Speech by Lily Nasar at National Day of Prayer for Behavioral Health Recovery and Understanding Event

By Programs Manager Lily Nasar.

This speech was delivered at the San Mateo County National Day of Prayer for Behavioral Health and Understanding. Read more about the event in the San Mateo Daily Journal.

Thank you so much for including me in this important event and day.

While mental illness is becoming increasingly understood and addressed there is still a lot of work to do to bring about greater understanding and support for those who suffer from it.

The issue of mental illness continues to be a barrier in both mainstream society as well as in specific communities, including the Muslim community in which I am a member.

One of the common responses include both denial and ignoring the problem, which of course doesn’t make it go away, but merely hides it from the light of day until a tragedy strikes.

Another common misperception among Muslims and other people of faith is that mental illness is a reflection of a lack of faith, and can be cured by increasing one’s devotion or piety; those who have experienced mental illness know that this is not true and merely adds guilt to the existing problem.

So the first step in our homes and communities, families and houses of worship is to acknowledge that this problem exists, and that like physical diseases, mental health issues can have debilitating effects on the one it afflicts as well as their families and loved ones.

The second is to seek out means to address these illnesses both within mainstream mental health avenues as well as through faith based institutions and avenues.

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in awareness as well as the number of professionals in the mental health field. I am pleased to announce that just recently the Bay Area witnessed the opening of the Khalil Center in the South Bay which is a consortium of Muslim mental health professionals which describes “offer[ing] a holistic integrative approach to counseling/therapy. We welcome spiritually integrated interventions and draw from the psychological literature on best practices for counseling/therapy.”

This in itself is a major step forward and bodes well for the future of the American Muslim community’s treatment of mental health.

In fact, if one looks at both Islamic medicine and religious teachings, one finds that mental health was well understood 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 or Avicenna (who lived in the 10th century) established scientific principles concerning musical treatment, especially of psychological disorders.

Reviewing Islamic history, one will find many references to musk, rose, sandalwood, jasmine, frankincense, citrus oils, and other fragrances that point to a popular mood enhancer today known as aromatherapy.

Prayer, meditation, and practices such as dhikr, remembrance of God can also be therapeutic and prevent depression. The Qur’an states, “O ye who believe! Seek help with patient perseverance and prayer: for Allah is with those who patiently persevere.” (Quran, 2: 153).

Similarly, there are many Quranic verses that reassure those going through hardship and anxiety that there is light at the end of the tunnel; famous among them is the verse: “God does not burden a soul with greater than what it can bear.” (Quran, 2:286)

To counter feelings of hopelessness and despair, the Qur’an emphasizes that it is God Himself who is in charge of everything, and that He can help people find a way out from the depths of despair: “And for those who fear God, He always prepares a way out, and He provides for him from sources he never could imagine. And if anyone puts his trust in God, sufficient is God for him. For God will surely accomplish His purpose: verily, for all things has God appointed a due proportion.”(Quran, 65: 2-3)

There is an acknowledgement that life is full of tribulations and that there is a silver lining even in suffering: According to a prophetic saying, “No person suffers any anxiety or grief, and says this supplication but God will take away his sorrow and grief, and give him in their stead joy.

One of the foundations of Islamic belief is the understanding that God is able to do all things and He runs all affairs. One of the ways that is cited to prevent depression in the face of difficulty is to constantly focus on the bright side. According to a prophetic saying, Muhammad said, “Look at those who are less fortunate than yourselves, not at those who are better off than yourselves, so that you will not belittle the blessings that God has bestowed upon you”. A Quranic verse instructs people to be grateful, “If you are grateful, God says, I will increase you.”

Lastly, there are many supplications related by the Prophet Muhammad, including some specifically for those struggling from depression or anxiety. According to a prophetic tradition, one of the most well-known supplications is the topic of this story.

The Prophet went into the mosque one day and found a man sitting there and asked him: “Why do I see you sitting in the mosque when it is not prayer time?” The man replied: “It is due to anxiety and grief, which resulted from debts that I owe.” So the Prophet said: “Shall I teach you words which will take away your grief and by which God will help you repay your debts, if you were to say them?”  The man replied: “Yes!” Thereupon, the Prophet said: “Every morning and every evening say, O God! I seek refuge in you from anxiety and grief, weakness and laziness, miserliness and cowardliness, the burden of debts and from being over powered by men.”

This supplication is repeated after the ritual prayer throughout the day as a source of solace, help, and mercy for the depressed, anxious and grief stricken.

As we gather today to remember those among us who suffer from mental illness, let us commit to work together to shine a light and give hope to those who bear this challenge, and to their families who help support them.