Photo credit: Rick Bern
When I was 23 years old, I dropped out of law school. With no sense of what to do and nowhere else to go, I returned home. Like many suburban South Asians, my professional imagination was not particularly vast; I knew I didn’t want to do medicine or engineering, but the only other career that seemed possible, acceptable, and sufficiently lucrative had been law.
I began to feel the walls of the world close in around me. I became convinced that I would die jobless, unloved, and unaccomplished. I began to grow ever more listless, frustrated, and anxious, but I had no language through which to understand what was happening to me. One day, driving back from a weekend I spent visiting friends in New York City, I spied a series of concrete pillars holding up a highway overpass.
I envisaged weaponizing my parents’ BMW X5 and killing myself. Worse, the thought of so doing filled me with a perverse relief. Even me, emotionally stunted as I was, knew that this was not normal. I went to visit a family friend, a psychologist-psychiatrist, who told me, after only two hours of conversation, that I was “bipolar II,” with signs of major depression.
I practically refused to believe it. It took me years to believe that there is such a thing as mental illness, that it should be taken seriously, and, worst of all, that it would circumscribe and define the rest of my life.
In that, I don’t think I’m all that unusual. Many Muslims I know are hesitant to talk about mental illness; many Muslim communities generally lack resources to talk intelligently, compassionately, and creatively about mental illness. The stigma can be so severe that people would rather ruin their lives than risk being outed. I know, because I was one such person.
I am so overwhelmed by how much of my life was wasted running away from a diagnosis, rather than getting the help I needed, that I made a decision to write about my journey. That’s my memoir, How to Be a Muslim
. I wish I could tell you it’s an easy read, with a cathartic conclusion; having realized the problem, the hero does what is necessary, vanquishes the beast, and saves the universe. If only.
But the whole point of writing my book was to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, and debunk some of the most common myths and misperceptions concerning Muslims and mental illness. Such as, for example, the pernicious belief that Muslims are immune to mental illness.
Myth #1: Mental Illness Is for Other People
Ever notice how, when a disturbed young Muslim commits an act of violence, it’s immediately blamed on his religion — but when a disturbed white and non-Muslim man commits an act of violence, it’s because he’s a “loner,” “disturbed,” or “troubled” — even when there are clear indications he is motivated by and sees himself as part of a transnational network of extremists? The way the media portrays Muslims, you’d think we are immune to any kind of mental trauma, or that our actions can only ever be motivated by religion. But Muslims are human beings (surprise!). Our minds work like everybody else’s. We are susceptible to the same weaknesses, and liable to go through the same pains and traumas.
Myth #2: Mental Illness Is for Other People
Many Muslims won’t talk about mental illness, either. Not once. Not ever. It’s a matter of shame, embarrassment, or simply evidence of weak or incomplete faith. I’m not saying this is true across the board, but it is true in too many places and too many religious spaces. Worse, those who are in a position to help, such as community leaders, imams, or other religious leaders, aren’t trained in what it takes to identify mental illness, or to productively and proactively address it.
Omer Bajwa, Director of Muslim Life at Yale University, agrees. “I don’t believe our Muslim communities have the resources available to handle mental illness in our congregations.” Given the dearth of qualified experts, there are a few tips one might consider. Be kind and compassionate. Resist the urge to moralize. Many Muslims think an appropriately heartfelt and sincere response to, “I’m really depressed,” or, worse, “I’m thinking of killing myself,” is “maybe you need to pray more.”
Which just sounds like you’re saying: "Guess what, you’re a bad Muslim, and that’s why all this is happening." Except, there’s plenty of people who are bad Muslims, and yet they don’t appear to be depressed, or suicidal, and there are plenty of people who are good Muslims, and yet they struggle with deep feelings of depression, the tumult of bipolarity, or with other psychological and psychiatric ailments.
Bajwa would like to see “mosques and community centers” with the “literature and resources available for people” to better understand mental illness, so that they can “create non-judgmental and non-stigmatizing spaces for people.” But Omar Tawil, Associate Chaplain at Trinity College, is more sanguine. “Although it's quite evident that most Muslim communities do not have available resources for mental illnesses,” Tawil says, “there is a shift beginning to take place where communities are bringing in mental health professionals and even requiring their Imams, youth directors and even board members to have mental health sensitivity training.”
Myth #3: It's Not Your Problem
Now, don’t get me wrong.
Whether you’re prone to mental illness is a matter of family history, circumstances, genetics, maybe even diet and context. But how you deal with it is entirely up to you. Whether you choose to seek treatment, maintain treatment, and fight back — well, that’s up to you. It could be your jihad, your spiritual, existential struggle for good to come out on top, and over evil.
I know it isn’t easy.
There are times when you just want to off yourself and, worse yet, this seems like a good thing to do. This is where it’s important to have relationships beyond yourself, close friends, family — and especially a spiritual connection. We may not see it right now. We may go through days, weeks, months, even years of hardship and pain, but those have an ultimate purpose and value we can’t always see. It’s easy to believe that where we are now is where we’ll always be; worse, it’s easy to believe that there’s no point to seeking help, because what help can there possibly be? It’s easy to believe there’s no value in how we see the world, but I have come to believe that mental illness, while dangerous and harmful, also enables a kind of compassion and empathy that might otherwise go missing from the world.
Myth #4: You’re Unloved
Sometimes that isn’t the Muslim community, sadly. Bajwa describes how, while congregations “rally around” people “diagnosed with a serious illness” like cancer, patients “suffering with mental illness [are] often sadly neglected.”
Worse still, your own mind might encourage you to think poorly of yourself. When you’re in the middle of it, it may not seem much consolation to tell you this. But there is not a single thing in our unimaginably vast universe that was not intentional, you included. You matter, on a world-historical scale. So turn to friends and family. Turn to licensed professionals. Turn to prayer, meditation, medication — just make sure you’re doing something. Not because you’re a bad person.
But because you’re a good person, and good people deserve the help that’s out there. When you’re at your most vulnerable, you may not believe you deserve help, but that’s a lie. You were meant to be here, and stay here, and live here. In the world.
Make sure you find someone to help you who can also help you see that.
Myth #5: There’s No One Who Can Help You
It’s often hard to communicate the particular stigma and sensitivities around mental illness to professionals who don’t have your background, culture, religion, or context in mind; fortunately, that trend is changing. I’ve often found it of benefit to speak with Muslim psychiatrists and psychologists because they get where I’m coming from, and we spend more time working on me, the patient, than we do on discussing and debating cultural norms. Even if we don’t like those norms, they exist, and have to be acknowledged.
Fortunately, too, many universities have Muslim chaplains, specially trained women and men who know how to handle depression, anxiety, loneliness — even despair and suicidal ideation. (That’s one of the functions the religious leaders interviewed for this article perform.) Even if the available chaplains are not Muslim, they’re still trained to help — and want to help. There are support groups, suicide hotlines, even text message services you can rely on that can help you when things seem particularly bleak. There is absolutely no shame in seeking these out; one of the reasons I wrote my memoir, and spoke so candidly, is because I believed a Muslim such as myself, with a public profile, would do well to be honest about his struggles.
In the hope that it would make it easier for others to get help.
÷ ÷ ÷
builds Muslim-Jewish engagement at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He’s written for the Washington Post
, the Guardian
, Foreign Policy
, and CNN
. How to Be a Muslim
is his first book.