World Health Organisation estimates that approximately 800,000 people die by suicide globally each year, with many more attempting it.
Ten years ago, this might have been something associated mainly with the Western, non-Muslim countries. However, recent years have got us thinking otherwise.
According to Buzz Feed News, counselors and clerics say they’ve seen an increase in suicides among US Muslims in the past few years, a trend they say is exacerbated in a climate of open bigotry toward Islam.
The rise in suicides among Muslims is in line with national statistics, which show increases across age, gender, race, and ethnicity, according to a report released in June 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In light of these facts, it is important to address this issue from a psychological point of view. We need to go right back to the root of the issue; suicide is often linked to mental health problems.
What is the link between mental health and suicide?
Some symptoms of mental illness, such as depression and hopelessness, can drive the sufferer to feel suicidal. However, there are also other factors to consider in this link also.
Arguably, the biggest barrier for Muslims suffering with mental health problems is stigma.
Where does the stigma come from?
One of the primary causes of mental health stigma is misconceptions. Mental illness is often erroneously attributed to lack of faith or jinn possession and who wants to admit to a mental illness, if they will be accused of being possessed?
Furthermore, whilst many argue that someone who is feeling suicidal is not of sane mind and therefore will not be held accountable for their actions, who wants to tell someone they feel suicidal if they anticipate potentially being condemned to a life of punishment in the Hereafter?
It is these perceptions of and approaches to mental health that will deprive people suffering with mental health problems of the social support that is needed as part of promoting positive mental health and preventing suicide.
There are however, more positive approaches that can be used to assist the suicidal person.
The power of religion and spirituality
Psychological literature provides strong evidence to support the role of religiosity/spirituality in mental wellbeing.
Arguably, poor mental wellbeing may be attributed to a weakness in faith, but in some cases this can actually distance people further from their religion if they stand accused of being weak in faith or a bad Muslim.
When someone is severely depressed preaching to them about having patience is not always going to help. Telling them others have it worse may have the opposite to the intended effect and make them feel guilty and selfish rather than grateful.
Evidence such as the following, may be more helpful as it validates the fact that such feelings are normal and provide a valid source to rely on and connect to.
Narrated Anas bin Malik:The Prophet (PBUH) said,
“None of you should wish for death because of a calamity befalling him; but if he has to wish for death, he should say: “O Allah! Keep me alive as long as life is better for me, and let me die if death is better for me.’ “ (Sahih al-Bukhari 5671)
Beyond religious intervention
Surely only Allah will cure the person so religious intervention is needed, but people need to ‘tie their camel’ also and address other relevant aspects to the problem.
Treatment options include medication to relieve the physiological symptoms, and counselling to deal with the psychological aspect.
For example, antidepressants may soothe the physiological aspect of depression enough to place the person in the best mental space to seek counselling and religious intervention that will allow them to address the matter on a deeper level – a level where they can learn skills how to manage their depression without medication, promoting a more holistic approach to treatment of mental illness.
What can we do as Muslims to increase awareness?
More often, the community are unaware of the problem as the person with a mental illness keeps it quiet due to the stigma. As a result, the major step that needs to be taken is to increase awareness.
The primary way this can be done is through education. Lack of knowledge about mental health can cause people to turn away simply due to ignorance, lack of understanding, and even fear.
Educating the community on mental health will correct misconceptions, promote acceptance and encourage those with mental health problems to seek support in the community.
Talking about it openly and not making it a topic that we shy from and avoid discussing encourages support of those who need it.
How can you help?
We also need to know how, as individuals, we can support those who have mental health problems, or are feeling suicidal.
Look for warning signs. People who feel suicidal won’t always ask for help. We have to be vigilant and notice warning signs, and help. Symptoms such as withdrawal, hopelessness, self destructive behaviour and poor self care are amongst those to look out for.
Talk to them. Don’t wait for them to come forward to talk. Don’t talk to them once, but continually check in with them. This lets them know that you care and shows them that they are not a burden.
‘Connect with the part of them that wants to live and do nothing to support the part that wants to die’ (Lisa Firestone, Psychology Today)
Listen to them. Take them seriously and give them the space to talk about how they feel and do so without judgement.
Be quick if you are concerned. If you are concerned that they will commit suicide then seek assistance and alert someone immediately.
Understanding the connection between mental health and suicide can make it easier for us to promote healthy psychological well-being.
Improving education and attitudes towards these matters will promote a community where mental health and suicide is spoken about openly, and those with these problems can feel supported and less likely to fall into the traps of suicidal thoughts.