Mental health remains a taboo topic within the Muslim community shrouded with layers of misconceptions and misinformation. Often people completely reject mental health as being a problem or they completely reject the role of spirituality in improving mental health.
The following are some misconceptions about mental health, tackled through an Islamic perspective.
- “Depression and anxiety are caused by low Iman.“
Although this statement may have a grain of truth, it is mostly problematic and harmful.
Allah does say in the Quran, “And whoever turns away from My remembrance – indeed, he will have a depressed life.” (Quran 20:124)
On the other hand we have the story of Yaqub (a), who became blind due to his excessive and continuous sorrow due to the loss of Yusuf (a). Although this was likely to be a grief reaction and unlikely to have been depression, this story does tell us that excessive sorrow is not a sign of weak Iman, as Yaqub (a) definitely had more Iman than any human alive today.
Research has shown that being connected to one’s faith can indeed be a protective factor against some mental illnesses such depression and PTSD. At the same time this does not preclude people with strong faith from having mental health conditions.
Evidently then, the causes of mental health issues must be multifactorial. Health is understood to be determined by the complex interplay of bio-psycho-social and spiritual factors. Thus, while on one one hand, from a spiritual perspective, an excess of sin, hardening of the heart and hopelessness in God could be risk factors for poor mental health, at the same time there are so many other biological, psychological and social factors which can put an individual at risk. For instance, low serotonin levels, genetic susceptibility and delivering a child are some known biological factors. Negative thoughts and poor self-esteem are known psychological factors. Similarly, social risk factors include circumstances such as exclusion, isolation, refugee status and poverty.
Clearly then, there are many factors that may contribute to the development of mental health issues, so it is not fair to oversimplify multifactorial medical conditions this way because it dismisses the potential role of mental health professionals in helping.
By blaming someone that their mental illness is a sign of low iman, we can potentially make their condition worse and make them even more hopeless.
The bottom line is we as Muslims should not make inaccurate and judgmental statements painting everyone with the same brush. Instead we should say useful and empathetic statements.
- “Depression is all in your head”
This statement is very demeaning and tries to invalidate the experience of those with mental health issues. Indeed, the commonly accepted pathophysiology of mental illnesses is the derangement of neurotransmitters and a common psychological cause is an excess of negative thoughts both of which all live in one’s head.
So in a way mental health illnesses are in one’s head. But why should that be a disgraceful matter? In mental illnesses the mind is sick which is yet another part of human the human body that can get sick like any other part.
Nevertheless, the effects of depression and mental health illnesses are not just limited to the head. For instance, depression can cause weight gain. Severe anxiety gives you an increased heart rate. Yaqub (a) lost his sight due to excessive sorrow.
So depression is not ALL in your head.
- “True Muslims do not suffer from depression. You are depressed because God does not love you and is punishing you.”
The basis of this argument is that if you trust and hope in Allah, you do not have a reason to be sad.
Following that logic then true Muslims will never get diabetes because if we are a true Muslims, we would follow the hadith of Rasulullah (s) and only eat to one third of our stomach and fast every Monday and Thursday. Even then, one might end up getting type I diabetes. But as we all know these are ideal standards that most of us do not fulfill. But does that make us bad Muslims? It makes us human. In the same vein then, blaming people with mental health conditions is a sign of our own ignorance.
We need to start viewing mental health conditions like any another disease. It is like a trial from Allah through which Allah will inshallah forgive our sins and increase our ranks. Rasulullah (s) said that never a believer is stricken with discomfort, hardship or illness, grief or even with mental worry that his sins are not expiated for him. People who struggle though mental health problems come out stronger and with deep personal insights that other people might not have.
- “You just need to recite more Quran and pray more to fix your mental health problems.”
To tackle this misconception, let us use the same parallel as diabetes. Why don’t we just pray and recite Qur’an instead of taking medications and exercising? Rasullullah (s) taught us to treat our illnesses with medicines. He taught us to take our precautions and then trust in Allah. Then of course we can pray for shifa and use the Qur’an as remedy.
However, it is true that the Qur’an can greatly improve mental health. As Allah says, the Quran is shifa or healing for what is in the hearts. But its effectiveness is most perceptible when read with understanding and contemplation. The Quran does this by imparting hope and transforming our thinking into a more positive pattern.
- “Why can’t I just go to an Imam? Why do I need to go to a health practitioner?”
As previously mentioned mental health conditions have many facets. Imams will probably be very well versed and experienced in dealing with the spiritual aspects. However, the most of Imams are not trained in mental health or mental health first aid. Although many Muslims seek advice or services from Imams, there may be a gap in the expertise of an Imam and a mental health professional.
Nevertheless, there may be some Imams who are so experienced in counselling that they are proficient at using Islam to essentially deliver some sort of informal psychotherapy. This maybe possible through experience. But often this may not hold true.
Allah says in the Quran “……. Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know.” (Quran 16:43)
What we need to develop is a referral system where Imams, doctors and psychologists can work collaboratively and refer to each other for conditions that each of their fields specialises in.