by Zainab Haider, a 2nd year PBS student


Faith and Mental Health

I think a lot of the stigma surrounding mental health in the Muslim community has a lot to do with the idea that mental health issues are the result of low Iman. It’s very easy to tell a distressed individual to ‘pray more’. Of course, the benefits of prayer shouldn’t be understated. Last exam term falling in Ramadan was tough, but it did wonders for my stress levels. For me, faith always puts everything back into perspective. It reminds that my worldly and irrational anxieties are just that – worldly and irrational.

But I think we need to re-evaluate how we think about faith and mental health. I still had panic attacks in Ramadan, despite feeling super close to God and in touch with my faith. Prayer is an extremely beneficial method of coping. But importantly, the cause of our symptoms is not low Iman. Thus, struggling to cope is not a reflection on our level of faith. Indeed, Prophet Ya’qub (AS) cried so much at the loss of his son Yusuf (AS) that he almost lost his eyesight and yet, he was amongst the best of the believers.

Our mental health is rooted in our physical health, with our thoughts and worries having a biological underpinning. The relationship between mind and body is well-established and can take many forms. Take stress; it has a direct effect on our immune functioning (might explain why there’s always someone coughing in your lectures). I’m pretty sure no one would object to a physically sick individual taking their medication in addition to praying to God for a return to full health. I am reminded of one of my favourite Hadiths;

Anas ibn Malik reported: A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, should I tie my camel and trust in Allah, or should I leave her untied and trust in Allah?” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Tie her and trust in Allah. (Jami At-Tirmidhī)

And thus, both trust in God and targeting the cause of our problems is key. I think a way of breaking this stigma surrounding mental health is talking more openly about it. I think everyone can benefit from some form of talking therapy, whether you have mental health issues or not (unfortunately due to NHS budgets this may be wishful thinking). This doesn’t mean having daily heart-to-hearts. Simply speaking to your friends and family about your day and what may be stressing you out can do wonders. In short, Muslims need to talk more about what’s going on in our heads.

Gender and Mental Health

I’ve found that between women, this openness is a lot more common. I’ve been surprised by how little men seem to speak to each other about anything personal, as well as showing little vulnerability/expressing negative emotions. Emotions can become so deeply internalised due to perceptions of masculinity and what is apparently appropriate for our genders that the underlying problems are never tackled. And this internalisation has consequences. Suicide is the single biggest cause of death for men under the age of 45 in the UK, almost 3 times higher than in women. Indirectly, internalisation has been linked to cancer as well as the lower life expectancy in men. Along with cultural stigma, Muslim men are at a high risk of mental health issues. And then, they are less likely to talk about it and so less likely to seek support for it. The mental health of Muslim men needs to be treated with the respect and sensitivity it deserves; it’s a real and important issue facing our community.

Cambridge and Mental Health

Due to the demands of Cambridge, personal welfare can seem like an impossible challenge. Work is so often prioritised over physical health, sleep and relaxation (#Camfession2946 – ‘I want to cry tonight but I don’t think I’ll have time). Being surrounded by so many intelligent individuals who look like they’re coping just fine, makes it very easy to think you’re not good enough. And so we push through. When we factor in bereavement, family issues, past trauma, mental health issues etc. it can seem like Cambridge only heightens our distress.

When I returned to Cam for second year, my anxiety was probably the worst it had been for years. I remember I didn’t eat a full meal for 2 weeks because I constantly felt on the verge of throwing up. At the same time, I was training for a 10k; soon enough pushing my body to levels it just couldn’t cope with anymore. It took until my legs buckled underneath me whilst walking down the stairs in order to reach out. I got the next train home and emailed my supervisors apologising that they would not be receiving their essays this week. They told me it was totally fine. When I came back, I got an appointment with the college counsellor within a day. I took a few days off from work and I obviously did fall behind. However, I was offered catch up supervisions and essay extensions and it helped massively.

The level of available support honestly surprised me; I didn’t think it would have been that easy.  Alongside an extra dedication to read my Qur’an during term time, Alhamdulillah, I made it through the 8 weeks.

Available Support

It’s important to recognise that welfare is more than just about mental health issues. Humans are innately vulnerable. The Cambridge term can be lonely and emotionally & physically exhausting. It takes a toll on everyone, no matter how much it seems that everyone else is sprinting ahead. In such a high-pressured environment, being kind to ourselves and to those around us is crucial. In a sense, this is a form of worship too.

If things seem to be slipping out of control, there’s other support out there, and from my own experiences, it’s pretty easy to access. If you’re not sure where to start, send an email to your college nurse. Be honest with your Dos’s, tutors, supervisors etc. and if need be, they should put things in place to make it easier.

Being open with others and crucially with yourself, is the only way to break the stigma surrounding mental health. It’s not a reflectance on your levels of strength or faith. Prayer and worship can be your lifeline, but you are allowed to seek out other forms of support too.

Always remember to trust in Allah. But make sure to tie your camel too.

Links to Resources:

ISoc Welfare: https://isoc.co.uk/life/welfare/– you can send an anonymous message/question to either a Sheikh or one of the anonymous welfare contacts

Cambridge Mental Health Support: https://www.studentwellbeing.admin.cam.ac.uk/support-particular-issues/mental-health-supporta comprehensive list of available mental health support at Cambridge

University Counselling Service – https://www.counselling.cam.ac.uk/

Disability Resource Centre – email disability@admin.cam.ac.ukto speak to a disability adviser/book an appointment email

Alternatively you can always speak to a GP, college nurse or welfare officers