*Before beginning I wanted to clarify I am by no means any kind of healthcare professional, everything I mention that is medically based I have only learned through personal research.*
Mental health is something that many struggle with, people of all different ages, religions, and cultures. What are some mental health issues that people experience? The most common are anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. These illnesses can be extremely subtle and easier for people who stigmatize mental illness to neglect or avoid seeking help. Within every ethnicity, there is a level of stigmatization, where some have a higher level of stigmatization than others. From a religious point of view, our mental health should be just as important as our physical health, which is why I have always found mental health being considered taboo across many Muslim communities to be ironic. Before diving further into the stigmatization, I wanted to explain what these illnesses are and how they may affect an individual.
Anxiety is a body's natural response to stress, usually causing fear or apprehension about the future. Ordinary anxiety is part of being human. It is usually a feeling that comes and goes; such as feeling anxious when starting a new job, taking a test, or moving to a new place. With an anxiety disorder, the feeling of fear is constantly with an individual, which can be incredibly intense at points and can be debilitating; to a point that it can cause someone to stop doing things that they enjoy. Anxiety disorder can also cause people to avoid situations that may trigger or worsen their symptoms; which can therefore affect their school work, job performance, and even personal relationships. There are different types of anxiety disorders, some being; panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), separation anxiety disorder, illness anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Depression is an illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act. It can cause someone to feel different feelings of sadness or a loss of enjoyment in activities. Depression can also lead to a multitude of physical and emotional problems that can result in a decreased ability to function at work and/or at home. Some of the symptoms of depression, which can vary from mild to severe, are changes in appetite, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, loss of energy or increased fatigue, increased in purposeless physical activities, feeling worthless or guilty, or even thoughts of death or suicide.
Eating disorders are behavioral conditions that are characterized by both severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors as well as associated distressing thoughts and emotions. Different types of eating disorders that exist are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, as well as a few others. These conditions can become very serious when they affect physical, psychological, and social functions. The association with eating disorders is with preoccupations with food, weight, or shape, or with anxiety about eating or the consequences of eating certain foods. Someone with an eating disorder may have restrictive eating or avoid certain food, binge eats, purge by vomiting or laxative misuse, or even compulsively exercise.
A majority of these illnesses along with others can go unnoticed for long periods of time due to the connotations of someone just being lazy, not trying hard enough, or even that they are doing it for attention.
We are told in the Quran that feeling stressed, anxious, and/or worried is completely normal and a natural part of being human. In fact, many different stories throughout the Quran, showcase that our Prophet (SAW) and others such as Mariam (RA) went through times of overwhelming stress, worrying, and even sadness. A common misconception across many Muslim communities is that mental illness is either due to someone being possessed or due to someone's faith being low. The most common things people are told are “you just need to pray and you’ll be fine” or “read more Quran you’ll feel better” or “it’s because your Imaan is low''. These comments can be detrimental in many ways, from a spiritual perspective as well as a health perspective. Spiritually this can cause someone to feel as though the amount of worship they are doing is not enough, even if they may be doing the best they can. This can also lead them to feel as though they shouldn't be doing anything at all or that Allah (SWT) is upset with them and that is why they are going through whatever they are going through. No one can tell someone that they are not doing enough religiously, nor can they decide that their level of practice is the cause of why they are experiencing any sort of illness; that is a decision only Allah (SWT) can make. From a health perspective, these comments only make the person experiencing them feel even worse. On most occasions, people dealing with mental illness already think less of themselves and blame themselves for many things. These comments may cause an individual to feel as if it is their own fault that they are feeling the way they do and that the fact that they are not getting better is also their own fault. The perpetual stigma around having a mental illness being disgraceful or something to be embarrassed about causes one to feel as though they are a failure. It is also what causes most people to suffer silently as well as causes a barrier for them when it comes to seeking help.
Mental illness is as much of a test by Allah as is a physical illness, or losing a loved one. In neither of those circumstances would it make sense to tell someone the only things they need to do is pray and they will heal. Imagine telling someone with a broken leg, that it’s because their Imaan is low that they broke their leg and if they just pray they will be healed; or telling someone who lost a loved one that it's because they don't read enough Quran and if they just started reading more they will stop feeling sad. Similarly, saying these things to someone suffering from a mental illness is unreasonable. Allah (SWT) does not discriminate when testing people in this Dunya. Muslim and non-muslim alike are tested with the same hardships; being Muslim does not alleviate one or their loved ones from being tested with mental illness.
The taboo and stigmatization around mental health in Muslim communities is a conversation that needs to be discussed more than it ever has before. Especially, during the month of Ramadan, it is important to be aware and thoughtful. Ramadan can be a triggering time for those who suffer from different mental illnesses due to not eating all day, having an out of whack sleeping schedule, and being under the pressure to make the most of the month, also due to the judgment they may receive if they do not fast. For anyone who is struggling with mental illness and maybe struggling this month, it is important to remember a few things, your mental health is in no way a reflection of your faith, and choosing not to fast due to your mental illness is just as valid as if you had a physical illness. There are a multitude of ways to increase your Imaan during the month of Ramadan, whether it be through reading Quran, giving charity, performing extra prayer, or engaging in Dhikr; the most important part is taking care of your health and doing the best you can. Intention, as we know, is one of the biggest parts of Islam, and Allah (SWT) knows your heart and your intentions therefore as long as you are putting in the effort to the best of your ability that is all that matters.
You are not a failure nor are you weaker than anyone else because you may struggle with your demons in different ways than others struggle with there's. You are important, you are loved, and you are strong. You are not alone in this world and help is always available. With the increase in technology, there have become more apps that can help with those who are struggling, especially for those who may not come from culturally understanding and accepting homes.