and support in our communities, and to have the courage to reach out to get help when we are in need ourselves. Ameen.

Zahirah Lynn Eppard is the managing editor of the Muslim Home parenting newsletter project. As Sound Vision’s Director of Religious Education, she has also spearheaded the production of more than 400 online classes serving children ages 3-12 in the Adam’s World and Colors of Islam Clubs. Eppard has also worked in the field of education as a teacher, homeschooler, and Islamic school principal, as a marital and crisis intervention counselor, and as a lobbyist, and social justice activist. She lives with her husband and six children in Maryland.

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