The issue of mental health was never too far from the front pages of 2018 and the way things are going, this subject looks set to dominate headlines in 2019 as well. 2019 began with social media tech giants being told to take a moment of reflection after the suicide of British school girl Molly Russell. Her father pointed a finger directly at Instagram. This was followed by schools up and down the land wanting to ban smart phones from their premises. The impact of social media on children has never faced greater scrutiny, and it is a scrutiny that seems to grow day by day. Another recent example comes from a New Statesman article in which the following dark observation is made:
Mental illness is surging even in the world’s happiest countries…In Norway, the number of young people seeking help for mental illness increased 40 per cent in five years. In Finland, named the happiest country in the world for 2018, suicide is responsible for a third of all deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds. – Sophie McBain, Jan 2019
Over at the Guardian another article is also making similar observations:
By mollycoddling our children, we’re fuelling mental illness in teenagers…We talk incessantly about how to make children more “resilient”, but whatever we’re doing, it’s not working. Rates of anxiety disorders and depression are rising rapidly among teenagers, and in the US universities can’t hire therapists fast enough to keep up with the demand. – Jonathan Haidt and Pamela Paresky, Jan 2019
Staying in the US, according to recent reports the two ancient practices of yoga and meditation are now officially the most popular alternative health approaches in America, each used by around 35 million adults. The big growth in yoga and meditation is clearly linked to better availability, with a boom in studios, classes, and apps, some of them free and online. But as more Americans find they are struggling with mental health issues like anxiety, distraction, and physical issues like chronic pain, they are seeking therapies that do not involve pharmaceuticals. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin Madison and founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds, said that:
Many forces in our culture have conspired to elevate anxiety and stress, in part due to a lot of messages related to fear in the media, and this makes people unsettled. I think there is an increasing interest in strategies like yoga and meditation that can help people adjust to modern circumstances. – Richard Davidson
Going back to 2018, the year saw many professional athletes open up about their mental health struggles. Olympic legend Victoria Pendleton admitted she contemplated suicide in 2018. Former England footballer Rio Ferdinand recently documented in depth his struggles after the death of his wife Rebecca Ellison in 2015 to breast cancer (Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum And Dad won the Best Single Documentary award at the British Academy Television Awards last year in May). Danny Rose, current England and Tottenham Hotspur footballer, spoke about his recent struggles with depression, just ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. In recent years the many additional household names who have shared their experiences have included Jonny Wilkinson, Kelly Holmes, and Marcus Trescothick.
Musicians have also recently come to the fore to reveal their inner demons. Lady Gaga told The Mirror in 2016 she has blocked out the memory of rising to fame. “It’s like I’m traumatised. I needed time to recalibrate my soul.” Demi Lovato, who has bipolar disorder, was admitted to hospital last year for a suspected drug overdose but has since been in recovery and often shares updates on her wellbeing with fans. Zayn Malik, who overnight became one of the most talked-about people on the planet after One Direction came second on the 2010 series of The X Factor, has anxiety so severe it has forced him to cancel several solo tours. A few years ago he wrote a first-person account in his book Zayn which addressed the multiple issues fame had either caused or exacerbated:
When I was in One Direction, my anxiety issues were huge, but within the safety net of the band, they were at least manageable. As a solo performer, I felt much more exposed, and the psychological stress of performing had just got to be too much for me to handle – at that moment, at least. – Zayn Malik
Arguably one of the biggest mental health advocates to emerge from last year is world heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury. In 2015 the 6 foot 9 inch man-mountain defeated Wladimir Klitschko to take three world heavyweight titles, fulfilling his lifelong dream. But feeling no subsequent sense of purpose he spiralled into madness. “When you’ve won all the world title belts there’s nothing else after that,” he said. He fell into depression, closely followed by its good friend addiction. He looked for salvation in alcohol, drugs, and grimy strip clubs. “I’ve been living like a rock star. But that ain’t a great thing.” He received a drugs ban and suicidal thoughts led him to nearly drive his Ferrari off a bridge at 190mph. “I prayed for death on a daily basis,” Fury said.
Yet in 2018 Fury had shed 10 stones, along with his demons, and was taking on hard man heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder on December 1st in Los Angeles. Help had come to Fury in the forms of a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist, family support, regular exercise, abstinence, and a renewed faith. In the 12th round of the fight with Wilder, which Fury arguably won, he was brutally floored with a Wilder hammer-blow. Fury was out cold, horizontal, eyes rolled back, and with the umpire counting him out. But somehow Fury peeled himself off the canvas, regained his feet, and saw out a dramatic draw.
Afterwards he said “I ain’t a special human being. I’m just a normal man. But with the right help and the right guidance, anyone can turn their life around.” The controversial decision to call it a draw robbed Fury of one of the great sporting comebacks ever. Not that he seemed to care. Post-fight he pledged to donate his £8m fee to the homeless and declared “For all the people out there with mental health problems, I did it for you guys.”
A few weeks later, at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards in Birmingham, he was asked about that knock down. His prominent resurrection earned him a deserved nomination. Fury delivered an emotional speech just before cyclist Geraint Thomas took home the main prize, as he looked to raise awareness for mental health:
Many men would have stayed down after getting knocked down heavily by Deontay Wilder, but I wanted to show the world that anything was possible, and that no matter what you’ve been through in your life and no matter what you are going through, you must always, always get up and keep going forward and fight back. Because the mental health story…we need to spread the word on mental health more in sport because there’s a lot of people living in darkness and are too afraid and come out and speak about it in public. But if I can do it, the big heavyweight champion of the world, 6 foot 9, 18 stone, I’m supposed to be a big tough guy, anybody can do it. – Tyson Fury
As a practising Muslim I am also interested in how mental health issues are viewed in the Muslim community. From everything I have read on this topic so far, a common theme among those Muslims who suffer from such issues is that you simply cannot use your faith alone to remove any anxieties you may have. Here are a few opinions on this:
As a Muslim, I wish people would stop telling me that I can just ‘pray away’ my mental health problems…At worst, it can feel like drowning under constant waves. Obstacles that appear in life are dismissed as simply “tests from God” rather than anything concretely worrying. I’ve lost count throughout my life how many times I’ve been told that any doubts and difficulties I encounter are due to a weakness in my faith. As a young British Asian Muslim struggling with all sorts of things, it’s one of the worst responses to hear, something that compounds your sense of desolation and worse: creates a feeling of guilt for having these doubts. What happens when faith doesn’t cure the feeling of emptiness? Does that mean God hates you? That you’re not praying properly? The standard answer to your doubts simply leaves you with more of them. – Rabbil Sikdar, Jan 2018
When I see people undermine the validity of someone else’s struggle and pain by saying “Mental health is due to low iman (faith),” I automatically remember the story of the Prophet. There is a year in the Prophet’s life known as ‘the year of sorrow’ where he lost his wife and his uncle and this led to extreme emotional distress. He was the best of humanity yet his sorrow extended over an entire year! We have to be more understanding of people and the different thresholds that we all have. Rather than seeking to understand people, their stories and experiences, we superimpose our notions of weakness and religiosity on them. Imagine someone with postnatal depression or with a mental illness that is genetically linked being told that their illness is a result of low faith? It’s demoralising and squarely places blame on them. Faith without work is fruitless and considering that the crux of Islam is about faith (iman) and actions, it does baffle me when someone speaks about their mental health illness and the only response they get is to pray, ignoring the work and the help that’s needed which often includes therapy and medication. Faith and action work hand in hand. – myrihla.com, Jul 2017
It can kind of get worse because us Muslims also believe in jinns (evil spirits) and the fact that, should you be possessed or affected by them, you can get an imam to exorcise them from your life. This is why sometimes when a Muslim has a mental health disorder they are perceived to be possessed by said jinns, rather than having a medical condition for which there are valid medical treatments. By extension, the help Muslims receive can be limited, as family members often end up seeking treatment from religious figures who may perform these exorcisms. This can be hugely damaging to the person suffering. In a recent article Aisha S, a social worker, said that:
Exorcisms still happen, particularly when someone is suffering from psychosis but it is believed to be a jinn. These exorcisms are quite dehumanising. Imams (Islamic leaders) really need to play more of a role in educating themselves and their communities. Prayer is helpful but so is a holistic approach. You wouldn’t be able to pray away cancer, so why is prayer the only answer to curing mental health problems? – Aisha S, May 2018, in an interview with metro.co.uk
But it is not all doomy and gloomy. Islam does have some positive impact on those suffering from mental health issues:
Islam has been therapeutic for my mental health, I don’t care what people have to say…Whatever your opinion, my religion has been good for my mental health…My internal stability – my thoughts and actions, how I perceive myself, both good, bad – or in other words, my mental health, have all been coloured by my religious beliefs…when I gets bouts of anxiety or feel myself sinking into a depression, it’s God I turn to. It’s these times when I feel like there’s nothing left and I can’t bear to be around people and it feels like I’m going to burst, that having a God I believe in is especially helpful…When I’m anxious or obsessing over a problem, it’s by praying and talking to God that I find solace. I’m not part of a cult, I swear. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you can pray away mental disorders, and they can affect even the most pious of people. But personally speaking, I feel it’s my God, my personal idea of God at least, that’s allowed my emotional wellbeing to be in good working order. – Faima Bakar, Mar 2018, from metro.co.uk
However, the best example I have come across of someone who hit rock bottom but then used their Islamic faith to bounce back, is from Australian stand up comedian Khalid Khalafalla. I hope this 38 minute speech inspires you as much it inspired me. As always selected quotes are transcribed. Enjoy!
I guess that’s where my struggle begins, if I have to think really philosophically and deep about it. It was the idea that essentially I chased this sense of connection with people, thinking that it would come through my work, or thinking that it would come through comedy. Except comedy is one of those things where, it looks like you’re connecting with people but you’re not at all. You’re speaking at people but not with them. And so at the end of every show people leave and they know everything about me and I have no idea who any of the people I just spoke to are, or what they do, or anything about them, but the only thing I know is that they like to laugh. That’s about it.
I started turning to the wrong people, and I started turning to substance. Around that time it was cigarettes, it started off as just cigarettes and stuff, and I thought I was like “Well, my dad smokes.” So at first I was justifying it like “Well, my dad smokes and he’s a doctor, so he should know better. In fact, he’s basically killing me.” So I did that for a little bit and that makes things worse, because when you’re stressed and you think that you have a coping mechanism for stress, you’re wrong.
There’s nothing that will help you cope with stress better than dealing with the thing that is stressing you, and if you don’t know what it is then you have to stop and think about what it is. And to find out what it is you need your full mental faculties, and that’s not going to happen if you use a substance which is going to numb you down and stop you from being able to deal with the thing that you’re stressed about. For me, I was too young, I didn’t understand that and cigarettes escalated to other things, other things escalated to other things. And it started going into everywhere in my life, I exhibited addictive behaviours in everything that I was doing, not just with substance.
So for example I started taking tolls, going towards the city on the freeway and then going “I’ll pay it later.” Saying “I’ll pay it later” because I genuinely was desperate that I was going to make it in comedy, so that I could please my parents, so that I could make money, and I’ll just pay off the tolls and that’ll be the last of my concerns. So now I’m stressed, I’m using substance, I’m taking tolls, I’m taking risks, I’m slowly doing very irresponsible things and I’m shaping myself to be a human being with unique habits that do not fit with any of my friends now. So I’m alienating myself from friends, I’m becoming more irritable, I’m doing things that are unbecoming of someone who has genuine love in his heart and wants to help other people. And from there, weirdly, the comedy community enables that. So I was suddenly becoming better at being a comedian in the eyes of people who were in pubs and clubs, while at the same time alienating people, especially around this time, in Muslim communities as well.
I feel like any judgment that I can get from people is not nearly as bad as what I went through myself, and what I put myself through.
I think that there’s a huge commercialization of being present and being in the moment and doing meditation and listening to the words that you’re saying and listening to your breath. All of that is just prayer! I mean, we Muslims came up with ages go, so hey! And I remember when I first was depressed, I thought my parents would just look at me like “You know you’re just so sucky, you’re lazy, and you don’t pray enough. That’s what it is.” And I’d be like “You don’t get it, it’s not just praying.” And then it’s a full circle and you come back and you’re like “Yeah, it is.” If you do that then you’d be in the moment.
All the things that Islam teaches you are really the little things that I can tell you that I would tell a room full of white people, which is build momentum, have faith that things are going to happen, be good to other people, the best service to yourself is service to other people. That’s the purpose. When people say things like “What is my purpose? What am I doing?” find out what you’re good at doing for other people, and that’s what’s going to make you happy. And for me it came back to that, it went full circle and I realized what I want to do is make other people happy. And laughter for me is that really big thing.
Every substance I believe is a substitute for connecting with people. It’s something that, when you find the gaping hole, it gives you the same rewards that you would just connecting with people. And you can get the same high connecting with people and having a good conversation. And if that seems false to you it’s because you haven’t been doing it enough. I think the more I quit substance and had to confront that gaping hole that was left, I realized that it was lack of people and that lack of people I had done to myself because, for that entire period of time [I was taking substance], I was the most important person [to myself].
Good people will never turn you down if you ask them for a favour. It’s really that simple. It takes more out of you to ask for a favour than it does for the person giving a favour, because when you get to a place of happiness you realize that it’s your pleasure to do something for someone else. And I’m in a place right now where I’m looking for things to do for people, and they’re not enough, and you realize that it’s because you’re of no value to people unless you’ve been trying to help people actively.