Muslims, we desperately need to start talking about mental health

By Faima Bakar, Lifestyle reporter

Aisha’s brother started having schizophrenic episodes when he was six. Her sister was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Confusingly for Aisha, her mum told her to be careful and stay away. She was told the ‘evil eye’ and jinns contributed to the problem. So what exactly are jinns and what do they have to do with mental health disorders? Many Muslims* believe jinns are spirits who may appear in the form of a human or an animal and can take control of a person. Sometimes when a person has a mental health disorder, they’re perceived to be possessed by jinns, rather than having a medical condition for which there are medical treatments. By extension, the help Muslims receive can limited, as family members often end up seeking treatment from religious figures who may perform ‘exorcisms’. This can be hugely damaging to the person suffering. That’s a big part of why we need better education and open conversation about mental health in the Muslim community.

Mental health conditions don’t discriminate – they can affect anyone. But for Muslims, there’s another layer affecting their situation which may hinder the help they receive. Religion – or cultural norms disguised as religion – colour their understanding and attitudes towards such conditions, sometimes in a detrimental light. They might be told they can ‘pray away’ their problems or that it’s occurring as a sign of a weak imaan (faith). Aisha S, a social worker, tells ‘Exorcisms still happen, particularly when someone is suffering from psychosis but it is believed to be a jinn. ‘These exorcisms are quite dehumanising. ‘Imams (Islamic leaders) really need to play more of a role in educating themselves and their communities. Prayer is helpful but so is a holistic approach. ‘You wouldn’t be able to pray away cancer, so why is prayer the only answer to curing mental health problems?’ Sultan says religion definitely has a part to play in how mental illness is addressed. He tells how he suffered from depression and anxiety which led to a suicidal episode. ‘No one knew, as the eldest child of a single parent household, the pressure of being strong for the sake of my family was overwhelming,’ says Sultan. ‘I felt that if I said anything I’d failed them more than I already had. ‘The main barriers the Muslim community faces is a lack of education. ‘Some individuals believe that this is a purely spiritual matter where mental health problems are a consequence of a lack of faith in Allah (God), others believe this is a purely worldly problem and religion should play no role.’ Thankfully, Sultan’s friends came to his aid and he eventually received help from his GP. Now he works for a Muslim charity called Inspirited Minds to educate imams and community leaders across the UK to dispel the idea of a dichotomy between Islam and mental health.

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