<<Whereby Allah guides those who seek His good pleasure to the ways of peace and brings them out from darkness and into the light, by His decree, and guides them to a straight path>>
Surah al-Maidah, Ayat 16.
Depression is regarded as the most disabling condition affecting the developed world, behind only heart disease, and that 1 in 4 Australians will endure it in some form or another during their lifetime. During my first year of university, I was 1 in 4.
To date, it’s a leading cause in suicide, at a time when youth suicide is at a troubling high. While I suffered many symptoms of Atypical Depression, suicide was thankfully never on my mind. The most difficult to deal with was the lethargy and isolation that both came with it and fed it.
This was 2011, which was also the year I reverted and accepted Islam, through the research I’d done previously into world religions while finding my place, and the friendships I’d made on campus. However the cycle which fuelled my depression began more than a year earlier, during my final year of high school.
Depression is often thought to occur during periods of high stress and anxiety, which then fail to abate long after external sources of stress have been dealt with. Whether my final studies before university, or a lack of sense of identity and place, brought it about in me, I still cannot say. However, staying on campus at university, away from family and the sense of routine that provides, definitely exacerbated it. What made it worse was that I was undiagnosed for years, until I had the confidence to tell myself that something was wrong, and to seek help.
While counselling provided by the university was beneficial, professionals can only direct you towards the changes you need to make. While I did take my Shahadah, declaring my faith, during this challenging time, it was not an immediate remedy. Rather, it was a simple step in the direction I needed to take. And every sufferer of depression has their own path to recovery.
The most important part was what Islam could provide me, outside of an internal conviction in faith and destiny, and that was the Muslim community itself. Isolation is the most dangerous thing for someone suffering from depression, leaving them vulnerable and uncherished. While it may be hard for some who are alienated from family or friends, community is a powerful bond to rely on. The Muslim ummah is such a community, and stronger because it is an intentional community, with set values and goals for humanity and God. When you are part of any such intentional community, whether it is Muslim, Jewish or even non-denomination and simply cultural, it is much harder to feel vulnerable or uncherished.
That is not to say that there are no Muslims suffering from depression, because there are those who I have met and said as much. It took me two years before I could fully integrate myself as a functioning and contributing member of the community, participating in dawah with IREA and volunteering for the Australian Islamic Peace Conference. This was vital in instilling a sense of agency in myself again, which many sufferers feel after setting too high expectations for themselves, and then failing to meet them. Having humility and lowering those expectations was perhaps the final hurdle I had to overcome.
That’s why we must keep talking about depression and mental illness, because every community is at risk, and we shouldn’t feel as though ours is special or protected. Only we can make sure every one of us feels special and protected, and not let anyone fall into the dangerous trap of isolation. So we must look to those we care about, and even those we don’t know well enough yet, and ask:
Are you ok?
Final note: My non-Muslim opponents have often suggested that Muslims exploited me in my time of weakness and vulnerability in order to lure me into Islam, and that my faith is therefore feeble and in need of saving. Their accusations are very indicative of their ignorance, which is but another reason we must talk about mental illness. Contrary to their belief, sufferers of depression are not in a bout of weakness. It takes tremendous strength to carry on throughout depression and not simply give up. We are also no more prone to being influenced than anyone else. I would know because I avoided help for years out of pure abject stubbornness. I don’t blame such people for their ignorance or prejudices. It only highlights the point I’m hoping to make today.