(Featured Art: Ben the Illustrator)
Often when people reveal that they are battling mental health issues in the SA/Muslim community, they are greeted with suggestions like “you should pray more” — which is nothing but a slap to the face. Don’t get me wrong, religion has helped a lot of people who are dealing with mental health issues find comfort through faith as I have, but the discourse around mental health needs an urgent change in our community.
As someone who comes from the South-Asian community, I can assure you that it is not just our elders who carry the view that people who are facing mental health issues are possessed or lack faith in God etc. In fact, many young people hold the same views — maybe not to the same extent as many elders in our communities, but it is evident that such thinking was passed down from generation to generation. It gives me hope that slowly we are seeing people breaking the cycle and speaking more about mental health.
It’s extremely important to break the cycle of toxic thinking and to educate.
We need to educate our families and friends that people who face mental health issues are not people who lack faith in God. We have to realize that we cannot blame the elders in our families about being uneducated because that’s what they have seen and known their whole lives from past generations — when someone around them is facing mental health issues, it would seem like a trivial thing that could be fixed just by turning to religion. It’s a foreign concept to many people, but such topics need to be discussed in our mosques, schools, churches, community centers, within our homes etc.
I notice mental health being brought up more and more in our daily conversations with people who openly discuss mental health issues — while many still haven’t found it within them to speak about their mental health challenges publically, at the end of the day it’s really about seeking professional help and recognizing the importance of it.
I remember when I was around 13-14 years old — that was the first time I heard someone speak about mental health publically, let alone in a mosque. I briefly remember someone asking about self-harm and it stunned me that someone could ask such a question in the House of God — something I came to appreciate later on because the women went on to speak about self-harming and briefly about mental health after that. I really appreciate the women who brought it up because that was the first time it hit me that this shouldn’t be something we should not talk about — it should be spoken about even in religious settings.
There’s a definite discourse around the stigmatization of mental health with men, specifically. I took a class last year in university called gender and the law where the topic of mental health was brought up frequently, and our professor and teaching assistants described how from a young age, boys are taught not to cry whereas girls are taught that it’s okay to cry. When these young boys grow up to be men, they face many difficulties when it comes to their mental health, because from a young age they’ve been molded to not express their feelings. This leads to many issues for men in their life — it creates a toxic space, always having to pretend that they cannot have poor mental health and face mental health issues.
So when you think about men within the South-Asian community facing poor mental health and mental health issues, it’s especially worrying to think about how many there are. There’s already a stigma around mental health, but to be a person of colour belonging to a community which often shames you for seeking professional help makes it even harder. To add on to this chain for South Asian men, it’s even more difficult because the way they grew up convinces them that their mental health doesn’t matter.
The only way we can get rid of the stigmatization around mental health is by talking about it, among ourselves and with the people in our communities.
It’s clear that people in the South-Asian community face many difficulties when speaking about mental health: they’re met with words such as “did you pray enough?” and “you’re a man, no need to cry.” It’s such reactions which discourage people with mental health issues to not speak up about what they’re going through.
We need a shift in how we react to our loved ones expressing their feelings and situations. So next time when someone opens up to you about their mental health, rather than asking if they prayed or stopping them from expressing themselves, ask them if they need someone to talk to, check up on them, and encourage them to seek professional help.