Little scabs that we get from playing basketball are no biggie, in the sense that nobody really worries about them because everyone knows that a little Cortisone-10 and some Band-Aids will heal the scabs right up. But what if those scabs had no color? What if they were invisible (looked like normal skin) to everyone else, but you were still hurting from them? And they grew and grew…but nobody noticed or worried because, obviously, there is no apparent, physical injury? Those invisible scabs are kind of what it’s like suffering or living with a mental illness. You could be texting or messaging one of your friends and wouldn’t know how many invisible scabs they have. This is because no matter how close you are to your best friend, everyone has their own deepest secrets that they keep between them and Allah (God). I would imagine that even some of the Prophets (May peace and blessings be upon them) had their own personal battles that they kept between them and Allah.
Now, what if these invisible scabs or injuries were not invisible? What if they were actual injuries on someone’s body? To take this even further…what if they were self-inflicted? The invisible scabs have now become scars caused by self-harm. But who would do such a thing to themselves? And why am I even writing all this morbid, negative stuff? Who cares?
I believe the Muslim community doesn’t talk about it enough. Mental illness, unfortunately, isn’t seen or treated in the same way a physical injury would be in most Muslim communities. There is a stigma surrounding it, and consequently, helpless young Muslims suffering from major depression, anxiety disorders, etc., don’t have a safe haven.
We all have our own coping mechanisms for pain/trauma in our lives, and for some Muslim youths, that coping mechanism is self-harm. It starts out as just a bad habit. Then, slowly… it becomes addicting. One feels an instant rush of adrenaline while harming oneself, and that short rush affects every corner of the mind. Do it once, and the all-consuming thought becomes when can it be done again? I know this because I was that Muslim youth who used self-harm as a coping mechanism, and it became an addiction.
I haven’t talked about my mental health journey in a long time because of stigma, judgment, and the overwhelming pain that comes with the bad nostalgia. But by writing this article anonymously and revamping the discussion, I hope I will help another Muslim youth out there suffering right now.
On my first step to recovery, I resorted to a non-Muslim therapist/counselor, who was actually referred to me by my psychology professor at the time. I saw this person regularly for almost all of my college years. I did not see this person as non-muslim, because I wasn’t connected to my faith as strongly as my other Muslim friends at the time. I always believed that Allah was there, but I didn’t pray. I didn’t make du’a. Gradually, I even stopped talking to all my friends for almost a year. But I never doubted that He was there, looking down on me.
I was in an emotionally and mentally abusive relationship at the time, and instead of dealing with the psychological pain, I expressed it by causing pain to myself. Therapy helped me find new ways to express my pain. The therapist never asked me if self-harm was allowed in Islam, what my parents thought about it, or anything about my faith. I respected the therapist for that. My identity wasn’t associated with anything; I was seen as myself. As an individual. No matter if one is an atheist, a Muslim, a Jew, or a Hindu, mental illness is something that affects every single person, regardless of personal beliefs.
But even on my journey of recovery, I still felt like something was missing. I couldn’t connect easily to the Qur’an as my Muslim friends did. I still, to this day, struggle with keeping my hijab on. I struggle to accept that there is someone out there who will love me one day and won’t leave me. Sometimes I don’t feel like I belong with the Muslim community because of this stigma, but I also don’t feel like I belong with my non-muslim friends either because of my depressive thoughts. It’s a never-ending battle in my head. Sometimes, I think it would be better if I just kept to myself.
One day I finally, fully opened up to one of my closest friends about it. I explained to her what I went through that had caused me to be so depressed that I wanted to hurt myself. As tears fell down both of our faces in the middle of a Starbucks coffee shop, I felt relieved…but not only that, I felt closer to the Qur’an.
She left me with Surat ad-Dhuha. I was overwhelmed by the comforts of my friend, who had told me that nothing was wrong with me, and had reminded me of how bright and talented I was — how kind and caring I could be to other people, even if I wasn’t kind and caring to myself. She even shared some of her struggles with mental illness. And suddenly, because of this, I didn’t feel so alone anymore.
I also felt comfort from Someone else, who couldn’t lend a shoulder to cry on— Allah. He is closer to us than anyone on this Earth. The meaning of Surat ad-Dhuha made me feel more connected to Allah, but also made me feel a little guilty. I was questioning His help, wondering where He had been when His was the only name that I had called out in the midst of panic attacks on the bathroom floor. I tried opening up to my mother about my mental health, but she isn’t the most sensitive or affectionate person, for many reasons. Now I realize that that was actually a blessing in disguise. Sometimes Allah tests one to such a point that the only one to turn to is Him. But at the same time, I never brought it up to her again. Cultural beliefs and the vast disconnect with our generation about mental illness is a whole other discussion, but it is a very deep issue that also needs some mending; especially in Asian households.
I write this article not to scare anyone or to ask for any kind of sympathy, but to reach out to that young Muslim brother or sister who feels lost and doesn’t have a safe haven, and to bring about awareness of the need for mental health discussions in Muslim communities. I don’t want anyone to ever feel as alone and disconnected as I did when I was in my darkest times. Yes, we can go to our therapists or counselors in high school or college, but they can only understand so much. They won’t fully understand or relate to how a typical Pakistani or Arab household is run and how that affects our relationships with our siblings and parents. They can’t understand the pressures of getting married, getting a decent job after graduation, or the gossip that takes place behind curtains and between mutual friends/acquaintances, all while struggling with a mental illness and not being able to speak out about it because of fear of stigma. And most importantly, unless they are Muslim, they won’t fully understand the need for a balance in therapeutic treatment and application of the Qur’an and Sunnah in recovery. But even when we try to speak up in front our Muslim community, we receive comments like: “You’re anxious because you’re guilty from sinning,” “Self-harm is stupid and just attention-seeking,” or “Suicide is haram and you’ll go to Hell.”
Self-harm and suicide are haram. But the wisdom behind its status as haram is really beautiful when considered closely: Our Creator does not want us to hurt ourselves. This body does not belong to us; it belongs to Him. We all came from our Father and Mother — Adam & Eve, who Allah created — and we will return to our Creator when we die. Our bodies will turn to dust, six feet underground. So what right do we have to harm His creation? Who do we think we are to decide when our life ends? Allah is al-Hakam, the final Judge of all affairs. But He is also ar-Raheem, the most Merciful. Even when we think we will never be forgiven for the sins we have committed, He will forgive us. God is taking care of us. He loves you and me, even when we don’t necessarily agree with the things He puts us through. Allah does not burden a soul more than what he/she can bare. It is Shaytan’s voice that whispers in our ear that we will never be forgiven, and that it is useless even try to cease our destructive habits. That there is no hope.
Do not listen to that voice that tells you those negative things and so many more. Do not listen to those Muslims in your community or in your family who tell you that “You’re just a crybaby,” to “man up,” or that “you probably aren’t reading enough Qur’an.”
The mind, I believe, is the most powerful thing in our world. We decide if we’re going to have a great day. Yes, our day might not go the way we planned, but Allah (if He wills) gives us another chance when we wake up the next day. We could be losing our job, losing a friend, going through a breakup, but Allah never leaves our side. He is watching over you. You just have to call Him.
But we really need to do a better job in listening and creating a support system for those friends of ours who are struggling with mental illness. We need to go even further and create discussions about how we’re feeling, and to talk about the really dark things without any judgment. Because believe it or not, there are young Muslims out there who feel too sinful to pray, to put the hijab back on, or to ever believe that they will have a healthy relationship and/or marriage in the future. There needs to be some sort of mental health hotline that is within reach of Muslim youth, and if there is, Muslim communities need to create that safe haven for these young Muslims to speak up and say, “I am struggling and I need help”. They are not alone, and they shouldn’t feel like it. Mental illness is just as deadly as physical illness and it needs to start being taken seriously. There needs to be more discussion from Muslim public figures on social media, the news outlets, and in the masajid. We need to provide young Muslims and others with Muslim professionals who are therapists, counselors, and psychologists. We need to start building mental health systems in order to create healthier, positive, and caring Muslim communities and environments.
I pray that this article instills just one young Muslim brother or sister to start living a positive life and to reach out for professional help. The journey to recovery is not an easy one; it’s an everyday battle with yourself. One won’t feel magically happy with just reciting Qur’an every day. We need to work hard on ourselves. Yes, reading Qur’an and praying helps with anxiety, but it is not a cure-all.
Speak up and tell a friend. If that friend isn’t supportive, then tell a professor/teacher. If they don’t take you seriously, then tell someone else that you trust. Do not let your illness take control of you. Your pain is real, your mental health matters, and even if you feel completely alone, Allah was and is always there for you. But you have to help yourself. Nobody else can do that for you.
I pray every day that Allah takes the pain away from me and other young Muslims struggling with mental illness. I pray that whoever or whatever harmed us never harms us again. I pray for a more understanding and comforting Ummah that looks out for all the brothers and sisters struggling with mental illness instead of shutting them down or negatively judging them. I pray that Allah helps me forgive myself for hurting my body, His creation. And if the harm comes back, that Allah makes us stronger than we are today to face it in the future
Stay Strong. Nothing is wrong with you. You are not alone.
With much love,
A fellow Young Muslim. May Peace and Blessings be upon you <3