How faith and belief systems shape our mental health

It can shape perceptions and attitudes toward mental health

By Ghenwa Yehia

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Published: Thu 14 Mar 2024, 5:49 PM

Adel Bin Hdaya AlFalasi, 33, describes himself as a man of faith. But his belief system has evolved greatly from childhood to adulthood and after being diagnosed with a mental illness.

When the Emirati national was 13, and after a series of traumatic events, he experienced unexplained hallucinations. The once mild-mannered boy began to display explosive behaviour and he became aggressive with a hot temper and a short fuse.

Concerned, his parents sought help from relatives to understand his new behaviour through a religious lens. It was declared that AlFalasi was possessed by evil spirits: djinn.

“Who was I to question my family?” AlFalasi recalled. “I was seeing things and hearing voices that others couldn’t. Even my parents called me ‘possessed’. They prayed over me to remove the evil spirits.

“I just accepted I was possessed, but instead of bringing me closer to my family, it pushed me away. No one wants to be associated with the ‘possessed’ boy. I was confused and doubted everything and everyone around me.”

It took 18 years for AlFalasi to be properly diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder, along with epilepsy and other various mental disorders that explained his erratic behaviour.

Embedded within the teachings of various faiths are complex narratives surrounding suffering, resilience, and healing, which, in turn, can wield significant influence, and shape perceptions and attitudes toward mental health. These narratives can inadvertently contribute to the marginalisation of those grappling with mental health challenges, fostering misconceptions and fear instead of compassion and support.

Faris Al Hammadi, an Emirati Religious Advisor at the Islamic Information Centre - Dar Al Ber Society, explains how any religion, which is inherently well-meaning and has good belief systems, can be manipulated by people into a double-edged sword.

“In Islam, yes, we believe djinn and the evil eye are real. But it’s also a profitable business to make ignorant people believe they are afflicted, and then offer to spiritually heal them for a sum of money. This is all nonsense. Conning people in the name of God is the worst of crimes because this causes people to doubt religion and possibly question their faith.

“Religion is often a guiding force, providing solace, community feeling, and a sense of purpose. While there is a space for religious healers to diagnose spiritual ailments and concerns, much like clinicians diagnose mental illnesses and disorders, understanding the tenets of both spiritual and medical afflictions is key to holistic treatment. There's a very strong belief that religion and mental health are separate when they should be intersecting and supporting each other to provide the best course of treatment for people of any faith.”

Al Hammadi encourages people to seek mental health support from medical professionals in addition to religious healers who are knowledgeable and sympathetic and can complement the appropriate prescribed treatment plans with healing through good words or the words of Allah (SWT).

“If you are religious, your mental health status shouldn’t be a source of shame,” Al Hammadi said. “An ethical religious healer should educate himself to differentiate between somebody who has spiritual concerns or mental health issues. They will encourage medical treatment where necessary.”

Based on her experiences, Dr Nahida Nayaz Ahmed, chief medical officer at SEHA Mental Health & Well-Being Services in Abu Dhabi, sees the complicated relationship between faith, culture, and community knowledge of mental health reflected in the diverse ways that religion impacts mental illnesses.

“Religion can foster holistic care methods that include helpful meditation techniques, offer a community of support, and provide a framework for understanding and coping,” she said. “Alternatively, it can induce misinterpretations of symptoms, discourage people from seeking professional assistance, stigmatise mental illness, and can lead to conflicts between treatment plans and religious beliefs.

“When there is a conflict between treatment approaches and religious doctrines, people can’t get the help they need. That is why it’s imperative to create culturally aware and sympathetic approaches to mental health care.”

Dr Ahmed, the Emirati doctor who diagnosed AlFalasi, acknowledges that local communities have made sporadic attempts to address the stigma associated with mental illness and religious beliefs. But she argues that these awareness campaigns and programmes, which dispel stereotypes and provide a safe haven for people dealing with mental health issues in religious settings, ought to happen more frequently and on a larger scale.

“By educating through training sessions, forming alliances for supportive networks, incorporating spiritual care into services, encouraging communication to address concerns, and providing resources to support people with mental health issues within religious frameworks, mental health professionals can work with religious leaders or institutions to overcome obstacles. These initiatives seek to promote mental health care access, lessen stigma, and increase understanding within religious communities.”

AlFalasi found his way back to religion after he was properly diagnosed and treated.

“To be a Muslim, you have to have faith in that which you cannot see and my experiences with mental health, an invisible illness, have only reinforced that. Where Allah (SWT) delivers a challenge, He also provides the tools to face it if we are willing to seek them.”

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