National Day of Prayer for Behavioral Health Speech

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This speech was delivered at the San Mateo County Behavioral Health and Recovery Service’s interfaith event for the National Day of Prayer for Behavioral Health on October 3rd, 2017.

I want to thank the San Mateo County Behavioral Health and Recovery Service for inviting our organization, Islamic Networks Group, again this year to take part in this very important day. As a Muslim, I relate to God as “the Merciful, the Compassionate”—attributes I repeat several times a day as I recite my prayers.

And, as God is merciful and compassionate, I am called to be merciful and compassionate in my daily life. Those who are suffering any form of mental illness are certainly among those who have the most claim on Muslim mercy and compassion.

That’s not to say Muslims, and other people of faith, have an easy time dealing with mental illness. Among Muslims, many people try to deal with this issue by denial, by pretending it doesn’t exist. This of course doesn’t make it go away; it merely hides it—until tragedy, perhaps in the form of suicide or some other act of violence, strikes.

Some Muslims and other people of faith treat mental illness as a sign of lack of faith that can be cured by increasing one’s devotion or piety. Those who have suffered or treated mental illness know this is false, and it merely adds guilt to the sufferer’s burdens.

It’s important for people of faith to understand that mental illness, like any other illness, calls for professional care. Making moral or religious judgments about those who suffer such illness can only bring harm and hinder recovery—recovery that might include a role for faith and spirituality in grappling with mental afflictions.

The medical profession recognizes this. Just last year, we saw the opening of the Khalil Center in the South Bay that offers a holistic, integrative approach to counseling and therapy. The Center describes its work as welcoming spiritually-integrated interventions that draw from the psychological literature on best practices for counseling and therapy.

Prayer, meditation, and practices such as dhikr or remembrance of God can also be therapeutic and prevent depression. Many Qur’anic verses and hadith offer help to those in the grip of mental illness. To give but one example, the Qur’an promises a way out from depression and despair by saying in chapter 65, “And for those who fear God, He always prepares a way out, and He provides for them from sources he or she never could imagine. And if anyone puts his trust in God, sufficient is God for him or her. For God will surely accomplish His purpose: verily, for all things has God appointed a due proportion.”(Quran, 65: 2-3)

A look back at Muslim history shows that this approach is nothing new. Mental health was well understood in the Muslim world to be an integral part of the human make-up and medicine. Islam greatly encourages seeking healing and cures for disease, and medieval Muslim hospitals often included such unconventional tools as music therapy.

The great Muslim physicians Al-Razi (who lived in the 9th century) and Ibn Sina, who is known as Avicenna (who lived in the 10th century), established scientific principles concerning musical treatment of psychological disorders.

As Muslim physicians did then, so Muslim mental health professionals, and those of other faiths, are starting to do today: to draw on the rich resources of our spiritual traditions to support those challenged by mental illness. My father was among them. He was a psychiatrist who practiced medicine in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, and was one of those mental health professionals who employed spirituality in therapy long before it became acceptable as it is today.

So, as we gather today in prayer for those suffering from these afflictions, let us pray that religion and science can be seen as working together to lift this burden from anyone who suffers from mental illness.