People of faith shouldn't hesitate to ask for help. That's why I'm sharing my story

Mental health trauma is a widespread problem, and we need to talk about this

A Palestinian art student paints as she takes part in a festival marking World Mental Health Day in Gaza City. AFP
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There are some things that are hard to talk about. And some harder still to put in writing. Especially when it involves sharing your own intimate and vulnerable experiences. For me, that is talking about my mental health, the challenges I’ve faced, and continue to face.

I’ve been struggling with mine, and the situation has taken me down some dark negative spirals to emotional breakdown. Living on the constant precipice of high anxiety and panic attacks is not just mentally destabilising. It has a destructive effect on physical health. And its ripples affect spouses and children, and the ability to be present and functional in your own life.

I feel in some ways embarrassed, even ashamed, to write those sentences. After all, I have a public persona. I have a reputation to maintain with work colleagues, on public platforms, and I’m the positive, cheerful, upbeat one in family and social settings. I’m apparently an achiever, someone who holds it together. As one colleague described me, I’m a swan – the trauma I’m dealing with in terms of life’s responsibilities together with the achievements and pioneering work I try to do – I appear to manage effortlessly, looking graceful, being a positive force for others while being impactful.

A child looks on as prayers are said during the Eid festival at Davitt Park GAA grounds in Belfast, on July 9. PA Wire

So how can I say I’m falling apart? More importantly, why would I say it, if I’m somehow holding it all together?

Life comes at you. As a sandwich generation carer looking after elderly parents, young children, a recent bereavement, with a job I love and a passion to write, speak, innovate and change the world, all wrapped up in fatigue, complex relationships and physical challenges. You can insert here any number of different parameters that might affect any individual.

What isn’t a risk, is asking for help. That’s a must

The reality is that I’m not holding it together. And the truth is, I should be neither embarrassed nor ashamed to say I’m struggling with mental health. It’s a hard journey to go on. We’d get help for a perpetual headache or breathlessness, and getting help for our mental well-being is just as important. It’s not something we can fix ourselves, no matter what we might think. In fact, anyone who finds themselves in a mental health dark hole and thinks they don’t need professional help is someone who needs it most.

This week, we marked World Mental Health Day, an international event spotlighting mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma.

It’s to tackle that stigma that I share a small snippet of my story. To show the severity of the impact of negative mental health. To show how invisible, pervasive and yet devastating it can be. How it exists in plain sight, and even among those we don’t expect it to affect. How it can even affect with such brutality when we are aware of it, and can even describe and diagnose it. How we need to talk about it. Why talking about it and asking for help is a good thing.

But my story has a further complexity that affects billions of people around the world: that I’m a person of faith and religion.

That’s why a new project by the Woolf Institute is an important bellwether for the wider development of mental health services catering to Muslim and other faith communities. The Institute’s research project will explore the relationships between mainstream mental health services and the increasing number of Islamic counselling services in the UK. The Woolf Institute’s research will also look at why many British Muslims can face additional mental health burdens because of anxieties around experiences of racism and discrimination made worse by socio-economic disparities.

Mental health can be a particular challenge to talk about in faith communities. It brings harsh judgments of weak faith, it attaches stigma to people as not being "good Muslims", for example. It misrepresents religious teachings to justify toxic cultural and social behaviours that are then even harder to break. By the same token, mainstream mental health services are rarely developed to understand the drivers for a person of faith, how faith shapes their view of the world, and how it can be a source of healing and power (rather than as a negative, as many therapists think of it). From my own experiences of speaking to a counsellor – a very positive and helpful experience – I found myself having to explain to her how my beliefs as a Muslim shaped my behaviours, and the objectives I was trying to reach as a Muslim, and therefore what needed to be addressed.

The amount of mental health trauma among us is already off the scales. We need to talk about this. That’s why I’m sharing my story. I feel it’s at great personal risk. But I’m OK with that, if my vulnerability will allow all of us to do the same: to be brave, to normalise the conversation and to ensure we create an environment where we can talk about our struggles, and we can seek help.

It’s important to reach out. If you don’t think you need help then either be mindful of your own behaviour and/or watch out for others; encourage an environment where people can get help, and where mental health is talked about, and where religious justifications or lack of knowledge are not obstacles. There is a growing number of community and religious counselling services available. There is no need to suffer alone, and feel overwhelmed by dark clouds.

For myself, I’m doing exactly that: I’ve reached out for help and I’m on an ongoing journey. I have mental health support from professionals as well as a tight circle of friends.

Bravery is built on openness, vulnerability and being willing to take risks. Sometimes the risks are talking about it. Sometimes, it might feel like the risk is to acknowledge that we need help. What isn’t a risk, is asking for help. That’s a must.

Published: October 14, 2022, 9:00 AM