Note: I’m not a qualified counselor or psychotherapist, but given that part of understanding mental health is experiential – and I’ve read quite a bit on it to understand it for myself – I don’t mind making more critical comments on this topic. To be on the safe side I did get a psychiatrist who is also a scholar to check this and make sure I was not overstepping my authority.
This might be a triggering post for some. For most I hope it isn’t. My objective here isn’t to put you down or make you feel worse, but it’s to actually help you get better and improve, and live life to the fullest despite your mental health challenges.
As someone who has experienced mental illness for a few years now and had to read a lot of books and research articles and speak to a lot of experts to understand what I was experiencing, I have really come to lament some social aspects of mental illness: firstly, the abundant self-diagnosis of mental illness, and people using their mental health problems as a crutch. I also dislike sweeping statements of how Islamic spirituality is not helpful when it comes to mental health, and that can be as damaging as negating the importance and existence of mental illness in the first place.
Let me explain each of these points.
1) There are too many people self-diagnosing themselves or equating regular emotional cycles with real mental illness.
Feeling ‘anxious’ or ‘depressed’ is normal. We go through different emotions in life based on our experiences and unique life situations. There will be times where we feel sad about our past, fearful of our future, or doubtful about our present, but these feelings often wear off after a few days or weeks or as circumstances change.
But *feeling* anxious or depressed is NOT the same thing as having an actual disorder.
Anxiety, depression and other ‘minor’ mental illnesses do have a physiological/biological component to them. They are not just temporary emotions, the nervous system is either stuck in a hormone feedback loop or something is not working correctly with your neurotransmitters.
There is also a hereditary element, and you will notice that families that have suffered serious mental trauma at some time in their past few generations have greater chances of developing these disorders. Parents who have it can often pass it onto their children. Whether this is genetic or inherited behaviorally is an issue to be resolved.
It doesn’t help people who have real mental illness when you equate emotions to disorders, and just makes them feel even worse and more isolated. It’s hard enough for people suffering from anxiety disorder or depressive disorder to express how they are feeling and manage daily living, and it becomes even more difficult when their suffering is being belittled. It’s like saying heart disease is the same thing as your heart beating too fast after a run. No it’s not. Stop it.
2) Don’t use your mental health issues as a crutch. Okay you’re depressed or anxious, maybe you even have a disorder, but that should not stop you from living life normally, complete with it’s obligations, responsibilities, ambitions etc.
I still do this to myself sometimes and although yes people with mental illness need emotional and material support from those close to them, we shouldn’t take advantage of that either or slack off on our duties to Allah, ourselves or others. In fact anxiety and depressive disorders do NOT constitute a valid excuse of junun – i.e. they do not remove you from taklif in fiqh. You still have to pray, fast and avoid sins like everyone else.
Instead, get treatment. Find a good psychotherapist or psychiatrist and do something about it. Modify your problematic behaviors and destructive emotional habits with a psychotherapist, take any required medication. Please DO NOT be afraid of medication, especially if your disorder has reached the levels where it impairing your quality of life. Take the necessary steps required. You owe it to yourself, Allah, and your family to try your best: don’t let yourself, your life and goals, your family and your social circle fall apart.
Try some alternative, natural therapies too: mindfulness/meditation, exercise, good nutrition etc. Just don’t sit there and get worse.
For insomnia as an example. right off the shelf you can get Magnesium (make sure it’s a compound that doesn’t give you diarrhea, I used ZMX) and Melatonin. They work quite well until you can see a doctor.
3) Spirituality DOES help, especially to develop, maintain and regulate healthy emotional habits, and not having spirituality in your life often makes things worse. If you don’t have God to turn to, ask, confide in, hope in, love or experience spiritual ecstasy with, or if you are weighed down or stressed out by your lack of following through on Allah’s obligations on you, its not healthy for your emotional state.
Yes being more spiritually attuned will not cure a disorder, but it definitely helps with anxious or depressive emotions.
If you don’t have a disorder and are just feeling down, maybe you are going through a phase where your tawakkul or intentions could use a serious brush up. Remember that spirituality in Islam isn’t just praying and fasting – it’s managing your heart and your emotional connection to the Creator and His Messenger.
And if you don’t and let yourself spiral – you could indeed be headed for a disorder. It is no secret that being spiritual and engaging in spirituality greatly helps our emotional state.
In my own experience with mental illness, it was actually why I started to explore Tasawwuf very seriously, and began to realize it’s severely-understudied yet very important effect on human psychology.
Please note that mental illness can also dampen the spiritual ‘pleasure’ attained from spirituality – although that applies across the board for any sense of pleasure with diseases like depression.
4) Although this gets mentioned quite a lot, unfortunately it still needs to be repeated.
Muslim parents – especially immigrants – still demonstrate a very poor understanding of the importance of mental health. There is still too much ignorance and stigma on this topic.
A lot of teenagers and adults suffer because their parents don’t understand how important this is. And many of these parents have classic symptoms of mental illness in the first place, especially those whose parents or their own selves have experienced traumatic or overly stressful events in their lives.
Many Muslims are offended when it is suggested that they or their family might be suffering from mental illness. This is often the first sign that you’re thinking is wrong. Would you be offended if the doctor told you that you had a flu, pneumonia or migraines? No. You wouldn’t, you’d head down to the pharmacy and pop a pill, and commit to the follow-up appointment. The same applies here.
With religious families, the attention unfortunately turns too quickly to the evil eye, black magic or jinn. However these possibilities should only be explored after ensuring that you are not suffering from mental illness, or both avenues should be explored with equal effort.
As some scholars who do ruqyah have mentioned to me, more than 95% of cases they are invited to see have nothing to do with ayn, jinn or sihr. Rather the person needs to see a mental health specialist.
Some career-oriented or overzealous raqis over-exaggerate the issue, claiming every mental health issue they see is due to ayn or sihr. This is a serious problem and needs to be addressed.
If you do seek spiritual guidance in cases of mental illness, make sure the person is qualified and understands mental illness or works together with mental health experts. This is key. An Imam or Shaykh can sometimes make mental illness worse with their ignorance.
Please note: with regards to ruqyah, it is helpful regardless of whether a disease is spiritual, mental or physical, so please use it even in cases of mental illness.