by Iman Labanieh
UC Berkeley's student-run mental health campaign is called "Half of Us," referring to how roughly half of college students will face a mental illness at some point in their college career. If it's something that 1 in 2 of us will first-handedly experience, why is it that we still refuse to talk about it? As a Psychology major and aspiring therapist, even I feel uncomfortable talking about my mental health struggles with anyone outside of my closest circle of friends and family—but refusing to talk about such a persistent issue only perpetuates the stigma.
It's true that these conversations are increasingly being brought to light, yet we are still uncomfortable with listening to others' experiences. It seems that, despite the fact that people are dying by suicide (read here for why you shouldn't say committed suicide) every day, we are not ready to have raw conversations about mental illness. As much as we try to tell ourselves that we are making progress, the stigma is still alive and rampant in our communities.
What is stigma?
Stigma: a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something
While research continues to be done on stigma, very little research has been geared toward the Muslim community. However, in one study, South Asians had significantly worse attitudes than Caucasians toward seeking help. Ciftci et. al (2012) write that “differences in stigma level and content have also been identified stemming from class and educational attainment (Phelan, Bromet, & Link, 1998), specific religious beliefs (Wesselmann & Graziano, 2010) and gender (Corrigan & Watson, 2007). The complex interactions between race/ethnicity, gender, class, religion, and health status have nevertheless gone largely unexplored, suggesting a need for more sophisticated intersectional analyses.” This research is important because it empirically proves that some cultures have much higher stigma levels than others and explores the potential causes of this finding.
One of the biggest reinforcers of the mental illness stigma in the Muslim community stems from Muslim parents telling their children that seeking treatment for their mental illness is unnecessary, that the “sadness” or “nervousness” they feel stems from a lack of iman*. This is an argument I have heard far too many times from a number of friends who have confided in me. Parents and community leaders are reinforcing the stigma by claiming that prayer is adequate treatment for mental illness (this argument can lead to self-blame and resentment of Islam, as it is often unsuccessful), and by preaching about how jinn* have possessed the suffering individual. Both of these arguments delegitimize the reality that is mental illness, which most often stems from biological predispositions, neurochemical imbalances, and environmental factors. Interestingly enough, seeking self-care and treatment has always been part of the Islamic tradition; however religious values have long been muddled with cultural traditions, which you can see through other claims such as families not allowing daughters to live on their own or approach potential spouses first. This conflation can go insofar as to how mainstream media paints “honor killings” and female genital mutilation as Islamic acts despite them being solely culture and indisputably condemned by Islam.
Traditional figures are not the only ones reinforcing this societal stigma, the health industry plays a significant role as well. Most insurance companies account for psychiatric disorders but only cover pharmaceutical treatments instead of therapy, despite the fact that Cognitive Therapy and antidepressant medications (which treat both depressive and anxiety symptoms) are equally as effective. Medication is a short-term solution that does not address the root of the problem and does not allow those struggling with mental illnesses the opportunity to talk about and come to terms with their mental health status, while therapy takes longer to have an effect but predicts better long-term outcomes. It is important to recognize that the most effective outcome is always the combination of both antidepressant medications and Cognitive Therapy (DeRubeis, Siegle, & Hollon 2008).
Health insurance companies are profiting from constant prescriptions but are reinforcing the idea that patients should not talk about their illnesses. In other words, people can receive pharmaceutical treatment for as little as $5 a month, but even the best health insurances require a minimum $15 copay for therapy at every session and rarely cover quality, long-term therapy. Mental health has now been so detached from the health industry that it is perceived as something completely distinct from our physical health. While many believe that psychiatric diagnoses stem from early childhood trauma, most are actually due to biological predispositions. Medications change the chemical balances in the body within a few weeks, so many who have an already existing stigma may legitimize it as a physical ailment rather than a disorder that implies a fault within oneself.
(Please note: I am not invalidating the importance of psychiatry and full-heartedly support people reaching out to psychiatrists and their primary care physicians for help. As stated, mental illnesses do have biological bases and medications are highly effective. My issue solely stands with insurance plans only covering psychiatry for profit because this reinforces the stigma of mental illness).
So what can we do?
- Educate. Think about it. Read. Research. “What is mental illness?” is one of the most engaging and thought-provoking questions. Mental health/illness looks different in every individual yet the same phenomena are found all around the world (with variations, of course). Understand the resources offered (or lack thereof) in your community. Talk to your parents about what mental illness is. The problems in our communities are oftentimes from a lack of knowledge or understanding.
- Seek help. If you are struggling, don’t allow the fear of others’ perceptions to hinder you from getting better. You have the right to treatment. Just as you would see a doctor if you were feeling physically ill, you should see a counselor or psychiatrist if you’re feeling mentally/emotionally/psychologically unwell. Counteract the stigma.
- Speak up. Speaking up normalizes a subject that too many are uncomfortable with. I used to avoid disclosing that I get accommodations for a reduced course load, however I have accepted that my anxiety is not a flaw and my anxiety does not define me. I am as hard of a worker and as strong as a person as I have always been. When I began to be open about my experiences, I was pleasantly surprised to be met with so much love and support from all those around me.
- Listen. If you sense that someone you know is going through something, reach out. Respect their boundaries, but show them that they have someone there who is willing to listen. Let them know about resources in the area (refer to link below). Don’t allow yourself to feel uncomfortable by listening to someone’s stories, you may be the only person they have to talk to.
Stigma is an issue that has been plaguing our respective communities and not allowing us adequate accessibility to treatment. I hope that this new column can serve as a space to have honest conversations about mental health, help us normalize this topic within our own lives, and destigmatize the utilization of mental health resources.
*iman: faith in God
*jinn: evil spirit
Salaam (peace) y’all! I’m an undergraduate Psychology student at Cal and am super passionate about all things mental health. I’ve interned in the mental health department of a non-profit organization in Southern California, worked in two psychology labs at UC Berkeley, and currently serve as the Mental Health Cultural Assistant Director in ASUC Senator Jenny Kim’s office. Post-graduation, I hope to pursue a degree in Clinical Psychology, research the etiology of mood and anxiety disorders, and ultimately practice therapy in the Muslim community.
‘Chamomile’ is Al-Bayan Magazine’s new mental health column that focuses primarily on the Muslim community and my own reflections. If you have any questions or concerns about anything addressed in this article, please do not hesitate to contact me. Thoughts, criticisms, and recommendations are very much welcome and appreciated!
Take the ‘Half of Us’ pledge here: https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~mhc/sign-the-pledge/
For resources on the Berkeley campus: https://asuc.org/news/top-10-mental-health-resources/
Khalil Center (Santa Clara): http://khalilcenter.com/why-khalil/
For further reading:
Ciftci, A., Jones, N., & Corrigan, P.W. (2012), “Mental Health Stigma in the Muslim Community” http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jmmh/10381607.0007.102/--mental-health-stigma-in-the-muslim-community?rgn=main&view=fulltext
DeRubeis, R., Siegle, G., Hollon, S. (2008). “Cognitive therapy vs. medications for depression: Treatment outcomes and neural mechanisms” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2748674/