For some American Muslims, harsh talk about suicide, mental health


Dr Rania Awaad was participating in a virtual religious program this Ramadan when the discussion turned into an unexpected question: Is it religiously okay to say a prayer for someone who has committed suicide?

Suicide is a complex and delicate subject that Awad, as director of the Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology Laboratory at Stanford University, is familiar with – but a topic she says is not discussed enough in American Muslim communities. When it does, she said, it’s often misunderstood and surrounded by misconceptions.

Awaad and other mental health professionals are trying to change that, working alongside some religious leaders and activists to bring nuance and compassion to such conversations, educate Muslim communities about suicide prevention and mental health, and provide advice appropriate to religion and culture.

The effort has taken on new urgency following an apparent murder-suicide that left six family members dead in Allen, Texas in April, sending shockwaves into Muslim communities across the region and across the country. -of the. Investigators believe that two brothers made a pact to kill their parents, sister and grandmother before killing themselves.

The incident sparked a wave of activity in Muslim spaces, from public mental health discussions and suicide response trainings to healing circles and private conversations.

“The initial reaction from the community was a total shock,” said Imam Abdul Rahman Bashir of the Islamic Association of Allen, where the family’s funeral took place. “Their reaction changed from shock, grief, to worrying about the other families around them: are they saying something they can’t hear? Is there something out there that they can’t see? ”

“It definitely opened the conversation to understanding what mental health is and the importance of mental wellness,” he added.

Suicide is theologically outlawed under Islam, and Awaad, while acknowledging this, takes a nuanced view on the issue, arguing that it is not for people to judge. Contrary to what she has heard some say about people who have committed suicide, she believes the deceased can receive prayers regardless of how they died.

“We don’t know the state of a person when they reach this point in their life, and we don’t know their mental state at that time,” she said. “… Only God can judge on this.

The importance of seeking professional help with mental health issues, regardless of what people may say, is a message the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation sought to convey in a recent video. Aimed at the South Asian community in South America, it featured actors, young activists and others sharing their experiences to help break the stigma.

Some community leaders in Texas have addressed suicide and mental health issues after a Muslim American woman committed suicide in 2018, according to Saadia Ahmed, director of the foundation’s youth leadership program. After Allen’s tragedy, she heard from many people who have reached out to share their personal battles or ask how to get help for loved ones.

A young man said he had thoughts of suicide in the past and getting help made things better. There was a high school student who needed therapy but her parents weren’t giving it to her; with the help of a school counselor, she ended up getting help. Ahmed also heard from parents worried about their children.

“I feel like at least I’m seeing progress,” Ahmed said.

Sameera Ahmed – no relationship – a psychologist and executive director of The Family & Youth Institute, a nonprofit research and education institute, said when her group was developing suicide prevention resources for Muslim communities there a few years ago, some questioned the need.

“People didn’t want to share what was going on because they were afraid of the stigma,” Ahmed said. “They were afraid that people would not come to their loved one’s janazah,” or to the funeral.

But today, she sees a greater openness to the conversation and says that some well-known imams have started to approach the issue from a more compassionate perspective. Still, a lot of work remains to be done, she added.

In the aftermath of Allen’s tragedy, Awaad delivered virtual suicide response trainings from his base in California to help people navigate the aftermath, including religious and community leaders. His lab at Stanford provided guidelines for Islamic sermons.

“Responding to the crisis is the hardest part,” she said. Many imams and religious leaders struggle to “strike a balance between healing the community and Islam’s stance on the impressionability of suicide.”

She has also co-authored an article detailing the dos and don’ts of post-suicide suicide, such as providing resources and support for those who may be in difficulty, while refraining from speculating on spiritual implications such as if someone who committed suicide will go to heaven.

By the end of 2022, Awaad hopes that 500 Muslim religious leaders will have received training on suicide using material developed by a nonprofit, Maristan, in conjunction with his Stanford lab, both founded on the science and teachings of Islam.

Several religious leaders have supported this effort.

One of them, Imam Bashir, of the Islamic Association of Allen, said that while Islam does not allow suicide as a way to solve problems, faith “encourages the community to be a one body with ears, eyes and arms to help each other. not get to a point where that would be a consideration.

Wrestling with difficult questions around suicide is not unique to Muslims. Mathew Schmalz, professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, said a common belief in theistic traditions is that life belongs to God, so taking it “fundamentally violates” God’s most precious gift. .

Yet attitudes have evolved with a greater appreciation of the complexities of mental illness, he added, and it is important to challenge beliefs that suicide signals moral weakness or a failure to be grateful for. God.

“While it is important to understand God as merciful,” said Schmalz, “it is equally important to be part of a community of faith in which mental health issues are taken seriously and not stigmatized.”

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Resources for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are available at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org and the 24-hour hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.

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The Associated Press religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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