Welcome to Muslim Voices Rise Up, a month-long project taking place during Ramadan where Muslim authors and bloggers share their experiences on various topics. This project is dedicated to centering Muslim experiences and showcasing the diversity within our own narratives. You can find more info, along with other blog posts for this project, on the introduction post. I am so incredibly excited to share today’s post, because it’s actually one I took part in. I was joined by a few of my Muslim sisters to talk all things navigating our mental illnesses as Muslims. This is the most I’ve ever shared about my mental illnesses talking to anyone…ever and the experience was incredible. Especially because of the fact that I was talking to people who could truly understand my experiences.
CW: Talk of mental illnesses, depression, anxiety, PTSD, anorexia, suicide, hospitalization, sexual assault.
Ari: Assalaamu alaykum. I was diagnosed with depression at 11 and clinical depression at 16, so when I became Muslim at 19 and was told it was the answer to that depression, and really any other negative feelings I was having, I thought my conversion was the end all, be all. So imagine my surprise when no, it was not the end of my depression. Of course, now I know I was naive in thinking it would be, but since it was what I thought back then, I felt like something was even more wrong with me for being Muslim and still being depressed. Add to that, that I now had people telling me my depression was a result of low Imaan, of not praying and fasting enough, and not believing in my Lord enough. It was heartbreaking, and of course, only added to my depression and made it that much harder to try and find my way out of it.
And since I’m just now reading this was supposed to be an introduction: Hi, I’m Ari Reavis. 30, wife, and mom of 5. Author of two published books.
Fadwa: Salaam Ari, no worries, that was a very effective ice breaker! My name’s Fadwa, one half of the Muslim Voices Rise Up initiative, nice to meet you! I’m a 22 years old med student, book blogger and advocate for all kinds of inclusivity in media. Born and raised Muslim. I was never officially diagnosed because I very much internalize my struggles and my one experience with a psychiatrist was a disaster, but I have anxiety, PTSD and depression.
I very much get what you mean, I think that the main reason mental illnesses are so stigmatized in our community, as well as under-diagnosed is the fact that people quickly jump to the “lack to faith conclusion” when someone is struggling, which in turn makes people with mental illnesses afraid to talk about them and seek help, and that only further cements that stigma and I am quite frankly tired of it. Because in my case, I only realized that what I was struggling with wasn’t normal and was in fact a variety of mental illnesses at age 18 after becoming more involved online. And I would have benefited from mental illnesses being talked about around me.
Deeba: Salaam all! 🙂 I’ve never quite succeeded at ice breakers so I’m glad I get the easy part of introductions! I’m Deeba and I’m an editor as well as YA writer (first true love is sci-fi forever). It’s so nice to meet everyone here and thank you Fadwa for taking part in organizing this roundtable discussion. I was also born and raised Muslim and for most of my life, I had never questioned that aspect of it. In fact, everything in my life was considered to be so finite, that questioning almost felt linked to disbelief (albeit much of it looking back was self-perceived but that’s a topic for another day).
The open discussion of mental health in my community experience is a new one (yay growth!). But, growing up, that was not the case. It was very much a taboo subject, that happened in hushed whispers, where words of jinn and shaytan were muttered to explain the unexplainable. And I wouldn’t necessarily say that my family didn’t believe mental illness was real, they just believed it could never happen to them. Until it happened to me.
Israa: Salaam everyone! It’s nice to meet you all and in such a refreshing setting. My name’s Israa, I’m a 22 year old college student and inshallah will be heading to law school soon. I’m also (trying to) work on a novel at the moment. Like many of your experiences, I grew up in a community that hardly ever dealt with mental illnesses, and honestly mental health in general, in a positive way. Issues with mental health always seemed to be pitched as an individual’s own dissonance with faith. Growing up around that, I tried to deal with anxiety in not so great ways. I thought that if I just prayed hard enough or read ayatul kursi enough times, I wouldn’t worry anymore about my siblings, or driving, or going to the grocery store. That just led to an unhealthy relationship towards prayer itself, which to me is ironic because I turned to it wholeheartedly at the behest of leaders in the community claiming I just needed to get closer to God to fix the problem. Which is why I truly appreciate conversations like this that allow us to shed better light on things that I’m so used to hiding.
Also, this might get a bit tangential so I do apologize, in my own experience, I’ve found that all statuses of “health” are in my community linked to an outer image. As someone who’s overweight and not a part of what the community deems healthy, this plays into a huge portion of what I find to be a problem of the mental health and illness discussion. Being a good Muslim was equated with having a certain physical appearance, i.e. I’ve been told in some subtle and some not so subtle ways that I essentially can’t be a truly good Muslim until I lose weight. Which is always a fun thing to hear. The underlying message there being that those who don’t check off all the boxes are going to “struggle” more until said boxes get checked off. Vice versa, someone who does fit that accepted image shouldn’t be struggling with mental illness because everything else in their life seems okay. It’s a big, nasty circle that harms everyone. However, I have seen a recent change in my community where more are at the very least being vocal about mental health, especially among the youth, and I think that alone is an incredible step
Ayah: Hello everyone, I am Ayah. I am a 24 years old pharmacist who is trying to pave herself a new pathway in life. One that contains writing and nutrition as a career instead of pharmacy. I was 18 when I started feeling like I might have depression, but it took me a while to get diagnosed, almost a couple of years. Soon, I started recognizing that I might be struggling with anxiety as well, but kept it hush hush cause I didn’t want to take more meds. By 23, I was diagnosed with anxiety as well.
Mental Health over here is still very Taboo; I am from Egypt. I remember being in Hajj a couple of years ago, in a tent full of doctors, and one lady started having a depressive episode, and no one was able to help her. No one was able to see the signs or acknowledge that she needs help. Even if they weren’t specialized psychiatrists, they should have had the knowledge to recognize and help someone with their mental state. And saying just pray and everything is going to be okay isn’t it. That is what most people were telling her. This isn’t just a Muslim saying though. One of my best friends who also struggles with depression says that is what her parents tell her as well. Sometimes even her church would mention that same mantra.
Fadwa: I just read through what everyone said in their introduction and it kind of breaks my heart that we all went through similar experiences. Being told to pray it away -which like Ayah said is definitely not just a Muslim thing, internalizing our struggles and feeling all the worse for it, because now the guilt of “doing something wrong” and “not being a good enough Muslim” to cure our mental illnesses through piety is added to the bunch. One thing that stuck out to be most is when Deeba said that her family didn’t really think if would happen to them until it happened to you, because my family on the other hand *does* have a history of mental illnesses, my grandma is mentally ill, so is my uncle and my cousin and still it’s seen as something that’s shameful and that we should hide, it’s still seen as maybe it’s “the evil eye” or lack of faith instead of just what it is, an illness that should be treated like any other one would be.
Ari: My family also has a history of it, but again because they don’t believe in mental illness, all but one is undiagnosed. So talking about it with them or the Muslim community is deemed inappropriate. Mental illness is usually regarded, at least in talks I’ve heard, as a disease of the heart, which I’m sure shames many people into not talking about it or seeking the help they need.
Deeba: I agree. Whether or not my family would like to admit it, I firmly believe the majority of my community suffers from undiagnosed depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, etc. But I think, and this is my experience, is that my community coming from a background where your name is everything, having open discussions of a family member being unwell or a little sad in the United States feels like a blot on the family reputation. It causes rifts between families, casts a shame of “Do you really want to have marriage ties with that family?”
Ayah: I think it is same over here, in Africa and the Middle East. It is not only shame, but it is like you are looked down upon, like you are filthy or something.
Israa: Yes yes yes to all of that. I think that in my personal experience with my family, there’s just a lot of dissonance between trying to explain in a way that is easy to grasp and apply in a “normal” way, and conveying what goes on inside my head everyday. For me, that’s a huge issue, because sometimes the way I look in the morning sets off the entire mood for the day, or not being able to get to class on time. Little things to my mom that shouldn’t make someone upset but end up having huge impacts because “little things” end up digging in more when you run on empty for a while. But like you brought up Deeba, mental illnesses are incredibly internalized within my community, to the point where there are mindsets and regards towards customs or ways of everyday life that have become normal that shouldn’t be. So stating hey I have a problem means saying that we all have a problem, which is a much bigger fish to fry.
Fadwa: That’s the thing though, A LOT of people think it’s a matter of mindset, if you only shift your mindset a little bit, and start looking at the things you have instead of the things you don’t have (in the case of depression), and stop worrying about things that are out of your control (in the case of anxiety) then you’ll feel much better when in truth, sometimes, or most of the time, nothing is wrong, there’s not event, no trigger, but you still can’t get out of bed in the morning, you still can’t do simple tasks that others takes for granted, you still can’t fight off the intrusive thoughts. And this is a daily fight, this is something we live with everyday and really, people only see us battle them when we lose the fight for days or weeks or months, they don’t see all the ones we won, because that’s the “normal”.
Deeba: I think what Israa said really hits home for my family, when she mentions her mother not understanding the why. My first hospitalization happened when I was 14 years old, and I remember laying in the bed, with an IV dripping in my arm with my mother sitting next to me, just asking me why do you do this to yourself? Being 14 I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t know why. And perhaps that was/is the most frustrating moment of all in the beginning. Being expected to answer for your shortcomings when you’ve never been given the tools to truly analyze them in the first place.
Ari: My first hospitalization, I stayed for a week and I remember saying it was the most peaceful time of my life and no one could understand why. But I was with people who felt how I felt. They understood what was going through my mind (for the most part) and that sometimes I just didn’t want to talk it to death or talk at all really. I just wanted to be. While everyone else wanted me to explain why I was the way I was to them, they wanted me to tell them my every feeling when I couldn’t (and sometimes still don’t) understand them myself. My mother most of all just couldn’t understand because to her I had a good life and no reason at all to be sad or withdrawn. She would always say how others had so much less than me and got by so why couldn’t I? It just added guilt to the confusion.
Deeba: That’s a really interesting point to bring up, Ari, when your mother says, “You have a good life and no reason…to be sad.” This is perhaps one of the most common rebuttals brought up in my discussions with my community. How can you be this way when you grew up in America? What is there to complain about when we fled a war in Afghanistan to give you a better life? This is usually followed up with how my cousins and I are too soft and sheltered because we don’t understand the realities of life, of true hardship like how they experienced. My mother and her siblings often say, “A lot of bad things happened to us, but do you see us crying about it? We get up, we do what we have to.” But then, I want to shout, but don’t you see, you’re not fine!
Ari: Exactly this. Everyone is saying they’re fine, but it’s so far from the truth.
Fadwa: Can we talk for a second about the generational trauma here? Because they so are not fine and often times that carries on to us. My father for example has so much trauma carried on from his own father which he in turn put on me and every time they carry on being in denial telling me they’re fine and I see all the ways him and his siblings are messed up, and all the ways they’re messing us up because they don’t want to accept they have things to work through I want to scream at them to wake up.
Ari: This was brought up in one of the family sessions my mom came to when I was 16. The ways her parenting had affected me and her answer of, ‘Well this is the way my mother treated me and it’s all I know’ really broke my heart. Even now that we have a better relationship, I often have to get off the phone or leave because she’ll laugh at the beatings we got as children, at how we were exposed to things we never should have been. I was sexually assaulted by my aunt’s husband and was made to still be around him for years until I moved out and to this day she cannot see what she did wrong.
Israa: That’s awful, I’m so sorry you had to go through that.
On the note of generational trauma, I actually did a miniature sort of study for a sociology class. Mainly, what was discussed was how encountering traumatic events in a different setting influenced how people like my father interpreted his religion as he was growing up in a more fatalistic sort of way? Because he grew up in war-time, death, heaven, judgement day were constantly on his mind, which determined how much he thought he could question and how much he just accepted. To relate it to this, it translates into how my siblings and I were raised in a very bare-bones manner, when our generation and environment is entirely different from his, and so is the way we learn Islam. I think this relates to mental health in a big way too because our generation has room/time/ability to sit down and address these things, whereas those who came before us might not have had that. (This is my own experience, at least)
Deeba: YES. Exactly this. Coming from a family of immigrants that fled an active war, their shared trauma trickled down to my generation in a similar fashion. It was the reasoning behind everything, from not clearing your plate of food for dinner to not questioning my Sunday school lessons to being expected to rise up and be all the things my parents couldn’t. So when I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Anorexia Nervosa at 14, my father did a double take and said, “That’s not real. How could a person choose not to eat? How could my daughter be so stupid?”
Israa: I remember when I was old enough to schedule my own appointment with a therapist I was so nervous to tell my mom for that exact reason, because she’d be like you spent your money on that?!
Fadwa: I feel like our generation is much better about addressing mental health issues than our parents’, not perfect mind you, we still have a long way to go and a lot of things that were projected onto us to unlearn but we’re slowly getting there. Like, with my peers, I can talk about these things more openly. Not gonna lie, I’m still scared to start the conversation because I still get side eyed sometimes or get told “we’re all anxious/depressed/etc”… but we have to start somewhere you know? We need to bring about the change we want to see in our communities and it starts with talking about it, because if I’m scared then so many other Muslim mentally ill folks are and so *someone* has to break that taboo we’ve been living in for so long. I’ve started talking about this with some of my friends earlier this year and discovered that one of them has Anxiety and ADHD as well and the other one has Agoraphobia and Generalized Depression. Which only encouraged me to talk more. So many of us are bottling things up and we have to stop if we don’t want to repeat our parents’ pattern.
Ari: I think reading is a great way to get people to open up about mental illness, where they can kind of speak of it in a not so personal way. In my debut book, the main character is depressed and dealing with some really heavy things in her life and I was shocked when sisters would read it and text me that they’d been through some of the same things. That they saw things in her family’s mentality that they never realized existed in their own and were going to be more aware of not continuing that in the future. It was a way to talk about it and just say ‘I relate’ instead of telling their own experiences.
Ayah: I think our generation is definitely better than the ones before, but unfortunately the acceptance I see on social media doesn’t compare when it comes to the people I see in real life. I was chatting with a co-worker once, and I was trying to be more vocal about mental illness in real life and not just social media. I mentioned panic attacks and his response was mockery. He asked if I ever thought about killing myself and I was like oh well, let us not do that again. What sort of education can we give people and in what form? because traditional education is definitely failing. Especially because he is a pharmacist and has definitely studied mental illnesses in Uni.
Fadwa: I think the main reason social media seems more accepting is because we curate our space to the things we want to see, so if I don’t want to see people making fun of mental illnesses or invalidating them, I simply block them or hang out in different circles. And that’s not really something you can do in real life. I also agree that books are a good way to talk about mental illnesses and work through them without having to put yourself on the spot. I know that as a reader, it was a book that made me realize I had PTSD, that being so badly triggered I couldn’t sleep, or even function wasn’t a normal reaction. So I feel like that’s also a good educational tool. If we push the right books into kids’ hands from an early age, we can ensure they don’t grow up with the same internalized bias regarding mental health we did.
Ayah: I am so sorry that you went through that. I really relate cause I began acknowledging my depression after reading a book ( I never finished it). I totally agree, I feel like the next generation will grow smarter, wiser, and more sympathetic. But what about the people in our circles? The people you work with, the community that you live in. I feel like the only way they would acknowledge mentally ill people is if it happened to them and they experience first hand. There must be a way, but I don’t know what it is.
Deeba: I wanted to expand upon seeing oneself in literature regarding mental illness, especially as a teen. I didn’t need to be formally diagnosed to know what I had, besides the physical side effects and failing health that were so very obvious to everyone around me. But what really bothered me was the loneliness. I didn’t know anyone in real life that had what I had. So, I devoured books on eating disorders (mostly were memoir growing up as a teen of the mid-2000s). While I wouldn’t recommend much of the books I read now (they were heavily problematic), I will say the one thing that stuck with me after finishing each book was they all got better. When my eating disorder was at its worst, I truly believed it would never end, that there was one way out. And I think I latched on to these books, these not-perfect-endings, but better-endings, those light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel endings, that really weren’t endings at all for the characters, but beginnings.
Ari: I definitely agree that books can be an escape, as well as a mirror. They can make you more aware of your own feelings, and like you said, show that there’s an end in sight, even if that end isn’t the end of your mental illness. Because we know mental illness doesn’t end, it’s a daily battle, but books can show you that you have the strength to fight that battle and that when you don’t, it’s okay. But just live on to fight another day. Sometimes it’s all you can do.
Deeba: I will also say, my faith also saved my life. I know we discussed earlier on the trials we’ve had within our communities, but I also wanted to touch upon how being Muslim and leaning into my faith also was the turning point in my darkest moment. You’re right, Ari, mental illness doesn’t just end, and I think that is the most frightening statement of all. I was 16 and I was tired. I was exhausted of it all. Tired of hospitals. Tired of the judgement. Tired of the hushed whispers has she lost more weight and how can she do this to her poor parents. I was done. And I wanted it all to just be done.
I’ve never admitted this publicly before but the amount of times I had begun to take my life–I can’t even count. But I remember a really bad one and I remember this tiny little voice that said, Don’t. In Islam, I knew what taking my life would mean. I knew it. And I thank God for that little voice every day, that little voice that said, Deeba listen. Pain in this world is fleeting, it is not eternal. Your pain will not last forever. But ending your life will. The pain of the Afterlife will. This choice is eternal, but this suffering right now, in this moment that you live and breathe isn’t.
So I listened. And it’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life to date. And it’s why I’ll always be grateful for my faith. Islam gave me the hesitation, the moment of pause.
Ayah: I teared up at your first sentence. I totally agree, despite resenting the advice of praying it away. Somehow, because of Islam, I truly know that Allah wouldn’t have burdened me with something I couldn’t handle. That I am strong enough to survive this eventually.
Fadwa: I was about to bring this up. That my problem isn’t with my faith, it’s with the reactions of the people who share my faith. Islam has been my anchor more times than I can count. It’s like it’s been this voice fighting off all the negative voices in my head and it’s been doing its job effectively. I keep thinking I would be so much worse without Islam to ground me, without Allah to turn to whenever life got overwhelming and I felt that I was cornered and had no way out.
There’s this vicious part to my depression that makes it so much harder to hold on to my faith when I’m struggling. Like, I know that praying is my solace. Even if just those five prayers a day. Getting my praying mat out and having that bit of time with Allah is so crucial to me and it does make me feel better each time without fail (no, it doesn’t cure me) and yet that seems like the hardest thing in the world when I’m barely staying afloat and there’s this part of me that keeps nagging and saying that I don’t deserve to pray, because I don’t deserve that peace, even if temporary, that it brings me.
Ari: I definitely agree that Islam has saved my life many, many times. Times when I was just sick and tired and had nothing else to give and wanted to die, but knew suicide wasn’t an option, so I just broke down to my knees and cried to Allah. Begging Him to help me through the night and to remove those thoughts from my mind. It’s a battle, but I know my greatest weapon is dua’a and I just have to remember to actually use that weapon.
Israa: I keep thinking of how I want to say what I want to say, and I can’t find the words. But all of this is heartbreaking, especially the parts about being tired because I relate to that so much. It’s difficult to regard everything in a “positive” way when you’re mindset is to just make it to the end of the day, the week, the semester, etc. to the point where you’re tired of being tired which is a whole other level of exhaustion.
I also liked the points on how Islam becomes a sort of balm and beacon. I’m shia and growing up learning about Karbala, it always struck me how people experienced such a traumatic event and were perfectly fine because they were close to God. But as I grew up and was able to reflect on it more, I think the figures that experienced Karbala and lived afterwards like Zayn-ul Abideen and Sayeda Zaynab became a version of that balm or beacon. Because honestly, we’re taught these people were human, and by default that means that to some impactful degree, they were mentally affected by those events. There are so many hadith about how they lived life afterwards, about seeing one thing and instantly being taken back. I’m not a scholar or anything lol, but I do think that an amazing part of our religion is that there are supposed to be examples to look at for everything, and I think at least a part of me trying to find the example of mental illness came in that form of Imam Zayn and Sayeda Zaynab figuring out how to cope, with two incredibly pious figures having struggles with their mental health.
It’s definitely not an end all be all type of answer, but for me regarding them in that way was a good start in being kinder to myself and using dua and prayer in a healthier way.
Ayah: There was time when my suicidal thoughts scared me because of the same thing, so I began reading more about it and came to the conclusion that if I had done it while being so deep in depression, there might be no consequences. I don’t remember what exactly and I am not sure if that is right, but our minds during depression don’t think like they would normally, so it made sense. However, I took an oath that no matter how dark things get, I am never going to end my life.
Ari: Being that I was diagnosed with depression at 10, but didn’t become Muslim until I was 19, I cannot even express how thankful I am for Islam. I know what it feels like to think you don’t even have God to turn to or cry to, so when I became Muslim and learned about Allah being All-Seeing, All- Hearing and knowing that He knew everything I was going through, it was very comforting to be able to just prostrate and leave it all on the Musallah and trust that my Lord would help me through it. Knowing that I had someone in the battle who was helping me not to succumb to my dark thoughts.
Fadwa: I love how Israa went looking for examples in our religious figures, I never thought of doing that but it makes so much sense, I might try that when I have a bit of time, soon Insha’Allah. I mostly turn to Islam like Ari, when things get hard it’s good to know that Allah is All-hearing, All-seeing and I am never truly alone no matter how lonely I feel. And that He was there, and helping me in ways I didn’t see, and didn’t understand at the moment. There are so many instances when I’d reflect upon hard times and realize that Allah was doing things “behind the scenes” that I didn’t see at the moment but I would have been very much worse off without. Alhamdoulill’Allah.
Ayah: I don’t think I would have ever made it so far in life if it weren’t for Allah. I am so happy that I joined this conversation. Everyone here is so strong and I am literally crying as I read all of your responses.
Deeba: Hearing everyone’s stories in this space is truly what teen me (and honestly adult me too lol) needed. I’m so honored and truly grateful to have shared this moment with each of you and have found a new peace in knowing that no matter how hard it gets, there is always a community waiting, ready to listen, to share, to heal, to grow. This conversation has given me that. ❤ I’m so very excited for this new generation of Muslims who are here and ready to tackle these once so very taboo subjects. It gives me hope for the generations yet to come. And that’s a beautiful feeling, a beautiful vision of the future.
Ari: Same. To know I’m not the only Muslim who feels this way, even if it sometimes has felt that way. And that we’re all connected in Allah helping us through it.
Fadwa: I definitely shed some tears as well reading what everyone has been through and sharing what I’ve been through because this chat came with some catharsis I think as well as a sense of belonging and also…relief? that I really am not alone in my struggles no matter how much it feels like it. And I’m grateful to you all for accepting to be part of this, and sharing so much of yourselves here, being so open and honest. Thank you ❤
Israa: This was such an incredible conversation to be a part of, thank you all ❤
Ari: It was truly my pleasure.
Deeba: Thank you for organizing it! 🙂 I think having discussions like this is truly needed as we continue to unpack and discuss the importance of mental health and the significance of mental illness as a Muslim in the 21st century.
Find the contributors
A million thanks to Aimal for the graphic!
That’s it until next time.
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.