The Islamic world, like the rest of the world, is not equipped to provide support for those suffering from depression. It seems that any empathy for those who aren’t just ‘dealing with it’ is non-existent, and the pressure to keep it together is unparalleled.
As someone who has been there and done that, I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time. Many thoughts floated through my mind. What will people think of me? How will those who had no idea react? Will my culture or religion or parents be blamed? Are people going to fear a relapse? Will I be looked at with pity? Will my achievements now sit in the foreground of a dark backdrop?
Those fears and many others held me back. But it is these fears that persuade me to write now, so that others who are in the same situation no longer feel alone.
I’ll start with one very important point – I have come out on the other end. It DID get better and life is much simpler without the constant storm inside my heart, mind, body and soul. Although I know that there will be times that the storm will probably come back to cloud my eyes, I know I will be okay again, and I want YOU to know that you will be okay too.
It’s important to note that I had a really good childhood. I had two parents who loved me very much and two younger brothers who aspired to be like me. I dealt with bullying that was similar to what most people experience. My teenage years were relatively normal too (I think I’ll cover off on those in a later post).
Point is, there wasn’t anything that I can really pinpoint as the ‘trigger’ for my depression or anxiety. I just fell into it, unaware. I don’t think a reason has to exist, or matters. Other Muslims who have confided in me about their experiences feel the same way. It just happened. I think the biggest reason why I’m not sure what caused it is that I didn’t actually realise I ‘had’ it until I was almost out on the other side.
Depression and anxiety aren’t like being afflicted with something like a cold. When you’re getting a cold, you get a little run down, a little achey, a little restless. You’re not sure if you’re tired or getting sick, but then your nose starts to run and it’s clear that you’re unwell.
With depression, it’s like you become run down and achey and restless, but when your nose starts to run, you don’t realise it. A few people may point out that you have a snot trail dribbling onto your lips, but you don’t notice it. You keep telling them it’s not there. Sometimes you’ll be offered tissues and your response is something along the lines of ‘WHY ARE YOU GIVING ME TISSUES? DO I LOOK LIKE I NEED A GOD DAMN TISSUE?’
It wasn’t until I happened to finally wipe my nose that I realised just how much snot had fallen down my face and onto my shirt. I started to think about all the situations I had been in over the last couple of years, and how much the massive snot trail had affected my day to day life, my interactions with others.
It was a really scary place to be. The problem is that there is a stigma attached to suffering from depression and anxiety. But here are some figures:
- One in 16 young Australians is currently experiencing depression.
- One in six young Australians is currently experiencing anxiety.
- One in four young Australians currently has a mental health condition.
- Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians.
- Half of all adult mental health conditions emerge by age 14, three quarters by age 24.
- 45% of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.
It is absolutely mind blowing that such a large elephant in the room can be overlooked by so many. That it can be ignored or stigmatised to such a degree that those suffering become isolated. Amazing to me that the Islamic community seems to think that it is free from these statistics.
There are many posts out there regarding the stigma which those suffering from a mental health condition face. Allie Brosh from Hyperbole and a Half has an amazingly accurate post about what dealing with depression is like.
For young Muslims in a post-9/11 world, depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions come with a unique set of complexities which make it difficult to situate oneself in a position for healing. The pressure is suffocating and it often feels like there is no escape.
Although I am constantly fighting to disconnect Islam from any nationalistic culture, in this situation I will make an exception, as the issues that young Muslims with mental health issues face are not unique to one particular culture. It is widespread.
You see, when the world tells you that you are wrong, that everything you believe is wrong, nothing else seems to matter. When the messages constantly reaffirm that you, and all those who believe what you do, are a terrorist, it seems hopeless. Your mental health no longer becomes an important issue. What’s the point in dealing with it? There are more important things to worry about, like not spontaneously exploding.
Many Muslims will seek to find solace in their faith, as it is at times of need that most will reach out to a deity or spiritual power. Although there are some amazing speakers who talk about depression (like Nouman Ali Khan in this phenomenal video), the message from fellow Muslims is often along the lines of – how can you be depressed when you have God on your side? How can you be depressed when you live in peace and those in Gaza and Syria and Iraq are fighting to stay alive? How can you be sad if God will only burden you with those hardships you can cope with? (Very similar to the issues faced by strong, young Muslim women who try to live better lives in the community).
These messages appear to dismiss the fact that although the Quran discusses these ideas of hope and ease following hardship, it does not dismiss feelings of helplessness and loss as mere childishness or weakness (you really want to watch that Nouman Ali Khan video for more information). By dismissing those feelings attached with depression as a lack of faith, the community has pushed those who suffer into an even more isolated corner.
And where does this leave us?
We talk about marginalised youth. I hope to write about this topic more frequently. The point is, we already have a serious problem in the Islamic community with marginalised youth. Yes, this is a problem across the globe, but I want to focus on those who are living in the Western world. It’s one thing to be battling stereotypes amongst those who are similar to you, but it’s a whole other world of trouble when you are living in a society that, for the most part, demonstrates a rejection of your inner most values.
We are currently the hot issue in the media (I mean, when aren’t we?). The world is being told that young Muslims are being radicalised, right next door. That they are planning on flying to the Middle East to join ISIS and the new Islamic Caliphate. For the first time in my own memory, I am watching the community coming out against this idea. It’s reassuring and beautiful – but how many young Muslims are getting the message that the entire community is not rejecting them, despite the flashing headlines. There is talk of strengthening anti-terror laws, so that young Muslims travelling to parts of the Middle East have to prove their innocence instead of their guilt.
Add a few mental health problems into that mix and you have some serious issues.
For those of you who have or currently are dealing with anxiety, you know the symptoms quite well. For those who don’t, it is a surreal experience, and, as I said before, I had no idea it was happening.
I can now clearly describe what happened. Frequently. I always felt that something absolutely horrific was about to happen. I used to put this down to intuition, but I was constantly in a state of being ready to act. I could never tell you what was going to happen or what it related to, but I sure as hell was ready to deal with it. My thought processes were in hyper-drive. I was 10 stations ahead of you in any train of thought. I would bring in issues and solutions from every single direction. It was my way of gaining any sense of control, because I felt that I had lost all of it. I would sit there sometimes and obsess about these completely unrealistic outcomes and scenarios and it would all just spiral out of control.
I had a few panic attacks in my time. They were truly scary. Generally it would happen in the middle of the night. I’d shoot awake and sit in my bed. My heart would race at a million miles an hour and I’d realise I wasn’t breathing properly. They would be shallow, rushed breaths. My body would tremble and my arms would go numb. My mind would spin out of control. I’d have to literally hug myself and talk myself down and out of it. Those few minutes would send me into shock, and I would curl myself back under the warmth of my covers and rock myself to sleep. In the morning it was like it never happened.
Once I was better, once I had come out the other end, I realised that my thinking had slowed… right… down. For a little while, I felt that I had become … dumber. I hadn’t. I was just back to normal. I was back to being a normal, thinking, feeling individual. Rational. Composed.
Despite studying medical science and learning about all the symptoms of depression and anxiety, I never realised what was happening. I was helping friends as they were being treated for depression, and I often shared similar experiences, yet I never realised what was happening.
I, an educated, loved, supported, appreciated young Muslim woman from a family who always had enough, spiralled into these situations. I, a young woman with all the resources to identify what was wrong, couldn’t. What hope in hell do other young Muslims in similar situations have of figuring out what is wrong and fixing it? How is it that we, and I mean we as wider society and we as the Islamic community, expect these youths to be okay and grow up to be functioning, happy members of society when we can’t even provide a helping hand that says ‘everything is going to be okay’? When we dismiss the very symptoms of a larger problem.
We talk about teens becoming radicalised, but we never sit down to discuss what pushes them out to the fringes. We never look at the crushing pressure from every side – the Western world that tells us we’re ethnics, and the ethnic world that tells us we’re westernised. We don’t look at the relentless bullying from the media – every depiction of a Muslim as a terrorist. Every call to send troops to the Middle East. Every call to control the way we live our lives and where we go and when we go. No one looks to see the effect that this has on the minds and hearts of these young Muslims, who are barely able to hold on to where it is they stand who they are as people.
In come the radical leaders. The bring hope and comfort. They bring a safe place that starts to explain, even if incorrectly and heinously, why these youths are feeling the way they do. In comes a support network that says ‘I have a solution – we just have to fight back’.
It’s clear to me, as it should be to you, that the only way that we can keep Muslim youths safe is to give them the safe place to come home to. The only way that will happen is if we make it feel safe. If we make it feel like they’re allowed to express their fears and their pain. To come to us when they feel their mind slipping. To allow us to know them enough to spot the symptoms of a problem. I know I am focusing on depression and anxiety, but there are so many more mental health issues that we’re just not dealing with.
It sounds hard, but we have many examples in society that show us how it can be done. Look at Jihad Dib, an incredible man who has led a radical change at what was known as one of the worst schools in the country – a school with a large population of Muslim boys who previously grew up to contribute to the negative image of Muslims in the country. He has changed all of that. You want to listen to him talk about it – this is his recent Ted talk.
This is the sort of openness we need. These are the sorts of things we need to be doing. We need to allow young Muslims to feel that they are able to tell us when something isn’t right. We need to be able to see it and treat it.
For those of you who have luckily never dealt with anything like this – reframe the way you think about mental health issues. Look at what your judgement is doing. Look at the harm that comes from you telling someone that they have no reason to be depressed and that depression is something they’re chosing for themselves. Be open, be loving. Be gentle and kind. Be the way that the Prophet Muhammad was.
For my fellow brothers and sisters (Muslims and non-Muslim) who dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, know that you are not alone. That you are not crazy. That you are not disabled. That you are not losing your mind.
Know that everything is going to be okay. Know that you can ask for help. That you can talk to someone. Know that your very own religion, your very own holy book provides understanding remedies for the hurt you are feeling. Talk to a teacher you trust. Talk to your GP. Talk to your friends. Talk to an organisation like beyond blue which specialises in these things, and know that it will get better. Know that I understand – I did it, I’m on the other end, and I want you to take my hand and join me there.
Halal love to you all.
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