Ending the Stigma Around Mental Health: A Muslimah's Personal Story
Posted on Mar 13, 2017
I consider myself to be a person of stable spirituality and sound mental health. Last year, I suffered one of the largest shocks and blows to my sense of stability when I lost my baby son to a stillbirth after eight months of pregnancy. It was the single most traumatic experience I'd ever undergone in my thirty years of living. While the emotions that come with a stillbirth warrant their own blog post, I am using my experience with trauma to illuminate my case for the importance of mental health support. There are deep benefits to prioritizing self-care and seeking this kind of support when one feels even an inkling of desire to utilize it.
I'd like to say off the bat that I am by no means an expert on mental health, nor have I studied it in any academic depth. I'm speaking from the experience of being on the receiving end of therapy, and want to share my thoughts on why it is so important. It's important to note one doesn't necessarily need to have undergone major trauma, a PTSD-inducing event, or severe anxiety or depression to seek mental health support. Simply thinking, "maybe I should try it," if one feels overwhelmed or desolate can be enough. When I was in grad school, I visited my university's counseling office to get advice on coping with the stresses of schoolwork and living long-distance from my husband. I had around five meetings total with a therapist and found them to be useful. Did she "fix" me or my problems? Certainly not. But at least I found a safe zone and an objective third party willing to listen to me. Since the therapist was removed from my situation, she helped me step out of it briefly to sort through my thoughts and emotions. I ended up unwinding about many other issues that came up which I did not realize I was holding in. Truth be told, I can't even remember what the therapist told me to do, but it was nice having someone to talk to at a time when I felt alone, and I learned a few things about myself and my personality that I hadn't known before. Fast forward a few years later when my husband and I experienced one of our biggest losses to date. It came out of nowhere and knocked us both off our feet in a really ugly way. When I was in the hospital, I had already made up my mind that I was going to look for a therapist once I got discharged. "I need to see someone, there's no way I'm dealing with this alone," I thought. It was the best decision I've made in my life. I had a few well-meaning relatives tell me it wasn't necessary. Some tried to minimize the loss by saying I'd have more kids soon inshaAllah, and this pain would ease with time. Others tried to make me feel better by talking about how it could have been worse or that I should consider graver situations that people around the world face like starvation or dying in war. It was almost like I should feel guilty that I was making such a big deal out of a loss that many, many women around the world silently suffer from and grieve in isolation, and are expected to eventually "get over." Luckily, my amazing sisters stood by my side and reassured me that I was making the right decision. Their support was the only thing I needed to block out any potential qualms I had about Googling 'grief counseling' and my zip code. It's been a year since I've been seeing my grief therapist, and I am in a much better place mentally and physically. I credit Allah (S)'s guidance and mercy for taking me this far and sending me my wise therapist to help me on my road to recovery.
My family members' initial reaction shows that there is a stigma in our community around getting mental health help. "Read more Qur'an and make dua," we might often hear from them when we express feelings of depression or isolation. It is true that this remedy is part of the solution; the power of Qur'an and dua cannot be underestimated. They are tools I continually use on good and bad days and should be priority #1 when we need uplifting. That being said, professional help also has immeasurable potential in guiding us to navigate whatever adversity we go through. This is because it is done under the guidance of someone who has studied various stages of mental distress, has worked with people in similar situations before, has a more objective perspective, and can teach us to frame problems removed from our own bias or pre-conceived judgments.
Seeking help is nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, negative emotions and processing through them are part of the human experience. I know I'll be a better mother and will be grateful for every tantrum, cry, or spit-up my next child will bring into my life, inshaAllah. This is BECAUSE of the adversity I underwent, and the silver lining I take away from my first son's loss. Just because we are being "tested" by a calamity does not mean we need to suffer in silence or fight our battles alone. Furthermore, seeking mental health help is not a sign of weak iman, but a testament to having faith and courage that we can overcome whatever obstacles come our way by using as many resources as possible to help us get there.
Photo by Chiara Sicuro
Mental heath support does not need to be limited to therapy. It can also include joining a support group, attending a mindfulness class, practicing yoga or meditation with a DVD, or reading books or articles about cultivating greater emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Ultimately, taking care of our mental health needs strengthens our resilience and character. We are better equipped for rainy days when they hit, and can fully relish the sunshine that follows after. As the fifth verse from Surah As-Sharh reassures us, "Verily with hardship comes ease." Take comfort in knowing Allah (S) has your back at all times, and always provides the means you need to get through anything - mental health help, included. :)
If you want to use mental health support but don't know where to look, here are some helpful resources:
Help Finding a Therapist: 1-800-THERAPIST (1-800-843-7274)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
Mental Health America: (800) 969-6MHA (6642) In crisis? Call: 1-800-273-TALK