Dr Rania Awaad was participating in a virtual religious program this Ramadan when the discussion turned into an unexpected question: is it religiously okay to say a prayer for someone who has committed suicide?
Suicide is a complex and delicate subject that Awad, as director of the Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology Laboratory at Stanford University, is familiar with – but a topic she says is not discussed enough in American Muslim communities. When it does, she said, it’s often misunderstood and surrounded by misconceptions.
Awaad and other mental health professionals are trying to change that, working alongside some religious leaders and activists to bring nuance and compassion to these conversations, raising awareness among Muslim communities about suicide prevention and health. mental health and provide advice appropriate to religion and culture.
The effort took on new urgency following an apparent murder-suicide in April that left six family members dead in Allen, Texas (about 42 miles northeast of Dallas), sending waves shock to Muslim communities in the region and beyond. Investigators believe that two brothers made a pact to kill their parents, sister and grandmother before killing themselves.
The incident sparked a wave of activity in Muslim spaces, from public mental health discussions and suicide response trainings to healing circles and private conversations.
“The initial reaction from the community was a total shock,” said Imam Abdur Rahman Bashir of the Islamic Association of Allen, where the family’s funeral took place. “Their reaction changed from shock, grief to worry for the other families around them: are they saying something they can’t hear? Is there something they can’t see ?”
“It definitely opened the conversation to understanding what mental health is and the importance of mental wellness,” he added.
Suicide is theologically outlawed under Islam, and Awaad, while acknowledging this, has a nuanced view of the problem, arguing that it is not for people to judge. Contrary to what she has heard about people who have committed suicide, she believes the deceased should receive prayers regardless of how they died.
“We don’t know the state of a person when they reach this point in their life, and we don’t know their mental state at that time,” she said. “… Only God can judge this.”
BREAKING THE STIGMA
The importance of seeking professional help with mental health issues, regardless of what people may say, is a message the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation sought to convey in a recent video. Aimed at the South Asian American community, it featured actors, young activists and others sharing their experiences to help break down stigma.
Some community leaders in Texas have addressed suicide and mental health issues after a Muslim American woman committed suicide in 2018, according to Saadia Ahmed, director of the foundation’s youth leadership program. After Allen’s tragedy, she heard from many people who have reached out to share their personal battles or ask how to get help for loved ones.
A young man said he had thoughts of suicide in the past and getting help made things better. There was a high school student who needed therapy but her parents weren’t giving it to her; with the help of a school counselor, she ended up getting help. Ahmed also heard from parents worried about their children.
“I feel like at least I’m seeing progress,” Ahmed said.
Sameera Ahmed – no relation -, psychologist and executive director of the Family & Youth Institute, a nonprofit research and education institute, said that when her group was developing suicide prevention resources for Muslim communities there was a few years, some wondered about the need.
“People didn’t want to share what was going on because they were afraid of the stigma,” Ahmed said. “They were afraid that people would not come to their loved one’s janazah,” or the funeral.
But today, she sees a greater openness to conversation and says that some well-known imams have started to approach the issue from a more compassionate perspective. Still, a lot of work remains to be done, she added.
In the aftermath of Allen’s tragedy, Awaad delivered virtual suicide response trainings from his base in California to help people navigate the aftermath, including religious and community leaders. His lab at Stanford provided guidelines for Islamic sermons.
“Responding to the crisis is the hardest part,” she said. Many imams and religious leaders strive to “strike a balance between healing the community and Islam’s stance on the impressionability of suicide.”
RESOURCES AND SUPPORT
She has also co-authored an article detailing the dos and don’ts of post-suicide suicide, such as providing resources and support for those struggling, while refraining from speculating on spiritual implications such as whether those who commit suicide will go to paradise.
By the end of 2022, Awaad hopes that 500 Muslim religious leaders will have received training on suicide using materials developed by a nonprofit, Maristan, in conjunction with his science-based Stanford lab and the teachings of Islam.
Several religious leaders have supported this effort.
One of them, Imam Bashir, of the Islamic Association of Allen, said that while Islam does not allow suicide as a means of solving problems, faith “encourages the community to be a one body with ears, eyes and arms to help each other. not get to a point where that would be a consideration. “
Wrestling with difficult questions around suicide is not unique to Muslims. Mathew Schmalz, professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, said a common belief in theistic traditions is that life belongs to God, so taking it “fundamentally violates” God’s most precious gift. .
Yet attitudes have evolved with a greater appreciation of the complexities of mental illness, he added, and it is important to challenge beliefs that suicide signals moral weakness or a failure to be grateful for. God.
“While it is important to understand God as merciful,” said Schmalz, “it is equally important to be part of a community of faith in which mental health issues are taken seriously and not stigmatized.”
Dr. Rania Awaad is pictured at her home in Union City, Calif. On Wednesday, June 23, 2021. “Islamically we understand that there is the theological rule of no suicide, so I am not here to deny that, “Said Awaad. However, she added,” we don’t know the state of a person when they reach this stage of their life and we don’t know their mental state at that time. .. Only God can judge this. (AP Photo / Jeff Chiu)