Mental illness sufferers need sympathetic local help
Close your eyes for a minute and imagine being in an empty room. The room is dark and the walls feel like they are closing in on you. You are sitting in a damp corner, hugging your legs tight. The world is a gloomy place; you are engulfed with a crashing wave of grief. The world does not understand you; your family does not understand you. Maybe they would be better off. Maybe the world would be better off without you.
It is often difficult to imagine that anyone would want to take their own life. You have probably known someone or heard of someone who has died by suicide, be it a member of your community, a loved one or a celebrity. You will wonder if there was anything you or anyone else could have done to prevent it. You will scrutinize all your moments with them to see if you possibly missed the signs.
Last week, the world observed Mental Illness Awareness Week to raise awareness of the various mental health conditions and provide support, assistance and care for sufferers. This year, the World Health Organization focused on suicide prevention. According to its website, somebody dies by suicide every 40 seconds.
What compels someone to commit suicide? The reasons are many, and they are compound. Some mental illnesses can cause one to commit suicide, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Other worldly conditions can be a factor, including bullying, traumatic stress, addictions, loss or fear, chronic pain and terminal conditions. However, one of the leading reasons that can drive someone to a state of hopelessness is severe depression.
Where you are and how you identify yourself often determines how you react and judge suicide. In Islam, the act of committing suicide is considered a grave sin. The Qur’an makes it very clear that human life is sacred: “And do not kill yourselves. Surely, God is most merciful to you” (Qur’an 4:29). One cannot take one’s life out of despair, calamity or any world-related problems. Muslims have to thus practice patience and look toward their faith.
In some cases in Islam, however, one’s mental capacity predetermines judgment. For example, a person in a Muslim society may develop a mental or physical illness or condition that affects his or her mental capacity so much that they do not know what they are saying or doing. In this situation, they are unaware of their actions and are thus not condemned.
It is my presumption to wonder if we as a society oversimplify the matter. Where most see it as binary, our religion is actually more nuanced, especially with the explanation above on when individuals have a mental illness. For starters, there is a wide spectrum of conditions, with some that do not necessarily reduce you to a mentally incapacitated state. The question is, when do we consider an individual mentally sound and who determines that — a religious or a medical professional?
To reach a state where someone considers taking their own life is very complex to understand and treat. People who die by suicide do not want to die, but to end their pain. It is thus very reductive to look at it through a single lens. Patients with mental illnesses and individuals who are going through the darkest periods of their lives require our compassion, support and help, not the threat of internal condemnation.
What we lack is basic information and services for those who are having or exhibiting suicidal behavior and wanting help.
Asma I. Abdulmalik
I understand that many would argue that, if we did not have a harsh stance on suicide, many others might feel more inclined to commit it and, as a society, we would be more forgiving of it. Some may even escalate the argument to the point where they would claim we are encouraging it. I am arguing, however, for a better and more realistic understanding of the causes, consequences and treatment.
Suicide is prevalent everywhere, including among Muslim-majority counties. No society, age group, gender or religion is immune to it. While we are beginning to break the stigma around mental health issues, we are still alarmingly cautious when talking about it.
There are significant gaps in research on suicidal behavior in Muslim societies. According to Dr. Rania Awaad, the clinical director of the Bay Area branches of the Khalil Center, the largest clinic in the US for Muslim mental health issues: “There is very little research on suicide among Muslims because Muslim countries don’t report deaths by suicide to the World Health Organization.” The media also under-reports it and hardly analyzes it. Most of the research has been linked to specific cases, such as those that follow rape or violence. It fails to take into account age groups and socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.
More importantly than everything mentioned above, what we lack is basic information and services for those who are having or exhibiting suicidal behavior and wanting help. A quick bit of research online will overwhelm you with the amount of information, resources, support groups, and helplines available in Western countries. This is because they understand suicide is a fact and because they are keen on providing assistance and helping to save lives. Anybody is able to access information from any international website, but we owe it to them to provide local assistance that is in line with their culture and religion — assistance that does not make them feel judged and gives them hope.
- Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik