Earlier this year in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, a man leapt from the roof of the gleaming building to his death. He had killed himself. His leap was, inevitably captured on video, along with the collective gasps that stabbed the air as he jumped. News outlets in Saudi Arabia identified him as a 26-year-old Frenchman.
No one can be certain of his motives, but as British Muslims on social media began to talk about it, the suicide acquired a significance beyond the act itself. Suddenly, a place of worship and sanctuary became the cornerstone of a discussion for which no-one seemed really ready. One rooted in issues of cultural trauma, family, honour and an overzealous belief in prayer being the solution to all problems.
There had been uncomfortable attempts by the community to grapple with the issue of mental health previously but this one moment – of a man plunging to his death before what Muslims regard as God’s House – became a signal that silence could no longer persist. People had to talk.
For too long the response of British Muslims, particularly those of south Asian heritage, to such stories has been problematic. Though some have spoken poignantly about the problem, others have underlined the ignorant attitudes prevailing within the community.
In their eyes, the dead man had committed an abominable act directly before God. The mention of mental illness was not enough to stir them to pause and reflection. As they saw it, he had stained himself in the worst way, in an inexcusable manner.
Sadly, this unforgiving view is why many British Muslims struggle to discuss mental health. The man wasn’t seeking redemption or excuses for his sins, but probably hoping for an end to his suffering; he may have wished God’s House to be the last thing he saw on earth. There’s something deeply saddening in that; worse still is the fact that so many refuse to attempt to understand his case and others like it.
There was little compassion for this man’s suffering – even though it led to his death. Many Muslims see sin as a human flaw, but mental illness is not a flaw in that sense. It’s not a human weakness conditioned by our own behaviours and actions, but something uncontrollable.
The absence of compassion is a symptom of the wider struggle to discuss mental health within British Muslim families, which arises from a toxic fusion of religious misunderstanding and cultural values. Islam supposedly tells people life is a test and that they should embrace its sharp edges and desolate moments. To speak about mental suffering, in that interpretation, is to reject God’s plan and not to have faith in religion to solve the pain.
It doesn’t matter that that pain can leave you feeling like you’re drowning in constant black waves. Faith, and particularly prayer and its power, is the log you are supposed to hold on to stop you from being swept under. Dr Ghazala Mir, a researcher at Leeds University, argues that “This stigma does involve the idea that maybe if you need treatment, there might be something wrong with your faith identity in the first place.”
This is the retort that has greeted many who try to discuss the issue, or to argue that prayer alone isn’t enough to solve mental illness. People are told their weak faith is the cause of their depression – yet depression can affect enthusiasm for anything, including praying. There is fear and guilt in thinking prayer won’t solve the problem. So when you pray and find the solution slipping further away, you feel helpless. Your despair spirals.
Religion is often entwined with culture; most British Muslims of a south Asian background are influenced by their cultural roots simply by the differences from Muslims of other ethnic backgrounds. In particular, a tight-knit family structure is central to their identity. There is a constant demand to protect a family’s reputation and not to disappoint, to be what religion and culture demands, and avoid what the community gossips about.
For women, the ties and obligations to family are even tighter. Secrecy, fear, shame and honour mean everything. Reputation is everything, especially for a woman, because – to put it crudely – it can lower her value for marriage in parts of the community. Stories of ‘honour’ violence and supernatural possession are examples of the misogyny they face within families. The concept of demonic possession, in particular, affects women who exhibit signs of mental illness; the prescribed solution requires an exorcism but damages their name and status irrevocably. And of course, how as Muslims can you deny that demons exist?
I lost years of my life to mental illness. It was always there like a shadow, returning when I least expected it. After years of struggle and grind I thrived in university, feeling as if I had been unshackled. But my religion became an obstacle, deepening the problems. Faith strangled me with doubts, shame – and terror that I was sinning for refusing to accept prayer as the only road out of this gloom.
I lost count of how many times I stood on a train platform thinking there was a way for these thoughts to stop. Maybe it was the fear of God that stopped me from acting then, but it was also the fear of God that for years stopped me exploring solutions beyond prayer. Reconciling with roots I felt were holding me down but still couldn’t break from, was and remains a struggle.
Finding a solution to mental illness is not easy, especially to those of us suffering from it for years. Understanding it is like wading into an ocean of bottomless depths, or as a friend put it, “trying to keep a door open with a piece of string.” Perhaps it’s an inner war with no end that we will always be fighting. That’s how it feels.
But cultural values of family honour and pride, as well as religious demands of confidence in God, should not become deterrents for talking about illness.The mental health charity Mind has begun working with British Muslim communities to tackle this, reporting positive feedback.
What has certainly helped is exposure to western culture. As the older generations of British Muslims were more swayed by their cultural roots, younger generations are more influenced by a British culture which has started to challenge the stigmas around mental health, particularly the gender stereotypes which prohibit men – and women – from displaying emotional vulnerability
Will things change? If the traditional ‘stiff upper lip’ is now allowed to tremble. I can only hope that the same thing will happen within my community. The shameful silence imposed by my religion cannot persist.