What will people say? Students start dialogue on mental health in the Muslim community

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Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide

The mental health crisis is growing at an alarming rate in Ontario. Despite the widespread prevalence of mental illnesses, especially amongst young adults, communities have been struggling to start dialogue and take action.

Mental health encompasses emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Everyone has mental health, but often times how we experience it and cope with our problems, is largely shaped by our cultural and religious context.

In the Muslim community, culture and religious expectations tend be heavily intertwined. Unfortunately, some of these expectations contribute to the stigma against addressing mental health and illness.

The McMaster Muslims for Peace and Justice, a social justice group inspired by the values of Islam, organized an event to create a safe space for students to listen to mental health advocates in the Muslim community, start discourse, and spark the end of stigmatization.

“A lot of [Muslim] organizations focus on external problems, such as Islamophobia or inclusiveness at work… but I feel like as a Muslim community, we don’t like to talk about ourselves. There’s [little] discussion about mental health,” explained Co-President of MMPJ Sahar Syed.

“I feel like as a Muslim community, we don’t like to talk about ourselves. There’s [little] discussion about mental health,” 

 

Sahar Syed
McMaster Muslims for Peace and Justice Co-President 

Aye: to feel shamefulness and disgrace

The Arabic word may be short, but it carries enough weight to prevent individuals who are struggling with their mental health or suffering from mental illness from seeking guidance and help from their family, friends and community.

“I come from a South Asian background and I know a lot of people in my family who have gone through these issues,” explained Syed. “It tends to be hushed and no one wants to talk about it. When they want to seek help, it’s seen as something that is shameful.”

Sometimes families are incredibly supportive with helping their loved ones to cope with mental health problems, but then there’s also pressure to keep the dialogue within the family.

“There is a cultural belief that what happens within the family, stays within the family, what happens within you, stays within you. People have a hard time opening up… I think that it’s extremely dangerous to keep these things to yourself and not seek help,” explained co-president of MMPJ Youssef El-Feki.

These cultural expectations, alongside feelings of fear of failure, hindering ambition and looking weak, often lead to boxing Muslims into a lonely environment where their mental health needs are not supported.

Deaf al’iman: to have weak faith 

There’s a misconception amongst Muslims that all mental health problems and illnesses are attributed to a lack of belief and patience with Allah.

When Mohamed Mohamed, a Mohawk college graduate, sought help from a religious clergy, he was told that he had weak faith.

“That scares an individual, especially when you are on the edge, when the only thing you are really holding on to is your religion and your faith… I think the last thing that I wanted to hear was that ‘you really have weak faith,” explained Mohamed.

“All of the sudden the only thing that is holding you together is gone… I think what I was waiting to hear was ‘you are really strong’. If you hold on to God, that can help you.”

Mohamed is now a motivational speaker focusing on overcoming the stigma and supporting others with mental health problems. He has advocated for the Canadian Mental Health Association as part of the Talking About Mental Illness speaker lineup and is now working on writing a book on his experiences.

At six years old, Mohamed immigrated to Canada to be raised by his single father. He had difficulty coping with being separated from his mother and the cultural and societal pressure to be a successful individual. He wasn’t aware of it at the time, but depression and anxiety started to take hold of his life.

“[When I was] 18 years old, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to be doing anything with my life… [i]n 2010, I lost someone very dear to me to suicide, which opened up these floodgates of emotions and feelings and issues that I never knew existed,” explained Mohamed.

“[It] made me discover and understand the essence of mental health and depression and what I’m going through.”

Despite the stigma, Mohamed learned to cope with his depression and anxiety with the support of his father and by researching mental health. He didn’t have many places to turn to for support and realized that others in his community may feel the same way.

“[It] made me discover and understand the essence of mental health and depression and what I’m going through.”

 

Mohamed Mohamed
Motivational speaker

Mohamed started sharing his experiences of struggles and adversity on a platform he coined the MoeMoe3xperience in hopes of inspiring other people to start dialogue and find support.

Two years later, Mohamed found himself talking someone out of jumping off the bridge on Upper Wellington Street.

This experience sparked an epiphany. He wanted to start a movement.

Even though speaking about his experiences often left him feeling exposed and vulnerable, Mohamed was determined to make a change. He decided to support and empower youth and show them that it’s possible to cope with mental health issues.

Through his platform, Mohamed was able to start a conversation with his family and community. He’s held mental health talks at mosques and started dialogues at high schools.

There’s still much more work to be done in the Muslim community. Mohamed believes that the religious community can play an important role in overcoming the stigma by taking mental health more seriously and integrating solutions into religious practice.

Obligation to educate

MMPJ’s panel also included Huma Saeedi from the confidential phone counselling service Naseeha, and Yusuf Faqiri, the brother of Soleiman Faqiri, a man diagnosed schizophrenic whose death in an Ontario correctional facility sparked the Justice for Soli movement.

Like Mohamed, these advocates for mental health, organizations and social justice activists have taken it upon themselves to educate the Muslim community on mental health and create opportunities for support and healing.

“Overcoming stigma is not going to be a short term process… It goes back to the concept that you can’t change the condition of the people, if you won’t change yourself,” explained Syed.

“Every single one of us needs to [overcome stigma], seek help when we need it, and learn to recognize the signs. That way we can implement a long term solution to the current crisis in our community.”

Only if the Muslim community continues to challenge the stigma will it be able to fully foster positive mental health. It’s time that Islamic and cultural values are used to shape a supportive environment.

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Author: Razan Samara

Arts and Culture Reporter Razan Samara is a second year Life Science student writer and community advocate. When she isn't taking a nap on a go bus, she spends her evenings watching crappy sci-fi series and mourning their subsequent cancelation.