I remember this one conversation when I was talking about mental illnesses, (specifically depression) and how it can lead someone to take away their life. Honestly, I don’t know whether I was speaking on the behalf of myself, or on the behalf of the general patients of depression. All I remember is that I was speaking from a vulnerable place, looking for a loophole that a patient can use to get out of the cycle mental illnesses are notorious for. The person I was talking to, who was a relative, felt like it was totally logical that these people ‘get sick’ because of their lack of faith, or because they don’t connect to God enough. It hit me then, that people associated mental illnesses with punishment. How do you expect us, the youthful, to grow to love a God that punishes us with the worst days and experiences of our lives?
The argument that states that mental illnesses are a direct result of lack of commitment to religion, and thus can be cured by committing and following religious instructions is an excuse. It’s an excuse to overlook the dire problem of mental illness, and how it’s slowly killing us [the youth]. We are seen as rebellious, god-hating and non-conforming teenagers who go out of their way to upset the divine power. Trust me, Tante, Khalto, and Mama, praying or not praying doesn’t make what I’m going through any easier. Honestly, I feel like the older generation believes that no young person can suffer from a mental illness, and if they seem to be going through an episode, it’s only because their relationship with god is messed up, period. It’s most definitely not toxic parenthood, toxic school culture, educational pressure, religious coercion and the constant invalidation!!
Sometimes, spiritual connection may help, but it’s not the absolute and final cure or treatment. It’s worth mentioning that it only helps sometimes. You can be a priest/sheikh and conform to whatever norms the title entails (e.g. great religious devotion), and still suffer from a hellish disorder. You can go ahead and ask them, they say they get episodes of mania, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders, and these are just examples off the top of my head. Their religious tendencies don’t prevent them from falling into the hurricane of triggers and panic attacks. There’s no correlation, whatsoever. The argument that having faith/being religious is the new Valium and a super powerful antidepressant – even for the worst and most severe of treatments – invalidates the struggles of everyone: from atheists to sheikhs and priests.
Let’s break it down a bit. If you have a cold, would you blame that on your lack of faith and inconsistency of prayers? Maybe some of us would pray for a speedy recovery, but a speedy recovery will not come unless you take your meds and your immune system does its job. You need to keep warm, take your painkillers, drink herbs, see a doctor and whatnot to be guaranteed a quick recovery. In the same way you’d treat and care for a physical illness, you need to tend to a mental illness as well – even if the mannerism in which you take care of mental illness can look slightly different than physical illnesses.
To elaborate, when and if a person who’s a patient of a mental disorder, there are things other than making prayer and du’aa to heal them. What they should do however, is seek professional help, maybe be assigned medication and work on healing. Why is it that when it comes to physical illnesses that we know that du’aa is never enough but when it comes to mental illnesses, which are much more complex, this concept doesn’t seem to get through? The real question is why do we keep invalidating our mental struggles?
To my family and friends, I’m praying consistently; I talk to god on a regular basis and I’m trying to do as many good deeds as possible, so how come I haven’t been healed yet? Why is this not working? Why did I only find the route to recovery after starting medicinal courses and seeking professional help? Because if praying was the answer, maybe we don’t need doctors at all, do we? If praying and religiousness can cure all illnesses, physical and mental, then doctors are a really waste of money. If praying can get one out of the labyrinth of mental struggles, they’ll logically be enough to get us out of a lousy cold. Hell, maybe we should pray ourselves out of cardiac arrest as well. Are you aware of the influence of this narrative? Or are you aware that this very narrative pushes people to keep in their struggles and believe that this is what they deserve?
All religions are a call for love and affection; these emotions are highly-valued and cherished by the values of religions. Compassion is also very much preached by religions, and compassion does not (and never will) go hand-in-hand with gaslighting. Using misinterpreted religious texts to gaslight patients is ironic, and no God would be pleased by that. By perpetuating and supporting this idea, we are shaming the survivors for ‘slacking religiously’ and thus ‘contracting’ a mental illness.
The topic of mental illness and religion is dense and heavy. Maybe you’re reading this while saying, ‘oh, I already know that.’ However, I’m begging you, check your actions. In the SWANA region, we’ve been raised to internalise this theory. If you cleansed this idea out of your system, maybe you need to recheck for remnants of these thoughts. This is not optional; growth is never optional. You must strive to constantly evolve yourself to become the best possible version you can be.