Mental Health and Spirituality
November 12, 2017
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Integrity, and Iman.
It used to be that when a little girl became weak, had a runny nose, and hot forehead, that her family assumed that she was sinful or was possessed by the devil. As the medical sciences developed, the diagnosis shifted from evil possession to a “fever” that was treated with simple medications.
Now, we are in need of that same advancement regarding mental health. It is too common in our communities that lay persons -- often parents -- diagnose their children’s mental illnesses in one of three ways: something that can be cured with prayer, evil possession requiring a jinn-exorcism, or an insanity that the parents claim will be on their permanent record and affecting them for life. I am pleased that our community is beginning to accept mental health as a real thing, but we are still a long way from being serious in taking mental health as something serious. It is clear that many parents need counseling at least as much as their children do.
You hear from me many times that modern American life is hostile to a person’s mental health. The Twilight Zone episode “Execution” features a man from the 1800s walking the streets of modern America getting overwhelmed by all the lights and noise. We have that. In addition, we are a nation that has been at war for your entire conscious lives. Even if you do not have any acquaintances fighting in the war, the repeated attention given to the war affects your sense of stability and safety. In addition, we are bombarded by media, whether the missiles are airbrushed photos of cover girl models or new stories of mass shootings. In addition, social media keeps hitting you with photos, so much that you feel like you must always be performing even if it is for a simple meal. In addition, we are living through a political era that is so bizarre that its crass White Supremacy seems mundane. In the past few weeks, we have also seen many women and men come forward brave enough to expose the inappropriate conduct of politicians and celebrities. In addition, we have increasing Islamophobia. In addition, many of you are coming from environments of historical trauma, whether we speak of being Black American, Palestinian, Bosnian, Iraqi, Afghan, or minority and marginalized Muslim groups. In addition, if you are not a heteronormative cisgender male, then you are also subject to additional challenges. In addition, you work through college and all of its academic and social pressures. As you carry *all* of this, do you expect to be mentally well?
A criticism of mental health is that the science is experimental. Meaning, counselors rely on theories of human nature that are not coming from our scriptural sources, while other theories will replace these theories. This is true of all science, but for our purposes this is an abstract point; what you care about is efficacy. Meaning, even within our traditions, there are multiple schools focused on healing the self. Just as the different schools of Islamic law reflect different methods of interpretation of the primary sources, different Sufi schools (tariqas) reflect different conceptions of the Self and its healing. Of the different Sufi paths, the most widespread across Chicago are the Naqshbandi, Chishti, Qadri, and Tijani. While the histories of these different Sufi schools relate more to the usual social forces (patronage from monarchs, usually), different schools will fit different personality/spirituality types. The same goes for the Martial Arts, in that different schools fit different personality/body types.
Moving beyond the abstract, into the concrete, however, consider if you are diagnosed with a physical sickness, with a proposed treatment plan. You may choose to go to a different physician to get a second opinion. Medicine is not the exact science we would like to imagine it to be: the real test is efficacy. If the treatment works, you take it. Likewise, with a mental health professional, you may discover that your first counselor is not a good fit, but the next one is a better fit. Over the years, I have visited multiple counselors and psychiatrists, and some of them have been outstanding in their ways to identify elements in my personality. You will, Insha Allah, find mental health professionals that can provide treatment that benefits you.
Too many of us would like to believe that you can pray away the problems. Parents who tell this to their children do not realize that they are challenging their child’s faith. If the child prays for the mental illness to go away, and it does not, then what does it say about the efficacy of prayer? It says that prayer does not work. Parents who do believe that prayer can fix mental health matters should use the same approach when trying to change a flat tire. Rather than pull out the jack and the spare, and rather than call AAA, they should pray the flat away. Good luck. Rather, they should pray for their hearts to soften toward these other methods of treatments. I suspect that prayer is more likely to lead to results.
Rather, the real problem with expecting prayer to remove illnesses is something a bit more complex. Among the Hakims of the world, there are those who have particular Qur’anic recipes for particular illnesses. Meaning, you recite a specific set of Qur’anic passages a specific number of times, and perform a few other simple steps (often involving water), to diagnose and to treat illnesses. The problem, then, with telling someone to pray to make an illness go away is that it is not a sufficient or appropriate treatment. It is like prescribing aspirin for *every* possible illness.
There is stigma regarding mental health: many people believe that if you get mental health treatment, that you are not only “crazy,” but that you will also get recorded as “crazy” on some mythical permanent record. This point is not only absurd, but it is also detrimental. If someone is suffering from depression, the ultimate risk is suicide. When parents do not accept this reality, they are choosing blindness. Further, even if there was this hypothetical record that follows you, the way your internet searches and purchases will remain with you, what have you to lose?
Regarding jinns, there are a few scholars that are cashing in by charging exorbitant amounts of money to exorcise jinns from people. While jinns are real, possession is real, and exorcism is real, it does not mean that every case of someone behaving in a matter “abnormal” requires an exorcism. Sometimes Xanax works. Sometimes, a series of conversations works. For those who do not believe in jinns and exorcisms, I return us to the same point: efficacy. If performing a series of steps results in a removal of symptoms, then it does not matter if you believe in it.
In any case, our Muslim communities have all the same mental health issues as every other community. Because we are so resistant to treating these issues, we are allowing problems to remain in our households and in our own selves that do not need to be there. Many of our homes have serious problems of anger, anxiety, depression. In many cases, these problems are causing further problems that are far greater than anything I have the skill set to solve. Meaning, a father’s rage causes problems in the daughter. It does not have to be that way.
So, let’s talk.
And Allah knows best.