The Muslim Experience Navigating Mental Health and Religion

By Laviza Syed


Two young Muslim women discuss their ongoing relationship with God while battling trauma and mental illness


Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault


Dissociative amnesia. An occurrence where your brain blocks out certain events or traumatic incidents, leaving the individual unable to recall certain events. Circumstances in your life, however, can trigger your brain into remembering. A year ago, this was the case for Masuma Akbar, when she remembered the second time she was sexually abused by another one of her cousins.


The culture around Muslims seeking help for their mental health, or mental illness, is an extremely taboo subject. This creates a very dangerous playing field for those struggling with traumatic events and simultaneously creates a rigid dichotomy between their faith and their mental health.


Akbar, a second-year child and youth care student at X University*, describes how her relationship with God and religion fluctuates while she battles trauma and mental health.


“I can pinpoint the moment when my view of God especially set me back,” says Akbar.


Attending an Islamic school system as a young teen, Akbar consistently felt like the outlier, the outcast, not fitting into the mould of those around her. She felt, and was treated, drastically different from the other young Muslim students at As-Sadiq Islamic School. Akbar also lived in a joint family system her entire life, until three years ago when her family moved out when they learned she was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of one of her cousins.


“With brown culture, I was shunned by family members saying, ‘she's making stuff up.’ Hearing that from your family is definitely heartbreaking,” says Akbar.


She says she began questioning at a young age why she felt uncomfortable in certain areas of her house; why she felt anxious, why her heartbeat was fast. It was never considered or taught to her that mental health was an issue, or that these were signs of something much bigger and would have a lifelong impact if not given the importance they needed.


“I was in Grade 8 when I spoke up and sought therapy, but my relationship with religion was horrible because of how the Islamic school system and culture pressured religion and the hijab on me,” says Akbar. “People would say, ‘she's acting out because she wants attention,’ or ‘she's acting out because she wants boys to like her.’”


“There was always an excuse for my behaviour, rather than asking what was wrong or why I was acting the way I was,” adds Akbar.


Muslim communities have created an intrinsic tie to mental health and being religious. The notion is that mental health issues are a test from God, and seeking help undermines your level of religiosity. These constructs are a harmful narrative that prohibits medical or professional help for many individuals.


When Akbar remembered the incident of her second encounter of sexual abuse, it created another obstacle, both mentally and spiritually. “Do I even want to try to make a relationship with God, or do I want to stay in the place I am now?”


“I would describe my relationship with God as a seesaw because, on one hand, I want to be closer to Him, but on the other, I'm content with my belief in God and how I view Islam and how I am as a person. The problem is that it's so hard to continue to have faith in your belief when you're constantly getting shit thrown at you.”


Akbar says older generations of Muslims, such as parents and grandparents, look at depression or anxiety as a weakness in faith as if devout worship would create a link to magical healing.


When Akbar wore the hijab from Grade 3 until she was 17, she says she didn’t automatically feel more religious or feel a significant increase in her mental health. In fact, she says it had quite an adverse effect.


“I felt like I was letting down the religion by sinning or doing certain things while wearing the hijab, so in return, God was letting me down."


"Every day is like a breaking point, and He's seeing me, face hardship after hardship, and I want to believe after hardship comes ease, but it's definitely challenging, and I know I have the faith in me, it’s just a matter of making that faith stronger,” says Akbar.


The myth that consulting an imam, which is an Islamic leader, or a religious scholar is enough to address someone's mental illnesses or personal challenges should be dismantled immediately. Most imams and religious scholars are not trained in mental health services, resulting in a gap or difference in opinion between a scholar and mental health professional.


“I've been to your regular sit down therapy sessions, and also eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, which is a sensory treatment for trauma or stress. And for Sheikhs, I spoke to a few as well,” says Akbar. “But because of my relationship with God, even though there are answers that seem appropriate from religious scholars, I just don't believe it. I don't believe that that could be true.”


A barrier for many Muslims is the fear that mental health providers or services will not understand religion or spirituality as a core or foundation, and that fear prevents many people from seeking out help. A therapists’ perception of religion could be the reason for the deterioration. This is where cultural and religious awareness in the medical field is of great importance.


That being said, Akbar says she has been to both Muslim and non-Muslim professionals and realized the pros and cons of both.


“From the perspective of someone who is seeking help, are you willing to sit in front of somebody, who is also Muslim, who knows what is considered right and wrong, and be able to talk about the things in your life that aren’t necessarily appropriate?”


The most important thing to remember is that healing is personal and depends on your comfort, Whether the help comes in the form of a Muslim or non-Muslim, a scholar or therapist.


Akbar is not alone in her struggles with mental illness, trauma, and trying to formulate a relationship with God through those times. Hania Noor was faced with extreme anxiety, feelings of otherness, and a disconnect with God when moving overseas. Noor’s experience shines a different light on how mental illness can curate your relationship with God.


Noor moved to Canada from her home country of Pakistan at the age of nine. This move was not only a drastic change to her life as a child but also impacted her relationship with spirituality.


Being connected to religion in a Muslim-majority country is not as easy as it may seem. Noor explains how constantly being surrounded by religion turned it into nothing more than meaningless, ritualistic actions that became draining rather than empowering for her.


When Noor came to Canada, and those ritualistic acts went away, she felt completely disassociated from religion, because she never understood it from the start. She came to a new and secular country and completely distanced herself, feeling judged from the outside and insecure on the inside.


"I've struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember. When I came to Canada and I was dealing with some really rough times in high school, that's when I sought out that connection, and I understood the concept of religion for myself,” says Noor, explaining how she refound religion.


The journey to discover her connection with religion again, on her own, in a country where she already felt unaccepted and different, became a gruelling process. However, she emphasizes the importance of finding religion and God as you grow, on your own terms. She says the connection you have with God should be very personal.


“Being religious has pushed me to take care of myself more, almost like a safety blanket,” says Noor. “When I'm going through something very rough I'm not the type of person to talk about it, so having God always made me feel like I had something to fall back on, something to rely on.”


“I struggled with anxiety before and I still turned to God, but nowhere near how I do now. It's just the first thing I seek. I'll just talk out loud and have a conversation with God. I feel so understood because when you talk to people, sometimes there are no words for how you feel. But in this situation, I don't even have to say it out loud, He just knows. That's all you need; for someone to understand, someone out there that's hearing you, listening to you, and the help will come. I've felt the help come. I've seen it come over and over,” says Noor.


In terms of receiving help for her anxiety beyond her relationship with God, Noor would always prefer to seek out a method that would increase her love for religion and form her relationship through it and would seek out religious scholarly advice before turning to therapy.


“It’s obviously not treatment, but I have that sense of comfort with people that are Muslim. God is such a big part of my life, so if I was talking to a professional, and we could have a foundation or shared understanding of the basis of religion, that would make me so much more comfortable and accepting of the advice I was receiving."


For those who have a God-centric view on life, speaking about their experiences in a secular space could result in them moving away from therapy as a whole.


"Especially living in the West, if I was to go to a therapist, certain things I was going through might not be completely understood, or view it in a certain way. Therapists are people at the end of the day, they still have their own biases, and I would never want there to be a disconnect between us. It has to be the right person, they have to be a balance of being Muslim and being a therapist, it can't be just one or the other,” says Noor.


Feeling judged and out of place while adapting to life in a new country helped exemplify Noor’s connection with religion. She came from a community-based lifestyle and having the involvement of others in her religion created distance. Being placed in a situation where she felt like she had no one else to turn to create that personal connection for Noor. Being rejected by everyone else allowed her to find solace in God.


“Take everybody else out of it, and just isolate yourself to you and God, and see how your view towards religion will change when you just seek Him out and remove everything else,” says Noor.


Because of each and every individual’s different lived experiences, their relationship with religion and how they view God will change. The problem within Muslim communities is trying to use a general solution and apply that knowledge to every case of mental illness will never work. Undermining someone’s religiosity when they present trauma or mental illness will never work.


The first steps to decreasing the stigma around seeking help are to raise awareness and educate the Muslim community on the realities of mental health struggles and normalize mental illnesses. As a collective, we must stop treating mental illness as something to be ashamed of or hidden.


As Muslims, we need to be open to being vulnerable. We stop trying to show ourselves as ideal to everyone else and show young Muslims that there is not one mould they must fit to be accepted as Muslims. We have to be open to saying what we’re going through and supporting others experiencing similar problems, and uplift one another, rather than one-upping one another.


*X University, officially known as Ryerson University, is undergoing a renaming process to halt the perpetuation of its namesake’s racism and contribution to cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada. New Wave Zine is committed to honouring and respecting the land we operate on, and to uplift the words and art of First Nations, Métis and Inuit folks.