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How We Stigmatize Mental Illness

By Sara Ali, LPC-I

Recently, I was at a social gathering where I overheard a young lady disclose a struggle. She said, “I’ve been feeling depressed, and today was another day where I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I came.”

There was an awkward silence.

The other guests did not respond with “I’m sorry to hear that,” or “that sounds tough, but I’m glad you made it!” That young lady may have been left to feel embarrassed or ashamed for speaking openly about her struggle.

The American Psychiatric Association reported in 2018, Muslim Americans perceive the disclosure of mental illness as shameful due to its social stigma, and women, specifically, may have fears related to their marital prospects, if psychiatric diagnoses were disclosed. In recent years, mental health is becoming more of a conversation within our Muslim community, but we struggle to make it a top priority. It is often seen as distressing, scares us, and sometimes we feel threatened. As a result, these attitudes contribute to the stigma, intolerance, and alienation of those individuals who struggle with mental illness.

How do we, as individuals, contribute to the mental health stigma?

There are multiple reasons. Among them is ignorance. We fear what we do not know, but if we can understand it, we are less likely to feel afraid. If we understand depression, we are likely to have a more empathetic ear and offer words of comfort, rather than awkward silences.

Secondly, we interpret diagnoses as labels, which are then attributed to disliked characteristics. An individual with clinically diagnosed depression may be viewed as “ungrateful”, or a mother suffering from anxiety may be seen as a “worry-wart”, or a young man with bipolar disorder may be labeled as “crazy.”

If we can interact with each other without labeling the other, we can look beyond the mental illness and see the individual as more, with the ability to heal. Let’s define others not by their behavior, but by who they are at their core.

Lastly, entertainment and social media tend to negatively portray individuals with mental illness, strengthening our limited beliefs and stigmatizing attitudes towards mental health.

Stigmatization matters, because individuals suffering from mental illness are excluded, offered poor social support, and are less likely to have successful treatment outcomes, contributing to poor job success and low quality of life. Beyond that, mental health stigma affects not only the individual but his/her family who are often the immediate source of support.

The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, “The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever.” [Sahih Bukhari and Muslim]

It is in our faith to show compassion and care, especially to those who are enduring a physical or mental illness, and we are advised to live within unity like one body. If a portion of our community is enduring mental illness, then, it is as if we are all hurting from their pain. So, the next time you hear someone speak about their struggle, be kind, be compassionate, or offer your support.

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