Reconnecting with faith can be good for your health

A recent study suggests a link between better mental health and asserting religious identity, writes Shelina Janmohamed

Reconnecting with faith and identity has been shown to be helpful for those with mental illnesses. Antonie Robertson/The National
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A recent study suggests a link between better mental health and asserting religious identity

In the military, those who refused duty were once said to be “lacking in moral fibre”. The malady even had an acronym: LMF. The physical response to the extra­ordinary emotional circumstance was put down to lacking in guts. In the French army, sufferers were deliberately kept at the front and bullied into continuing, which undoubtedly worsened the suffering.

Today, we might recognise the condition as post-traumatic stress disorder, and offer a much more sympathetic understanding of the immense suffering that this mental health condition entails.

The diagnosis of “lacking in moral fibre” is telling, as though mental health suffering is not a real thing, despite the palpable and real condition facing its sufferers. Instead, the sufferers are blamed, as though it is with them that the fault lies.

The same kind of approach was – and too often continues to be – taken to “women’s problems” when conditions such as postnatal depression and menopause were explained as female hysteria and lunacy, often condemning women to lifelong imprisonment in mental asylums.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then, but there’s still so much more to do. While mental health remains a taboo topic in ordinary conversations, it is being talked about at the very highest levels. For example, British prime minister Theresa May has highlighted the tackling of mental health as a priority.

It’s a form of illness that can be particularly difficult for people of faith. Like the soldiers who were accused of lacking in moral fibre, the faithful are accused of perhaps the most painful thing: being of weak faith. It’s an accusation that can mean the most vulnerable do not reach out for the help they need. Or worse, they are advised by well-meaning but hugely inexperienced lay people that they don’t need professional help.

The relationship for the faithful between their mental health and faith is controversial in myriad ways beyond this. Even when they offer themselves for help, religion is too often seen itself as a form of mental illness.

Or paradoxically, when it comes to descriptions of terrorism, Muslims are described as evil but non-Muslim perpetrators are described as mentally ill. This, of course, does a huge disservice to those who really are ill.

With the spotlight on Muslims as inherently suspect due to the policies of some countries, they can face disproportionate scrutiny. In the United Kingdom, young children can be scrutinised by authorities for playing with toy guns or discussing ecoterrorism. It is no stretch to imagine this can lead to psychological trauma on both the children and their families.

The subtext of many of these authoritarian policies is, of course, that there is something inherently problematic with being Muslim.

A recent study into mental health and faith at the University of Leeds offers a surprising insight.

A new treatment based on cognitive behavioural therapy was trialled with 20 patients. Those who said that faith used to be a part of their lives when they were well, but they stopped religious practices because of depression, were reintroduced to faith principles. It was pointed out to them that the Quran notes that even those who have strong faith can suffer depression and that this is not a sign of divine displeasure.

Emphasising Muslim identity and belief acted as a positive thing.

We see the same principle across other segments of society too. In my own research, I have found that the strongest results for anchoring young Muslims who self-identify as Muslim into their wider communities is to give them space to express and be proud of their Muslim identity.

The more their Muslim identity is seen as a positive, as they see it themselves, the better it is for individuals and society. This is actually a positive expression of moral fibre, and it helps them as well as society.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of the books Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World and Love in a Headscarf

On Twitter: @loveinheadscarf