Hussain Manawar, a 24-year-old from Essex, will be the first British Muslim to enter space after winning a competition consisting of entrants from more than 90 countries worldwide. In his victory speech, it was interesting to note that Manawar dedicated his victory to sufferers of mental health:
“This spaceship, I want to dedicate this to every single person who has suffered from mental health, every young boy, girl, man, woman who sits in their bedroom crying and you don’t know why, everyone who avoids mirrors because you don’t like what you look like. I want to tell you, if you are suffering from mental health it is absolutely fine. Welcome to the club, there are seven billion of us.”
Mental health is a taboo subject within the Muslim community and continues to be misunderstood. Having witnessed discussions within the Muslim community on the issue, some unfortunate views seem to remain quite prevalent. For example, some people deny the existence of depression, suggesting that those suffering with it don’t have an organic illness. Instead their symptoms are attributed somewhat simplistically to a ‘lack of imaan’. Another common misconception is the idea that those with symptoms of psychosis have actually been possessed by Jinns. Whilst the concept of demonic possession is well known in all the Abrahamic faiths and has even been discussed by psychiatrists, it certainly isn’t as common as is perceived. For these reasons, many Muslims suffering with mental health problems end up becoming isolated within their communities.
Furthermore, there is the added worry of how they might be viewed by medical professionals. In particular, the introduction of ‘Prevent’ within healthcare organisations may hinder Muslim patients from seeking help, for fear of being labelled as someone ‘at risk’ of radicalisation. The policy seems to place a strong emphasis on the link between radicalisation and mental health without much evidence and has been criticised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists , who have called for more peer-reviewed research and transparency from those involved with the Prevent strategy citing concerns at the impact policy can have in furthering stereotypes surrounding mental health within society.
Given the apprehension that exists with going down the conventional route for therapy, coupled with the misunderstandings that many mental health problems are due to demonic possession, a number of Muslim patients will resort to private exorcists and spiritual healers for treatment. Again this poses a plethora of problems, most notably the fact that this is largely an unregulated industry consisting of individuals who simply don’t possess any formal qualifications in dealing with mental health patients, relying on word-of-mouth to generate business, and in some cases, prying upon the faith of vulnerable people to charge extortionate amounts of money. Moreover, there is the added dimension of patients being misdiagnosed and subsequently receiving inappropriate treatment.
This entire affair is currently quite acute and unless leaders of the Muslim community start to take action in addressing these issues things will only continue to worsen. It is well known that mental health problems are particularly prevalent in areas of social deprivation and inequality, many of which tend to be densely populated with Muslims. If we add to this the impact that continued negative press and rising Islamophobia has on those vulnerable to mental health problems, we can predict that the incidence of mental health problems will unfortunately continue to rise if the current status quo is maintained.
This article is therefore a call to Muslims in positions of authority to begin the process of addressing some of the issues highlighted in this article before the problem worsens. For the Muslim doctors who ought to have a greater understanding about issues of mental health, they must engage with local mosques and encourage them to start talking about mental health within their congregations, initiating the process of education and correcting the misconceptions surrounding mental illness. Although some mosques have begun to recognise the problem and taken positive steps towards providing counselling services for their congregants, this needs to become more widespread with mosques forming strong relationships with NGOs working in this realm so that those suffering with mental health problems can be signposted towards appropriate treatment. For those who work in the realm of policy and engaging parliament, it is vital that pressure is applied upon policy makers to ensure adequate provision of mental health services, given that this is an area of public health that continues to suffer massive underfunding, and for those working specifically in the areas of radicalisation, it is vital that the issue of mental health is dealt with sensitively within this context ensuring policies are formed around robust, peer-reviewed research.