Muslims and Mental Health: Reflections After World Mental Health Day
Updated: Jan 31, 2019
by Abdul Hasan
A week after World Mental Health day, and thinking about Maslaha’s work related to mental health and the Muslim community, the case of Muhiddin Mire comes to mind. In December 2015, Muhuddin, a 29-year-old Somali man from Leytonstone, carried out a knife attack in Leytonstone station, injuring three people. Media as well as police and investigation services immediately pursued a ‘terrorist’ narrative.
It was only a few days later that reports emerged of Muhiddin’s long history of mental health problems, and his case began to be examined through the lens of mental health, rather than just terrorism. He had been experiencing paranoid delusions a month before the attack and his family had raised concerns about his mental health to local authorities and the Metropolitan Police just three weeks before the incident but to no avail. The police defended their lack of intervention by claiming “there was no mention of radicalisation’, implying that unless a Muslim fits the narrative of terrorist, their mental health concerns do not really matter.
This is not the place for a longer dissection of the relationship between terrorism and mental health, not least because such discussions can quickly and uncritically descend into ableist and racist/islamophobic assumptions. What is pertinent here is that that those who are marked as Muslim are controlled by a narrative that they did not write, over which they have no agency. They get assigned qualities and characteristics that may have no actual bearing on their realities. Mentally unwell Muslims may be seen as many things, including terrorists, before they are seen as individuals with intricate emotional makeups, who may be experiencing sadness, grief, anger and multiple other complex and conflicting emotions.
Mental health treatment relies upon patients being able to tell their stories, and doctors being able to listen.
With our Talking from the Heart initiative, we worked to widen the language around ‘mental health’, so that the vocabulary would make sense to patients and their families, who come from diverse Muslim backgrounds. In many community languages, including Arabic, Somali, Sylheti and Urdu, there is no direct translation of the word ‘depression’.
We produced a resource on depression and anxiety in partnership with AT Medics, London’s largest group of NHS clinical; Midaye, a Somali community organisation, a Somali psychotherapist, imams and community organisations across London. We incorporated the language of faith and culture using film and music, working with people, concepts and words recognisable to communities, and with a Somali musician whose songs of exile helped create a vocabulary around depression. By presenting a holistic and spiritually-informed resource on mental health, which honoured the characteristics of the communities they are for, we hoped to encourage people from diverse Muslim communities to be able to tell their stories and have more confidence approaching mental health services.
These resources are a direct intervention, speaking to affected communities to encourage members of these communities to be able to speak up and speak to therapists and counsellors about their issues, without shame, without blame. Yet a secondary function of these resources is to open up a dialogue, present different perspectives (cultural, faith-based) on medicine and healing, and thereby hopefully encourage medical practitioners to be better able to engage in listening.
For there is little point in encouraging vulnerable members of communities to speak up and talk about taboo, stigmatised aspects of mental life without similarly encouraging sensitive and open listening among health practitioners.