By: Magda Elkadi Saleh
I am writing this neither as a Mental Health Professional, nor as a person who suffers from Mental Illness. I am writing this instead as someone who has experienced the effects of living with Mental Illness through those who suffer from it. I am writing it because, in the past few weeks, the topic has come up a few times, and those bringing it up were having a difficult time wrapping their minds around the idea of "mental illness." What was it? What did it mean? What is even "real"?
Subhan'Allah, Mental Illness, while medically diagnosed and of physiological causes, is often looked at as something different than other illnesses such as Hypertension, Diabetes, or Cancer. How often have you heard someone tell a person suffering from Diabetes, that he/she is suffering from this illness because of a weakness in his/her faith and that, if he/she would simply pray more and rely more on Allah, the illness would go away? I would almost guarantee that you have never heard this, and, if you did, you would consider it absurd.
Why then are people suffering from Mental Illness so often told this about their illness, as if their degree of faith has something to do with their medical diagnosis? Subhan'Allah, from the sufferers that I have come into contact with and have interacted with, it is their deep faith that allows them to prevail with their illness. It is their faith that gives them strength and allows them to continue on in their lives, despite the skepticism that they face from their community and often from their own family-members.
“Mental Illness” covers a broad spectrum of illnesses from depression and anxiety, to obsessive compulsive disorder, to bi-polar disorder (manic-depressive disorder). The degree of the illness determines the degree to which those suffering from the illness are able to interact with and contribute to their families and their communities. I say "suffering", because they do truly suffer. Their illnesses can be very painful, just like diabetes and cancer can be painful; they are painful to those with the illness and to family and friends who are close to them. Their pain is magnified, however, by the stigma and lack of understanding that they also face.
As Muslims, we need to try to better understand Mental Illness and definitely not dismiss it as an indication of levels of faith. We need to try to listen to those suffering from Mental Illness and try to understand what they are going through and understand that their reactions to certain events or interactions may be different than ours. We need to understand that certain situations and interactions may cause them great stress and may heighten their symptoms. We must then try to modify our expectations of what they should and should not be able to do. Just as we would not expect someone with diabetes to accept a triple-layer chocolate cake from us, we should not expect for someone with obsessive compulsive disorder to be able to get through their wuduu' with the same speed and ease of mind as we do.
During this month of mercy and reflection, I ask you to reflect on your understanding of mental illness and your view of those suffering from it and try to be more merciful in your perceptions of them and your interactions with them.