The stigma that is currently present in today’s atmosphere is the result of a society that has suppressed speaking out loud about one’s own vulnerabilities. Our weaknesses – they are hidden from the world, and locked away in a chest that is stored in our minds. It’s accessible by no one apart from us. And there we are, left alone with something that is painted so hideously that no can bear to hear about it, further making the pain unbearable in isolation. The product, that I have described, may seem to be a human construct that has spiralled out of control. But we can fight the stigma. We are society. We ultimately have the ability to make changes that we want to see. The stigma that we see around mental health was coined by us and will only be repaired by us. Within some communities, there is more damage.
The most damaging aspect of stigma is that it is another addition to a growing list of complications that an individual suffering from mental illness has to experience. In the Muslim community, psychological problems are not understood well – generally, they are not understood at all. A common response to this is to ignore the matter. Rather, the more adequate response would be to research the problem and become more aware.
Nowadays a common reaction to mental health heard by our own families and friends is: “It’s nothing. They’re just thoughts.” Sometimes we hear aunties saying depression does not exist or it’s ‘haram’ to be depressed. But depression is an illness that needs to be acknowledged, addressed and treated. It does not vanish on its own.
I wish people could understand that our minds are as fragile as our bodies. The same care and attention that we give to our child’s physical health should be given to their mental health. It is incredibly important to recognise signs of mental illness in the early phases rather than allowing it to deteriorate into a psychological ‘cancer’. And then it becomes too late.
Another common response by the Muslim community is to physicalize mental health. Going to the A&E department for minor physical complaints, when in fact it may be clinical depression. But did you know that anxiety can manifest itself in the form of chest pains? Anxiety is just another example of that which is part of an extensive list of prevalent mental illnesses in the Muslim community. So, what we can do now to help reduce this list is to grasp awareness of what they are, how they affect us, and what can be done to help.
May we never again brush it under the carpet. Because when we show others that we are uncomfortable to face the topic, the impressions that we leave them with are upsetting. First, we are conveying the harrowing idea that mental illness is unacceptable. But surely we should know by now that no one chooses to be depressed, and that no one chooses to have a panic attack. It is at this time where their souls are crying out to reach our souls. An extending hand to help is what should be seen. Or an ear to listen. Sometimes all that is required for consolation is being present and listening.
To stigmatise, and tell someone what their pain is or what it’s not, is to reduce their pain to a lower level of importance. Though this may not be your goal, it is a consequence that needs to be thought of. As a result of our ideas and stigma, many people will not seek the help that they need. In fact, a lot of people are unable to realise that they need help. Seeking help has now become an action of courage. No one should ever be made to feel that they are undeserving of help, or even embarrassed and ashamed of their internal struggle. We all struggle in different ways; it’s about how we understand ours, and how we help others to understand theirs.