Islam's depression tension
August 12, 2012
The New Testament Jesus befriended the most despised — tax collectors and sex workers. The earliest followers of Muhammad were slaves and those with no tribal connection. The word sufi is said to come from the phrase as-hab as-sufra (people of the bench) referring to the homeless who lived on a bench in the mosque.
But you don't have to be homeless or engaged in a socially despised vocation to feel marginalised or alienated. There is one form of marginalisation of the mind that can afflict just about anyone.
Some forms of depression are severe enough to drive sufferers into a monastery of hopelessness. For depressed believers, often the first place they look for solace is their congregation, the people they associate with God the most. Many recognise their negative mood as a huge threat to their faith, and try to cling to it even harder.
Sadly, the experiences of so many depressed believers I have spoken to about the subject haven't been encouraging. I can only speak about the congregations of Australian Muslims I am most familiar with.
One close friend told me he told his Melbourne imam about being prescribed anti-depressants. The imam responded: 'You don't need to take these. I will tell you some special prayer formulae which will help you.' He followed the imam's advice. In the next six months, he had attempted suicide twice.
Another said that Muslims in her religious circle kept insisting that depression is just a term of psychobabble, and that her real problem was that she had weak imaan (faith) and needed to exercise sabr (patience).
Some years back a South Asian boy in my close family circle committed suicide after struggling with depression for years. His father was plagued with guilt, made worse by people expressing views that those who commit suicide die the death of a non-believer and will burn in hell forever.
The implication was that the father should forget about praying for his son's soul.
God only knows if that father ever heard the (arguably) more theologically correct narrative — that only God decides who enters paradise and that the son's suicide should be regarded as the direct result of an illness.
The ignorance of and stigma attached to depression in Muslim ethno-religious circles is largely the result of cultural attitudes that have some (usually warped) basis in religion. Because Muslim congregations are almost always divided along ethnic and linguistic lines, such attitudes gain greater prominence.
The result is that there are few spiritual spaces for depressed Muslims to find support.
The irony is that religious leaders deal with trauma arising from family conflict and death all the time. They are called to mediate in family disputes and to counsel the grieving. Many emerging ethnic Muslim groups also have the additional trauma faced by all asylum seekers of overcoming the impacts of war.
Imams need to become more equipped to recognise depression. Their employers and congregations would do well to have imams complete mental health first aid courses. They need to get to know and work with mental health workers, psychologists and psychiatrists in their community and in their area.
But it's unfair to just point the finger at imams and ignore the congregations and structures they are forced to work in and over which they generally have little control.
Negative mood in individuals struggling with faith and depression can only be combated when negative attitudes of their fellow believers change. The conventional religious narrative on depression in emerging communities should not be hard to change, especially if much of the self-help literature is anything to go by.
Many self-help books I have come across could almost be accused of repackaging the existing ancient wisdom of traditional religions (including Islam). It would be easy to find at least five sayings of the prophet Muhammad which can be combined to mirror the basic prescriptions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
The same could be true of any other religious text. This, in itself, should not be reason to dismiss CBT. Instead, it should facilitate conventional treatment methods to work hand in hand with religious teaching.
Emerging congregations ignore depression at their peril. Yes, Muslims know suicide is forbidden under the sacred law. Depression often leads to suicide. This should make religious people more vigilant of recognising depression and encouraging others they suspect are suffering from it to seek help.
Most of all, the stigma attached to depression must be lifted. Depression is an illness like diabetes. Both are generally easily managed. But both can also kill.
Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.
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13 Aug 2012
I agree with the writer because there is a deeper responsibility that falls on every Imam's head other than just Imamat is that he needs to interpret the right teachings of Islam and opt for clarity in today's age of confusion and deception.
13 Aug 2012
Yes, depression is an illness. When a suicide occurs it is often after a long and brave struggle by the depressed person. To see that struggle, often over many years, one knows the fight and the bravery of the person who took his/her life. When people witness, at first hand, the lengths a depressed person goes to to survive their illness, there is much grief that an answer wasn't found. It can take months for the right medication to work, and then for some it is not enough.For the person left behind there is often regret; a deep sadness.God is with the suffering and it follows that God opens his arms to those who are depressed. God also forgives, and when people condemn those who suicide then we must forgive, teach and pray. Maybe, with more articles like Irfan Yusuf's people will come to understand the both the bravery and the suffering of the depressed person.
13 Aug 2012
Severe clinical depression is treatable but incurable and may end with the death by suicide of the sufferer. Deep depression which comes from life events may end in the same way; but it is treatable and curable and the treatments suggested by Irvan Yusuf could be most helpful in saving lives.
Tragically, Australian ways of dealing with refugees who come here is the cause of deep depression for many and subsequent deaths by suicide...a matter which should cause great shame in this country. It doesn't even appear to be a cause of concern to most of our government leaders.
13 Aug 2012
Also, Muslims suffering from depression are contained in the wider Australian society where depression and mental stress are still stuck in a taboo off silence, shame and ignorance..look at the celebrities and politicians who 'come out' about mental illness. Come out from the hell of the taboo.
13 Aug 2012
Thanks for a sane article about a stigmatised illness that is hard to pick and can cause dreadful consequences even when well treated. Anyone who has had depression or had a relative endure it cannot but be moved by your argument.
13 Aug 2012
Much is made of the Oneness of God by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, but litle is said or done to bring out the Oneness of the people of the World, and the unity and cooperation they should find despite their differences. The human body is a great example of the cooperation of trillions of cells, each of which has a life of its own, all uniting to form different limbs and organs, all of which in turn cooperate for the good of the whole body, and of each cell. The insistence of the leaders of different religions that 'their' religion is uniquely chosen by God, spreads to the members, and can cause tensions towards 'others', and can give rise to situations that can spark doubts, frustration and depression, especially among minority groups who are discriminated against. It is hard to rise above the cultural and traditional ways of expressing allegiance to God,but once achieved, the benefits to all mankind will be evident.
13 Aug 2012
Great article. It sounds like some Australian muslims need to be educated about the difference between the scientific process which underpins the treatment of depression in the 21st Century and the hocus pocus which underpins the world's popular religions.
14 Aug 2012
This problem of not accepting depressions as a disease is also (still) common in the Catholic church. I speak of Austria's country side where depressions are oftenly hidden and priests "prescription" is prayer and patience. A fatal cure which leaves believers suffering and getting into deeper despair. In my opinion, this is cruel and not at all in the name of Jesus, who showed compassion and understanding.
15 Aug 2012
Depression and mental illness in the Australian Muslim community should be something of concern to both Muslims and the general community. I think it is essential that Imams chosen for service in Australia, wherever trained, need to have some idea about the problems of alienation and mental illness their community members might face here. They also need to be able to understand and mix with appropriate health professionals. Many Christian clergy have similar problems dealing with mental health issues.
I believe there is a more scientific approach possible than the one you mention the Imam using, which sounds very much like simple "folk" Islam you might see in an unsophisticated rural setting. This is based on a Sura in the Quran which I believe says there is no illness to which a cure cannot be found. Many knowledgeable Ulema at places like Al Azhar University in Cairo and educated Sufis would say this would encourage proper medical treatment as well as prayer.
Perhaps the experience of other longer extant and more numerous Muslim communities in the UK and North America might help here?