Tell us about yourself and why you started a page about faith and mental health.
I’m a Muslim Psychologist. This page is about an integration of faith and mental health as both are extremely important to me. They are not often spoken about in the same room and this is problematic. I am passionate about clearing misconceptions in both camps and harmoniously combining them. I have also conducted my own research around a very relevant topic of Understanding Muslim Women Clients of Counselling1. My page is also a way to make such research accessible and digestible by others.
In an Instagram post you state “Religious coping can help but not always”, Why is this relevant to South Asian communities and what message do you hope to deliver to people by talking about this?
For many South Asians faith is a hugely significant part of life. Unfortunately, there is an over-reliance on it when it comes to mental health. We are often taught that faith has all the answers, to only turn to God and to be patient with our problems by quietly putting up with them. However, this mindset fuels the stigma around mental health and can manifest into forms of negative religious coping. This includes waiting for God to solve our problems2, defining stressors as punishments, and the belief that these challenges are related to negative forces like the devil. This creates a sense of powerlessness, hopelessness and despair. Thus, religious coping can sometimes cause harm.
Despite this, positive religious coping exists too. This includes searching for meaning and lessons by trusting in, and relying on, God as a companion through difficulty. This approach towards faith helps to promote inner agency and hopefulness.
I wanted to acknowledge that religious coping does have its place, but also encourage people to look beyond this. Religious coping is not the only way and not the only right way to manage difficulties. It can be utilised alongside other approaches. We are multifaceted, so are our issues, and the way we address them needs to reflect this.
In your experience, what kind of misconceptions exist around mental health in faith groups and why?
There’s a great sense of shame and fear within our communities when it comes to psychological issues. I have come across the following misconceptions that fuel the stigma and create additional difficulties for those struggling:
- Mental health issues are a sign of weak faith
- Mental health issues are a sign of disconnection from God
- Mental health difficulties are the individuals fault
- Mental health issues are permanent
- Mental health issues are a punishment
- Mental health struggles mean that God is not happy with me
- One should only speak to God about their problems
- One should be able to handle difficulties alone
A lack knowledge, awareness and understanding goes on to perpetuate these misconceptions. The rampant shame within our cultures stifles openness about these aspects. It’s a double- edged sword. Addressing mental health issues involves honest reflections and taking responsibility, but some of the stigma may be related to denial within our communities.
What challenges do you face with clients who have conflicting ideas about mental health and faith?
Clients who separate faith and mental health might often hold many misconceptions. On top of the stressors that create mental health issues, clients are often in conflict with themselves because they are experiencing mental health issues. They may struggle with guilt, shame, self-blame, self-rejection, self-criticism and low self-worth that originate from internalisation of unhealthy external beliefs about mental health. I often work with clients to normalise their emotions and their struggles; providing validation, understanding and acceptance. I work collaboratively to draw out unhealthy beliefs that may be feeding a client’s problem – tentatively questioning and challenging them in order to help restructure existing beliefs and to create a new set of healthier ones. The safety of therapy is crucial for this. Our beliefs can be extremely ingrained though, and this process can take time. But it allows the client to begin accepting themselves and to help with resolving the issue.
You also talk about Islam and energy and Islam and mental health on your page. As a British Muslim what stigmas do you find exist in the community and how does your page aim to challenge and help resolve this through the discussions you have?
I mentioned earlier about the gaps between mental health and faith communities, and how people can often become too rigid with their religious views. This can be dangerous because these areas are meant to be flexible adding richness to our lives. Thinking in a black and white way does not allow for the exploration and curiosity that is needed in living a life that is predominantly grey. Instead it attempts to box people in, constricting us and narrowing our existence. I have been very open-minded in my own pursuit in the areas of Islam and energy and Islam and mental health. And I have experienced and educated myself on aspects that are completely outside of the traditional religious teachings I was brought up with. I won’t go into this here but it is a work in progress! In this sense my page is also a reflection of my own learning and growth in reconciling faith and mental health. I hope it helps others see a different dimension of religion that is full of love not fear. There are many existing ideas and beliefs that I am deconstructing and new ideas that I am sharing through my page. My page allows me to normalise mental health and therapy. It allows me to create an awareness of mental health issues, to deconstruct problematic cultural and religious beliefs and to allow people to question and reflect on their own beliefs in order to create healthier perspectives. My page encourages thinking outside the boxes that we’ve been conditioned into.
What role does spiritual bypassing play in religious communities?
Spiritual bypassing is the use of spiritual practices and ideas to override our problems. It essentially denies, suppresses and avoids our unresolved emotional and psychological difficulties. It’s a defence mechanism that appears acceptable on the outside but creates fractures within. For example, someone may be struggling with depression but will keep reiterating quotes from religion that don’t actually address the issue i.e. “I’m feeling so low these days, but praise be to God I’ve got lots to be thankful for.” It’s also an invalidation of our emotional and psychological experiences, which creates inner conflict. In faith communities, with an emphasis on practices such as being thankful to God, people assume it is wrong and bad to air their issues as they interpret this as being ungrateful. Overemphasis on positives, intense levels of judgement and emotional suppression and detachment are signs of spiritual bypassing3. The unresolved issues will continuously resurface if they are not addressed. Spiritual bypassing can also be a defence mechanism and coping mechanism as we are not facing our issues but we also might not know how to. Another reason why it is important to seek professional support in a safe space with a professional who is trained to sit with difficulties and to work through them in a healthy way.
How can therapy and faith co-exist in a healthy way?
Therapy and faith can co-exist, and they do. We just haven’t found all the pieces that join them together yet. Some of this involves going back to our scriptures and religious texts and noticing how God talks about our wellbeing. Through generations and translations, a lot of our current teachings exclude ideas about promoting good mental health, but they are there. Our faiths are comprehensive, it doesn’t make sense that they would not have anything to say about investing in self-healing and personal growth. We also need to consider what we mean when we talk about ‘therapy’. Therapy as we know it in the UK is a Eurocentric practice, originating from Eurocentric theory. With faith communities being so ethnically diverse we have to be careful of the discrepancies between our worldviews and what professionals bring to the therapy space. It is important for therapists to be aware of, and sensitive to, their client’s cultural orientation and how to work with it so therapy is in line with the client’s values. Unfortunately, many therapists do not have training within these areas nor do they feel comfortable working with faith in the room. On one hand, I would encourage individuals from faith communities to challenge their misconceptions about therapy and mental health and on the other I would encourage therapists to learn about different cultures and faiths to feel more confident in engaging therapeutically with diverse clients. Alternatively, there are growing practices that synthesise faith and therapy such as Islamic Counselling. There is a lot we can learn from our client’s faith, from our own faith and from other faiths in bringing faith and therapy together. This area is exciting and I’m personally looking forward to how it unfolds.
1 Sadiq, R. S. (2019) Understanding Muslim Women Clients of Counselling. Doctoral Thesis; University of The West of England. http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/36606/1/NRApprovedThesis.pdf
2 Moreira-Almeida, A. Neto, L. F., & Koenig, G. H. (2006). Religiousness and mental health: A review. Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry, 28, 3. http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=s1516- 44462006000300018&script=sci_arttext&tlng=pt
3 Robert August Masters, (2012). Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us From What Really Matters. North Atlantic Books; California
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