SHAFAQNA (Shia News Association) – According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. Indirectly, mental illness affects just about all Canadians -- marking the lives of family members, friends and colleagues; spanning across all ages, educational and economic backgrounds and cultures. Despite the growing prevalence of mental disorders, for many people mental illness remains an issue that is only spoken about in hushed whispers and behind closed doors. Saba Malik is a young Muslim who has committed herself to challenging the stigma surrounding mental illness, after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2004.
“I had a long bout of depression followed by a mania episode,” Ms. Malik a Montreal-based blogger, life-coach and author explains, sharing how she was first diagnosed. “I had no idea what was going on, I simply attributed all the emotional roller coasters to my personality. My parents then took me to the hospital and the psychiatrists later diagnosed me with bipolar.”
Bipolar is a mood disorder that is experienced by approximately 1 per cent of all Canadians. While changes in mood and feelings such as happiness, sadness and anger are normal reactions to everyday life, for people with bipolar, control over shifting moods is lacking and mood swings are not typically related to life’s events, but are triggered by stressful life events. Mood swings can range from emotional highs (mania) to emotional lows (depression) and the condition can range from being mild to being severe, as Ms. Malik explains.
“Bipolar occurs within a spectrum and different moods could be involved like irritability, anger, depression and anxiety,” she says. “Mania usually has delusions and grandiose thoughts. Depression can have negative thinking, low energy and suicidal thoughts.” For Ms. Malik, her diagnosis was followed by a two-year period of denial.
“Bipolar is a beauty and a beast,” she describes. “I pushed it out of my life for more than two years, because I was judging myself on stigmas I had internalized over the years. I didn’t want the crazy label. When I finally swallowed my pride and accepted I could be sick, it became easier to let bipolar in the door. Moreover, I started to see bipolar as a test from Allah. Seeing the illness as a trial made me search for the ‘bipolar beauty’.”
It was this acceptance of the disorder and the search for the bipolar beauty that lead Ms. Malik to start an online blog in 2008, MorningWind.org, to function as a place not only for her to share the lessons she learnt from bipolar, but also to help support others in the Muslim community who are struggling with mental illnesses.
“In the beginning of my acceptance period, I searched endlessly for Muslims who also had bipolar,” she says, explaining how the blog first got started. “I wanted to connect with them and share my bipolar pains and pleasures. In the end, I was just looking for someone who would understand bipolar and lend a compassionate ear. And when I didn’t find Muslims with bipolar or mental illnesses, I started blogging. Mental illness can be really isolating, especially in the face of ignorance. My blog helps to get rid of that isolation and break the walls of ignorance.”
Ms. Malik hopes her blog will help other Muslims in the community, who may be suffering from mental illness and are afraid to seek help.
“I’ve felt alone and shunned merely because of an illness Allah tested me with and continues to test me with,” she says. “I don’t want any human, Muslim or non-Muslim, to go through that pain. I hope that my blog offers a fresh breeze of hope for the many Muslims suffering in silence and shame.”
Despite the fact that mental illness can be treated effectively, many suffering from mental illnesses hesitate to accept diagnosis and treatment, due to attached stigmas that prevail in society. Studies show that 49 per cent of people who have suffered from depression or anxiety have never sought medical attention. Many factors prevent people from speaking about their struggles with mental illness and going to a doctor, including ignorance about mental illnesses, as well as the stigma that is often attached to mental illness. According to Ms. Malik, education is key to breaking this stigma and allowing people with mental illnesses to feel part of the community.
“The stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness can be broken through education,” she says. “I also think it is important for more Muslims with mental illnesses to come out and start a dialogue. This communication will insha Allah (God willing) normalize mental health conditions and remove much confusion. Moreover, the community can then see that Muslims with mental health conditions are living fulfilling lives.”
After completing her bachelor’s in Education from McGill University, Ms. Malik is now pursuing studies in Psychology at Concordia University. In addition to spending time working on her blog, she is also currently training for her second half-marathon (21k).
“Running is a great outlet for all the stress bipolar can cause,” she says. “Exercising is great for mental health. I encourage everyone to pick an activity they like and have fun with it, your brain will thank you for it.”
Since starting her blog, Ms. Malik has also published two e-books, entitled “The Muslim’s 5-Step Guide to Bipolar Mastery” and “When You’re Muslim, You Can Manage Depression with Islam.” Both books are available for free on her blog. She is currently working on her third book, which will cover common misconceptions people have about mental illness.
Accepting her diagnosis of bipolar has helped Ms. Malik to get the help and support she needs to manage the disorder and live a happy, healthy and fulfilling life. In addition to medicine, therapy, exercise, a healthy diet and a supportive network, she also credits frequent supplication as something that has helped her through her struggles with bipolar.
“When I’m sick, I have so many thoughts and voices hammering in my head,” she says. “So it’s taken me years to transform those thoughts into prayers. Accept the disorder as a test from Allah. When you get a broken leg, you don't go into hiding and drown yourself in shame. Instead you go to the doctor and make dua to Allah for a speedy recovery. Similarly, if you have a mental illness or you feel emotionally stressed, see a mental health professional. Join a support group. Get the help you need and educate yourself. And throughout all this, keep talking and praying to Allah. God has been my best friend.” – www.shafaqna.com