Medically reviewed by Shahzadi Devje, Registered Dietitian (RD) & Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE)
Sharing my story for Bell Let’s Talk; the country’s largest corporate commitment to help create a stigma-free Canada
It was a standard British morning - chilly, quiet, bordering on miserable. I looked out the window - my steaming cup of chai slowly turning cold.
Parents were piling kids into cars for school and dog-walkers looked merry as always – waving at each other and exchanging hurried pleasantries.
Everyone was always in a much better mood – happier, more energetic. Everyone, but me. More often than not, my disconcerted thoughts were consumed by anxiety and unhappiness.
I was only an A levels student; was it normal to feel so badly, so out of place, most of the time? Over the last few years, my struggles had only worsened. I mustered up some courage and decided to confide in a family member. Belonging to a Muslim household, my confession was met with a series of emotions. These ranged from disbelief to complete denial. And after multiple episodes of tears and turmoil, it was suggested that I needed to strengthen my imaan (faith) by praying more.
“Surah Baqarah parho, sub theek ho jayega.” (Recite Surah Baqarah – everything will be fine).
Desperate to feel better, I turned to God. I prayed day in and day out. It strengthened my connection with Allah and helped me through some tough times. However, as comforting as it was, it didn’t eliminate my depression.
This made me angry. I was angry with myself for not feeling better after praying so hard. I felt angry with my faith for not eradicating my lack of happiness. I felt angry with everyone around me – for not understanding what I was going through.
It went on for a few more months until I saw an advert taped to my college noticeboard. It talked about counselling for students struggling with anxious thoughts. That pamphlet was my road to healing and subsequently, a changed life.
Unfortunately, what I struggled with 30 years ago is still prevalent in Islamic and South Asian communities. People are afraid to voice their struggles with mental health, for fear of potential backlash. It carries the same stigma it carried decades ago.
As mentioned by Bell Let's Talk, a mental illness is similar to a physical affliction.
Communities disregard mental illnesses as a lack of faith in one’s religion. More often than not, we are lectured for not being God fearing enough for our distressed state of mind. It’s almost as if we’re possessed by evil which be exorcised by reciting holy scriptures.
Surely, by that logic, all physical ailments should also be cured through prayer? Why don’t our communities preach the same to patients suffering from chronic back pain or fatal diseases such as cancer? Even something as minor as a cough is treated with medicine.
If an increase in faith was all it took to cure people from travesties, then what is the point of years of research, doctors and advanced treatments? Faith should be the sole answer to putting our minds at ease. We are never asked to hand over our heart condition or diabetes to God, but to seek a doctor. Why is professional help for our mind any different?
Even today, a mental illness is seen as a sign of weakness in South Asian communities. They often entwine it with culture; the demand to never bring shame to a family’s reputation. It can be worse for women – who will marry someone suffering from such an “unspeakable disease”?
Although, as also mentioned by Bell Let's Talk, a mental illness is similar to a physical affliction. It is often caused by disbalanced neurological chemicals, hormonal imbalances or genetics. However, there are many other contributing factors to poor mental health. These can be physical circumstances (vitamin/mineral deficiencies), social and environmental features (living conditions) or psychological characteristics (traumatic experiences). These conditions cannot be prayed away – they have to be worked upon.
Islam’s entire foundation is built upon compassion – that’s what makes it so beautiful. Yet, the absence of gentleness within communities in matters concerning mental health is the reason behind people suffering in silence.
In 2018, a French Muslim leapt to his death from Khaana Ka'aba (Great Mosque) in Mecca. Many Islamic communities condemned this act, calling it loathsome in God’s eyes. However, it also prompted several Muslims, especially those of South Asian heritage, to voice personal struggles.
That man took his life in the world’s most sacred place for followers of Islam. If religion were the only answer to eliminating pain, there would be no better place for him. Instead, he decided to end his suffering in front of millions of people.
Islam’s entire foundation is built upon compassion – that’s what makes it so beautiful. Yet, the absence of gentleness within communities in matters concerning mental health is the reason behind people suffering in silence. Speaking about it is not the equivalent of weakness or lack of imaan.
I do wonder how different my life would have been, had I not sought therapy all those years ago. I would’ve continued to drown in black waves of depression due to fear of adverse reactions. Battles with mental health are similar to war – we keep fighting until one team wins. And, in order for happiness to prevail, we need both God and a good therapist.
For Bell Let's Talk, how are you getting ready to talk about mental health in your community? Have you struggled with stigma? I'd love to hear from you!
Shahzadi is an award-winning registered dietitian (RD) regulated by the College of Dietitians of Ontario and certified diabetes educator (CDE), approved by the Canadian Diabetes Educator Certification Board. A YouTuber and notorious foodie, she's dedicated to helping you end your cooking wars, transform your health, and be the best version of yourself! Shahzadi is an on-air nutrition expert for CTV Your Morning and a regular contributor for Global News and other national media outlets.