Reprinted with permission from Southern California InFocus, June 2007
American Muslims struggle with mental health issues
By Roqaya Eshmawi, Staff Writer, Southern California InFocus
When she was 10 years old, Mejgan lost her father in the war in Afghanistan. "I tried to cope the way I thought I should," she says. "I grew up overnight." Her father’s cousin, who had also been imprisoned, relayed to her the suffering prisoners had endured.
"Having their teeth pulled out, and having their nails pulled out, and having their genitals chopped off … I don’t want to imagine that’s what happened to my dad," she says.
Mejgan lives with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
There have been times when Jennifer* has thought about suicide.
"I would take the car key, tell my husband to watch the kids and that if anything happens to me, to give them to their dad, and I would go for a ride with the intention of committing suicide," says the mother of two.
What stopped her was her faith in Allah. "Allah, please help me. Please. I’m making the intention to please you and do everything right for you. Please give me serenity, make it easy for me," she would pray.
"If I didn’t have Islam, if I didn’t have Allah to turn to, I know I would’ve committed suicide," she says.
Jennifer lives with bipolar disorder.
Moiz* would sometimes go for days without talking to his friends if he was upset with them.
"The anger would be inside of me, and it would continue to build, and then it got to a point where I would say something stupid or obscene to that person," he says.
Moiz also lives with bipolar disorder.
When Marwa* had decided she was going to see a therapist without telling her family, she wasn’t quite sure she was making the right decision.
"She’s so indecisive. She always second-guesses herself," she heard voices saying inside her head.
Marwa lives with bipolar disorder and anxiety.
Mejgan, Jennifer, Moiz and Marwa are part of the Muslim society experts say is experiencing a rise in mental health issues.
"During the past decade, there has been a rapid rise of emotional and behavioral problems in the American Muslim community - high rate of divorce, dysfunctional families, mental health problems, domestic violence, drug addiction and intergenerational conflicts," says Dr. Abdul Basit, a former professor of psychiatry and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Muslim Mental Health.
Defining mental health
Psychology experts say an individual is mentally healthy when he or she is living with the absence of a mental disorder.
To be diagnosed as having a mental disorder, an individual must meet two conditions, says Dr. Enas Elshwick, a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist living in California.
"The symptoms must significantly impair social or occupational functioning, in addition to meeting criteria specific to the disorder," she says.
The guidelines generally used to define mental disorders are symptoms of unusual or bizarre behavior; disorganized and confused speech; and hallucinations or delusions, Abdul Basit says.
"Other types of mental disorders may have symptoms of emotional distress, like phobia, excessive and persistent anxiety, or depression," he says.
While some mental disorders are universally recognized, others are culture specific.
"Experts find it difficult to define normal behavior, simply because, in some cases, sociocultural factors may determine whether a behavior will be considered normal or abnormal," Abdul Basit says.
Living with a mental disorder
Mejgan is a project manager for a training and development company.
She decided to start therapy after experiencing several panic attacks during which she couldn’t breathe.
"I tried to hold it during work hours," she says. "The minute I would get home, I would start crying, and I couldn’t stop crying. I would roll up in a ball and cry."
So she started seeing a therapist. At first, she says, she was adamant against taking medication. "But my doctor convinced me. She said it was a chemical imbalance."
Mejgan has been in therapy for almost three years, and she used medication for one year.
"If you have issues, walk through them," she suggests. "Go through the pain - honor your emotions rather than pushing them aside and saying ‘it’s OK.’ It’s never OK when something bad happens."
Moiz, who works for a nonprofit organization, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder while working for a summer program at his university.
As a student counselor for the program, he was required to meet with psychiatrists for consultations.
"It started with me describing some of the things I was going through at that point - I was having issues with people I was around, other Muslims, people I was living with," he says.
Moiz says he would go from feeling happy to feeling distraught and upset with others around him.
"I felt like there were moments where I was totally surrounded by people, but I felt, a lot of times, that I didn’t connect with people. I was just there in the middle of everything, but I had feelings of loneliness and sadness," he says.
That led to feelings of guilt, he says. "I should be happy. Why am I not happy? Why do I feel so isolated and depressed?"
Moiz was also having a difficult time with his university studies; he was having a hard time with his classes and he had just changed his premed major to undeclared.
"My parents weren’t happy with me," he says. "There was that whole idea of not being good enough."
Moiz says that while therapy has helped him, faith was the one constant in his life during his difficult times.
"I could sit and forget everything I was going through during that one calm period during a very turbulent time," he says of prayer.
"That moment where you connect with Allah, I found a moment of peace and calm," he says. "And that connection helped me strengthen myself and take myself out of the situation I was in."
Islam recognizes mental health as an important aspect of a person’s life, says Imam Safwat Morsi of San Francisco.
"If applied, many Islamic principles would prevent the onset of mental health disorders," he says.
Marwa, a graduate student, had a stressful childhood and hadn’t sought counseling for what she had been through.
"We had a lot of physical and verbal abuse by my parents," she says of herself and her siblings.
When she started hearing voices and told her parents, they told her not to tell anyone about her symptoms.
So, for three weeks, she endured the voices. "Most of these voices were mocking me," she says. "But a few times, they were praising me, and I would feel like I’m on top of the world."
When she visited a mental institution, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety, and she was given medication.
She is now continuing therapy while on medication, and says her situation has improved.
"I learned to accept it," she says of her past. "My parents do a lot for me. They changed after we got older. I’ve learned to move on and not be the victim, to stop blaming them."
Stigmatized by their own
Abdul Basit says that while mainstream American society has made tremendous strides in accepting mental illness during the past three decades, American Muslims have failed to recognize the magnitude of the mental health problem.
He attributes this partly to the shame and guilt associated with it and partly because American Muslims are not aware of the resources available to deal with these issues.
"Many Muslims adopt an ostrich policy. They tend to deny the existence of mental health problems in the American Muslim community," he says.
They often write off mental illnesses as problems typical of mainstream American society and not issues they should worry about, he adds.
Living with bipolar disorder, Jennifer was often told by her husband that her illness was because she was ‘raised in America’ and that she should ask Allah to help her deal with it.
"But it’s not only Americans who can be bipolar," she says. "That’s something that’s really important for me to get across."
Morsi says that while a strong relationship with Allah can help an individual cope with any type of issue, whether physical or mental - Islam does not prohibit an individual from seeking therapy.
"A relationship with Allah is important because it increases a person’s physical and mental immunity and allows them to heal faster," he says, adding that it’s also important for an individual to engage in therapy and be able to talk about their issues.
For Moiz, he internalized his experience and didn’t share it with many people because of the social stigma attached to mental illness.
"I don’t think the Muslim community actually realizes this is something that exists," he says.
A few of his close friends know his diagnosis, but many others only knew he was going through a difficult time.
"If you’re a guy, it’s harder to tell another friend of yours, ‘Hey, this is what I’m going through,’" he says.
He has recently begun to share some of his experiences with his family – but not everything, he says. "I don’t feel they would be ready to have a full-blown conversation yet."
Rabia*, who lives with anxiety, depression and social phobia, says she feels Muslims should be more sympathetic and educated about mental illness.
"I’ve been scoffed at, ridiculed and generally been looked down upon as a moron for feeling the way I do," she says. "Some people have gone so far as to doubt my iman and aqeedah as a Muslim."
Rabia describes her illness as feeling a loss of control over her mind and body. "It’s like you’re a prisoner of your own mind – you’re the jailer and the prisoner all at the same time."
Jennifer says individuals living with mental illnesses don’t want to be pitied or regarded as different.
"This, to me, is my cancer," she says. "This is my sickness, my disease that Allah gave me to deal with."
Resources for mental health
Elshwick says it’s important for individuals thinking about seeking therapy to know that therapists are bound by law and ethics to keep their clients’ information confidential.
She suggests individuals seek therapists of their same faith and culture or explain their own to the therapist. "It helps if the therapist understands where you’re coming from and what your thought processes are," she says.
To learn more about mental health resources available in your community, visit:
National Alliance on Mental Illness (800) 950-NAMI
* Names have been changed to respect the privacy of individuals.