Dealing with ‘Muslim’ cultural mental health stigma

Every culture has different approaches and attitudes to the topic of mental health. And sadly, mental health stigma exists all around the world – in pretty much every society. Within Islamic cultures there are some attitudes that can make mental health struggles feel much harder. Here are some tips for dealing with some of them.

Talking about how you feel is often the first step to feeling better. But talking about your feelings can be tricky if the person you’re opening up to isn’t used to having conversations about mental health – particularly if they feel some sort of cultural stigma about it.

When you find the courage to have that conversation about what you’re going through, it can feel crushing when the person you confide in dismisses you, minimises what you are feeling, tries to blame or shame you, ignores your pain, or tells you that other people have it worse. 

It’s easy to feel frustrated or betrayed when the people who are supposed to have your back are the ones who help you the least. If you’ve faced mental health stigma within your family, or community, don’t be disheartened. It doesn’t mean the people around you don’t want to help and support you, it probably just means they’ve never been taught how.

How people respond to your pain is a reflection of their own upbringing, values and trauma, it is not a reflection on who you are, or what you are going through.

But people can and do learn. And until then, there are other people out there who will know how to support you – and it’s ok to let them. 

“In case you need to hear it today: Yes, you should talk about it. No, marriage won’t magically make you happy. Yes, you’re already God-fearing enough, thank you very much! No, you’re probably not possessed – but sure, it’s always a good idea to recite surah Baqarah, why not?! Yes, people are judgmental, but let the haters hate (they’re going to talk about you anyway). Allah is with you, no matter what they say. And when Allah has your back, you know, in the end, you’re going to be ok. You got this.” 

“While there are certain people I love, I know they have no clue what they’re talking about and that’s ok. I love them anyway. I’m not an expert in cars, so I wouldn’t expect anyone to ask me to fix their engine. They’re not experts in mental or spiritual health so I don’t expect them to know how to handle my issues. We don’t share enough common experiences. When I let go of my unrealistic expectations, it took a lot of stress out of my relationship with them.”

Here are six commonly heard, unhelpful responses mental illness, and suggested ways you could respond: 

1. “Shhh! Don’t talk about it! We shouldn’t talk about mental health

You could try saying something like this:

“God placed such a beautiful bond between us and instructed us to look after each other. Please help me to feel safe, loved and respected, the same way I love and respect you. Within our private home let’s try to be open and relaxed. No one else is here to judge us, it’s just us. You are safe with me, and I want to feel safe with you.” 

“I want to be able to tell you anything. I want to be able to talk to you about this because I love and respect you, and because I know no one loves me more than you do. When you tell me not to talk about my feelings it makes me feel very lonely and very upset. There is no harm in talking, but there is harm in me feeling this way. I would like you to know that I am very worried about what will happen to me – I can’t ignore these feelings.”

“I know this isn’t an easy conversation for either of us, but please will you promise me that you will try to understand? If you are open to listening, I think it will bring us closer together. I really value your patience and understanding. I am always grateful for your love and support.”

“Your response to my suffering makes me worry that no one has been there to listen to you in the past when you were having a difficult time. Or maybe you always felt like you had to be strong and keep your feelings hidden. I want you to know that I would never judge you for how you feel if you ever wanted to share anything with me. Even if I don’t know how to help you, I will listen to you and support you with all my heart as much as I need.”

Get more advice on opening up about your mental health.

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2. “You’ll be fine if you just pray more. Be more grateful. Be a better Muslim!”

You could try saying something like this:

“When the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) saw a man leaving his camel without tying it up so that it might wander off in the desert he asked him, “why don’t you tie down your camel?” The man answered, “I put my trust in Allah.” The Prophet (pbuh) then replied, “Tie your camel first, and then put your trust in Allah.” Didn’t the Prophet (pbuh) teach us that while we should pray for the best, we should also do whatever we can to make our prayers a reality? Please help me tie my camel.”

“I know you are saying this from a place of love, but when you say things like this it feels like you are dismissing my feelings and it makes me feel invalidated, upset and guilty. Every human being has difficult thoughts and feelings at some point – even people who pray all the time. I am trying my best, but it feels like you are blaming and shaming me.”

“If I broke my leg, you wouldn’t just tell me to pray, you would also make sure I saw a doctor and rested. And you would check up on me and see how you could help me while I wasn’t able to move around much. Just because you can’t see my pain, doesn’t mean it isn’t there, or that there aren’t lots of different things that might help me, as well as prayer.”

Read more about healthy Islamic attitudes to gratitude and mental health.

3. “You’re possessed! Someone has done black magic on you!”

(Please note, if you’re hearing voices, hallucinating or experiencing anything out of the ordinary you may be experiencing psychosis or schizophrenia which can be helped by medical attention. If you’re worried you will harm yourself or others, contact emergency services.) 

You could try saying something like this:

“I am really glad you’re helping me look for a solution. And I am happy to explore these possibilities with you, if you are also happy to explore other possible explanations with me too.”

“I know it upsets you to think of me suffering. But I think you might be suggesting this because it’s easier for you to accept that someone/something else is causing me this problem, rather than accepting that there are difficult things happening in my life right now that might be making me feel this way. I would really appreciate being able to talk to you about some of the things that are going on with me right now, so that we can think together about how I can get through them.”

4. “Someone has put evil eye on you!”

You could try saying something like this:

“It is something I have considered, but I think in this case, the root of this problem might be deeper. I need more support with how I am feeling. Whatever has caused me to feel this way, I am struggling and would really appreciate you being open to exploring different things with me that might help me to feel better.”

“There are some things that are happening/have happened in my life which are seriously affecting me. I don’t want to ignore those things.”

“There is none more Mighty or Powerful than Allah. I am reading my kuls and ayat-ul-kursi every day. I am praying, and I give sadaqa regularly. I have asked Allah to protect me and lift any evil eye from me. So if someone has sent the evil eye towards me, I am sure it has no power over me because Allah is with me, but I am still feeling this way. I don’t think anyone is necessarily to blame for this.”

5. “What will people think of us? We will look like bad parents/family! We must protect our reputations.”

You could try saying something like this:

“I really appreciate how important your reputation is, and I know how judgmental people can be, but the truth is every single family goes through ups and downs – even if they hide it. If people really care about you and respect you, they will be kind and want to help you, rather than judge you.”

“I know you love me more than anyone and that means you will want to put my health and happiness above the opinion of people outside this family. We are all going to have to be brave. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but we can get through this together.”

“What will we say to Allah if we place the judgement of other people above the judgement of Allah? Surely our reputation with Allah is based on whether we care for each other properly. We can get through this together, with Allah’s help. Let’s try to be compassionate and merciful to one another.”

“Remember, there were people who ridiculed and talked badly about our Prophet (pbuh). It never stopped him – even for one second – from doing the right thing, no matter what. If the Prophet (pbuh) was here now, do you think he would care about your reputation or your actions?”   

6. “You will feel better once you are married – we just need to find you a partner!

You could try saying something like this:

“I know you only want the best for me and I really appreciate that and I know you will appreciate openness and honesty from me. Based on how I am feeling right now, I don’t think marriage can be the solution. If I get married, my problems will still be there. I feel like I need to focus on myself right now.” 

“When I choose to get married, I’d like to go into it feeling happy, healthy and mentally strong. Unhappy people are more likely to have unhappy marriages.”

“I don’t know if or when I will get married, but I deserve to feel happy now. I know that it is possible for me to feel great on my own, even before marriage.”

“When you say things like this it makes me feel like I am not important to you and that my life is not valid unless I am married. I have lots of different goals in life other than marriage.”

“The pressure you are putting on me to get married is affecting my mental health. I have thought about what you have told me and I understand your point of view. Please can we not talk about this topic any more until I let you know that I am ready. I promise I will let you know.”

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