During Ramadan, I happened to come across the comment above while reading an article on the Muslim Girl website. The statement reveals a lot about attitudes towards mental health within the Muslim community hence why I decided to write a post addressing it.
Mental health illnesses are far too easily ascribed to weak iman (faith) within the Muslim community. Not only is this a reductionist argument it is also a dangerous approach to take. In many cases, this outlook promotes a surface only understanding of mental illness. Rather than deeply examining the underlying causes behind a mental illness such as depression, people immediately stop at the ‘weak iman’ assessment which is like slapping a bandage on a wound that has not been treated. What this does is that it prevents a holistic approach to the treatment of mental illness which ranges from drugs to therapy, counselling and spiritual solutions.
Without a doubt, faith and spirituality can be influential in helping with mental health illnesses. And it has to be stated that some mental illnesses can be exacerbated by a loss of connection with God, hence treatment in such cases would require establishing that connection again. But in practicality, the effect of the ‘weak iman’ label in most instances is that it aids ignorance surrounding the wide bracket of mental health issues that are not necessarily linked with faith.
Instead, the label often places blame squarely on the individual further stigmatising them for having a mental illness.
For example, people develop depression for different reasons. Someone whose depression is caused by domestic violence or abuse requires therapy or counselling to counteract the cognitive and behavioural causes of the depression as well as the root cause. The treatment can be aided and supported with prayer but telling people they have weak iman is not a quick fix for mental illnesses.
More recently, I was having a discussion with a family member who works in a hospital where she encountered an alcoholic who became addicted to alcohol after the loss of a loved one. This family member proceeded to tell me that they felt no sympathy for the man because ‘death is not an excuse to be an alcoholic and that he was simply weak.’ And therein lies another problem. A lot of the time rather than seeking to understand people, their stories, situations and experiences we superimpose our notions of strength and weakness on them. Just because you’re able to overcome certain experiences doesn’t necessarily mean someone else is equipped to do the same. While I’m not trying to justify the actions of the man I did feel sympathetic towards his plight, because I think it’s important for us to understand that different people have different pain thresholds. While losing a job or losing a loved one might not lead someone else to lose control of their life, these are the kinds of monumental life changes that some people simply do not have the coping mechanisms for.
Furthermore, we take for granted the support system that religion, faith or spirituality gives us.
Most faiths give their believers an understanding of death, pain and suffering as part and parcel of the experiences of this world. For example, in Islam death is presented as a reality that no one can avoid. Thus from the onset, we are prepared with the coping mechanisms through revelation to deal with it and to rationalise all of our experiences. We also have the option of turning towards God for support to deal with suffering, pain and grief. But not everyone has that. As in the case of the man with the alcohol addiction, his abuse and addiction to alcohol is simply a surface symptom of a far deeper issue that needs to be dealt with. In fact, it’s possible for Muslims to slip into depression after the loss of a loved one and that in no way is indicative of weak iman.
I firmly believe that one of the major things that’s lacking in the discourse surrounding mental health within our communities is empathy. The ability to truly understand and share the feelings of another person rather than impose our own outlook on them. Not only are we taught culturally to deal with things silently, we denounce the expression of emotions as a weakness. That and the lack of empathy contributes to silence and the erasure of mental illnesses within our communities. We lack safe spaces where people can openly and freely talk about their struggles and their mental health. Instead, we encourage people to bottle up their feelings and emotions as if that’s a tangible solution. Admittance to an inability to cope is automatically linked to weakness. And no one wants to be weak. So we stay strong while we silently suffer.
We can do better and we owe it to our family, friends and the people in our community to do better!