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Breaking the silence on Muslim men with mental health issues

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Confused, isolated and suicidal is how Annas Davids felt when he was mentally at his “lowest point in life”.

Warning: This story contains references to suicide

But it was when he attended the funeral of a Muslim from his community, who had committed suicide, that he got angry.

“[Suicide] it wasn’t talked about at all in the community,” Davids said.

“It would make my blood boil that no sheikh or imam would talk about it during the khutbah (Islamic sermon) or even on social media.”

The 26-year-old youth worker from Perth is just one of many Muslim men who have struggled to come to terms with their mental health issues.

When he spoke out and shared his story on social media, he received a “negative reaction” from members of his community.

“I had people tell me that I should ‘man up’ or that I should pray more because my faith was weak.”

He believes this was partly due to the cultural stigma around men and mental health in the Muslim community.

Mr Davids has now come to terms with his mental health journey.(Provided by: Annas Davids)

After the sudden passing of his grandfather, Mr Davids struggled to cope with his grief.

“[Back then] I was crying in my room because I felt suicidal and I had no one to talk to about my problems because I didn’t even understand what was happening to me,” he said.

In 2018 he was diagnosed with depression and social anxiety, and this year he was also diagnosed with ADHD.

He has since come to terms with his mental health and said he understands that everyone’s grief experiences are different.

He said a lack of understanding meant some people thought there was “something completely wrong” if you were struggling with your mental health.

But, he is not ashamed of his diagnosis.

“Leaders of all faiths should not wait for suicide cases”

Ergun Genel in prayer.
Religious leaders say the peak of the pandemic was a particularly difficult time with mosques closing.(ABC Radio Sydney: Dayvis Heyne)

While Mr Davids had no religious leaders to turn to in times of need, Sheikh Alaa Elzokm of the Elsedeaq Heidelberg Mosque in Victoria spoke out on the matter.

“It is very concerning to see both cases of people who cannot share their experiences for fear of being identified in the community as ‘non-normal people’ and [that] some religious leaders would not deal with such cases in the community after learning of [them],” he said.

He said more conversations were needed to help break the silence.

“I believe that religious leaders of all faiths should not wait for suicide cases to talk about mental well-being,” said Sheikh Elzokm.

“As faith leaders, we need to be more frequent with our reminders so we can break the stigma.”

A photo of Alaa Elzokm wearing a blue suit, smiling.
Sheikh Alaa Elzokm says more conversations need to take place with religious leaders to help break the silence.(Provided: Alaa Elzokm)

Mr Davids echoed that sentiment and said suicidal thoughts should be discussed openly without shame.

“We don’t talk about the struggle the community is facing…it’s happening more and more, but sadly we’re silent about it,” Mr Davids said.

Sheikh Elzokm said the height of the pandemic has been a particularly difficult time, with many facing isolation, grief and the inability to interact with their community due to the closure of mosques.

While part of the responsibility lies with religious leaders, he said governments should also work more with communities most at risk.

Muslim Australians at risk of poor mental health

Research published in the journal Child and Family Studies in 2022 examined the mental health of Muslims in Australia.

It found that the psychological distress levels of Australian Muslim teenagers were 34% higher than those of teenagers in the general community.

The Center for Muslim Welfare (CMW) says that while there are studies and plenty of anecdotal evidence on these issues, there is a lack of minority-specific statistics on the mental health of Muslims.

The Beyond Blue research, which does not include minority groups, shows that on average one in eight men in Australia will suffer from depression and one in five will suffer from anxiety.

It also says men account for an average of seven out of nine suicides every day in Australia.

A photo of Ayman Islam holding a microphone during a conference.
According to Ayman Islam, the stigma associated with seeking support within the community means that Muslims access services late.(Provided by: Ayman Islam)

CMW chief executive Ayman Islam said navigating a complicated healthcare system, combined with additional barriers, such as language or cultural stigma, can make it even more difficult for Muslims to seek help. .

Mr Islam said the stigma associated with seeking help meant that Muslims tended to only access services at the time of crisis.

“Usually they show up at the hospital very, very late. They don’t often get the help they need,” he said.

With an already overburdened health system, minority groups are at increased risk, especially if they cannot find mental health professionals who understand their cultural and religious nuances, Mr. Islam said.

But he said openness was becoming less taboo for the younger generation.

Racism and negative media stereotypes also play a significant role in the mental health of Muslims.

Rita Jabri Markwell of the Australian Muslim Advocacy Network said things like confusing terrorism with the Muslim community had a terrible impact.

“There are people in our community who were victims of terrorism overseas and then came to Australia and were called terrorists for being Muslims, denigrated and abused in public and at work,” said Ms Jabri Markwell.

“These people shouldn’t have the burden of becoming more ‘resilient’ – they should be able to just be themselves and thrive.”

“The doors of hope” always open

Sheikh Elzokm believes talking about these issues will help the Muslim community as a whole – in fact, he said taking care of mental health is part of religious practice.

“Now is absolutely the time to encourage those who have been mentally affected to speak out about their experiences and their challenges,” he said.

“There are always doors of hope… let’s all talk about our challenges and experiences without any sense of fear or embarrassment.”

The back of a Muslim woman wearing a burqa.
Muslim advocacy groups say negative media stereotypes can affect mental health.(Pexels: Keira Burton)

The Center for Muslim Wellbeing has begun building a database of culturally safe and responsive practitioners to help Muslims access help more easily.

Mission of Hope has also created Hayat Line, which is a free and confidential helpline for Muslims in Australia.

Annas Davids said her advice to Muslims who are having suicidal thoughts is to find someone they trust to talk to.

“I know this is the hardest part, but I promise you once you find that trustworthy person, it will really get better from there,” he said.

“Your feelings and struggles are extremely valid, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”