A Holistic Approach to Mental Illnesses

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A Holistic Approach to Mental Illnesses

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There is an alarming increase in the number of persons (both men and women) who are suffering from mental health illnesses throughout the world. The World Health Organization has estimated that in 2019, one in every 8 people, or 970 million people around the world were living with a mental disorder, with anxiety and depression being the most common. These figures rose significantly post Covid-19 pandemic. Apart from anxiety and depression, the other common mental disorders are Bipolar, Schizophrenia, Eating disorder, Autism, Conduct disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) etc. The number of people suffering from mental illnesses could be even bigger than what has been estimated since many of those afflicted do not seek help from qualified medical professionals.

A Stigma That Is Unfair
The stigma of mental illness is a major issue for individuals with mental problems. The handicap of a physically disabled person is visible to society, and this generates sympathy and understanding. However, the suffering of an individual afflicted by mental illness is not visible and therefore consequently, they are quite often misunderstood and face hostile comments and reactions. Generally speaking, women suffer more since post-marriage some of them have to survive amidst an intolerant husband and/or insensitive in-laws.

Stigma is of two kinds: Public stigma and Self-stigma. Public stigma hurts individuals because of the attitudes, prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypical media portrayals of people with mental illness. Self-stigma is also devastating since the individual loses self-confidence, feels inferior, and blames himself or herself for every shortcoming and/or perceived mistake. Self-stigma instills fears that they might be unfairly judged by employers, teachers, peers, or friends. Many persons with mental issues choose not to approach mental health hospitals to avoid getting psychiatric labels among relatives and friends.

Approach of The Muslim Community
The topic of mental health of Indian Muslims is scarcely found in the mental health literature in India. But for the first time, a study providing population-level evidence on caste, religion, and mental health in India has been done by Aashish Gupta and Diane Coffey who report that scheduled Castes and Muslims have worse self-reported mental health than higher caste Hindus and that Muslims are substantially more likely to report sadness and anxiety as compared to upper-caste Hindus (Caste, Religion and Mental Health in India: 2020).

Generally speaking, what are the beliefs of Muslims towards mental health issues? Many Muslims (though not all) either believe that it is a test from Allah or that it is because of the influence of supernatural entities (jinns, nazar, evil eye, black magic, etc.). Muslims, by far, reject genetics as a significant factor and believe in many superstitions. The first reaction of the parents is to take the child to an Aamil. Less disruptive mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and OCD among individuals are not even acknowledged as illnesses. People expect them to discharge their duties normally, just like the other people who do not have these problems. Many of them who are on medication have to face the side effects of the pills, more commonly drowsiness and excessive sleepiness. Multiple researchers in countries other than India have noted that Muslims often lack trust and possess serious doubts about the use of mental health services and therefore would not utilize such services (Amri & Bemak, 2013; Cook-Masaud & Wiggins, 2011; Tanhan, 2019; Tanhan & Francisco, 2019). But if we go back to Islamic history, it was not always so.

Islamic Psychology or Ilm-Al-Nafs
Islamic psychology or ilm-al-nafs is the medical and philosophical study of the mind from an Islamic perspective. This study deals with topics in psychology and psychiatry with a holistic approach. The treatment of mental illness in medieval times was known as al-tibb al-ruhani (the healing of the spirit). Mentally ill persons were called “majnoon” in classical Arabic.

 Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Al-Razi (865-925), known as RHAZES in the Western world was among the first in the world to write on mental illness and psychotherapy. He was the chief physician of Baghdad Hospital which was one of the first hospitals in the world to have psychiatric wards. He was the Director of these wards and his works El-Mansuri and Al-Hawi dealt with the treatment of mental illnesses.

 Abu-Ali Al Husayn Ibn Abdalah Ibn-Sina (980-1030) known as AVICENNA to the West is the author of the celebrated work Al-Qanun-fi-il-Tabb (Canon of Medicine) which provides descriptions and treatments for insomnia, epilepsy, and depression among others. He was a pioneer in the field of psychosomatic medicine which relates to the symptoms of the body that are caused by mental or emotional stress.

 Abu Zayd Al-Balkhi (850-934) was another pioneering Muslim psychologist in the age of scientific advancement in the Islamic world. In his famous work “Sustenance of the Body and Soul”, he promoted the concept of treating the body and mind as a whole. He is the founder of cognitive therapy which motivated his patients to think positively.

 The Bimaristans (Hospitals) established by Muslims in the 13th century had separate wards for mentally ill patients. Physicians in such hospitals treated their patients recognizing the link between the illness of the mind and problems in the body. Mental illness was not just treated with medicines, but also with baths, music, talk therapy, hijama (cupping) and aromatherapy. These methods which are now touted as modern, path-breaking methods were actually being used by Muslim psychologists in medieval times.

A Holistic Approach
The painting by Nil Sari depicts the treatment of an insane patient through musical therapy.

The importance of consulting psychiatrists and psychologists for treating mental illnesses medically needs to be emphasized. The services of psychiatrists and psychologists should be made more accessible and affordable, especially for the poorer classes. Many Health Insurance companies exclude insurance coverage for psychiatric treatment and psychologist consultation, which needs to be changed. In addition to medication, Muslims afflicted with mental illnesses have been advised by Ulema and scholars to develop a holistic approach to tackling their problems. They are advised to additionally adopt the following methods which will help them in mitigating their suffering and getting quicker relief:
1) Have strong faith in Allah.
2) Have total trust in Allah
3) Mention Allah constantly i.e., Zikrullah
4) Pray namaz with khushu (humility) and khuzu (modesty)
5) Do Supplication (Dua)
6) Try to cultivate a positive attitude for every distress.

Muslim society should not consider mental illness as a stigma but should consider it like any other illness of the body. NGOs should work towards removing the stigma that is unfairly attached to those suffering from any kind of mental illness. This will be very helpful, not only in ameliorating the suffering of those who are afflicted but will also help them in the recovery process.