“Shhh, we don’t talk about that.”
“People will think I’m crazy.”
I often hear these statements in reference to a number of things within Muslim communities but none so often as seeking mental health services. The notion of telling a stranger your deepest thoughts and feelings when we have a hard enough time telling our loved ones seems strange. Sharing those pieces of yourself is scary. What’s scarier, though, is not getting help and silently living in pain.
In so many ways, Muslim communities are open and sharing. We love to be generous hosts, tell stories, and share happy news of graduations, careers, and babies. Nothing brings a smile and a tear to the eye of an auntie or uncle like news of success; when we talk about our troubles though, especially those deemed psychological, we are more likely to be met with confusion, fear, and silence.
The concept of counseling or psychology is relatively new for many folks around the world. For those who do know of these services, many are misinformed. As someone with a counseling degree, I find myself educating family and friends on what counseling is and is not. Counseling isn’t a brainwashing session. It isn’t an opportunity for me to tell you what to do. It is a place for you to tell me what is on your mind. A place where you are safe and a place without judgment. How often do we get a space like that in this world? Often we are going through life managing expectations others have of us and the circumstances of life as they arise. Where do we go when sometimes those things overwhelm us?
The concept of community is strong in Islam and if we can see mental health practitioners as part of this community, which I would argue they are, then seeking help is part of the Islamic model of life.
I’ve heard some people say that counseling and the need for it are Western problems or needs. To that I say, we live here and we are not exempt from this society and the unique demands it places upon us. Let’s also not forget the unique demands that arise in different cultures or countries and while others may not have had access to this resource, we do. In past societal structures, the family was the source of consultation and healing. Now, we are faced with navigating challenges that our families may not understand. For those of us who grew up with parents who had an upbringing different than ours, the desire to understand and help may be there but the means may not. In those cases, it can be appropriate to reach out to someone who is trained to help.
According to Mental Health America’s 2015 report on the State of Mental Health in America, 42.5 million adults in the United States suffer from any mental illness, which amounts to approximately 18% of the population. This statistic is sobering and, notably, everyone is included, which means American Muslims as well. While specific numbers on mental health in American Muslims are challenging to find, research on American Muslims has shown that negative outcomes such as anxiety and depression are occurring. This may be because of the current social atmosphere surrounding being Muslim, it may be the confusion of dealing with multiple identities (American, Muslim, Indian, Turkish, etc.), or it may be the result of the natural flow of life (stress of raising children, paying off debt, marital concerns). In any case, there is no shame in feeling the way we feel and seeking out help when it becomes overwhelming.
The concept of community is strong in Islam and if we can see mental health practitioners as part of this community, which I would argue they are, then seeking help is part of the Islamic model of life. A danger in not seeking help is being unhappy; there does lie a greater danger, however, and that is hurting ourselves or those around us. We may not like to discuss it or think about it but what may start out as a normal bout of anxiety left unaddressed runs the risk of turning into something far greater. It can be hard asking for help but Islam teaches us to be humble and not proud and sometimes our pride prevents us from seeking help. Don’t let that be your story. All too often, we see secrets build up into greater tragedy and we wonder why no one helped. Seek help, offer help. You deserve to be happy. There is no shame and the stigma needs to end with us.