Love, Life Stories

When I spoke out about my mental health, Muslim leaders told me to stay quiet

I am neither playing victim nor somehow weakening myself by telling my story.

I am female, I am Muslim, I am dealing with mental health issues, and I demand to be heard.

In my first few years of college I struggled, got help, mostly recovered, and was ready to support others so I told my story the best way I know how: via Facebook rant. Now, I didn’t choose to broadcast to my 1,000+ Facebook friends because I wasn’t ready for the guy who sat next to me in English in 10th grade or the mother of a former teammate to chime in on my struggles quite yet.

I took my story to the Muslim Students Association (MSA) Facebook group – a group where people frequently introduce themselves just to say hi, or post YouTube videos that they think will make others laugh.

I took it to students and alumni, parents and mentors. I took it to a community that prides itself on being a support network grounded in love and faith. In my post, I described searching for good therapy when I was too scared to ask for resources. I discussed the fears I had surrounding medication and the stigma. I talked about where I got help and why.

The response I got was overwhelmingly positive. I was applauded for speaking out, for giving a large, silent minority a voice. Texts came flooding in with students thanking me for telling my story and sharing their own. And just when I felt like I was making a difference, that voice was stripped from me.

A student and local masjid leader in positions of power told me to delete the post. They claimed that sharing such a personal story was “not appropriate.” What I understood was that I should be ashamed. That my struggle with mental health is not something that should be public. I was told that I should consider “sharing with a few close friends instead”- because nothing breaks the stigma quite like preaching to the choir, right?

They said that someone years ago had shared their sexual assault story, was cyber-bullied, and therefore we should not discuss these things. I guess that’s just one more taboo topic we should sweep under the rug. Why do we choose to perpetuate the idea that the stories told by survivors of sexual assault and mental health alike are inappropriate and dangerous? Instead of silencing those who are brave enough to tell their stories, what if we tried to support and defend them?

Mental health issues strip you of your confidence. It preys on your insecurities. It tells you that you do not belong, that what you are feeling is invalid, that you are invalid. I had assumed that the Muslim community was a place that I would always be affirmed, but my voice has never felt as suppressed as it did that night.

They said, “You are victimizing yourself.”

My identity is not defined by my circumstances. I am neither playing victim nor somehow weakening myself by telling my story. Sharing this story was a source of pride for me. It was a sign of strength. It was me telling the world that my illness jarred me, but did not define me. It was me overcoming the silence and vulnerability to do what I felt was for the greater good. I am stronger than I have ever been, in spite of the lack of support and dialogue surrounding this issue.

“We were doing this to protect you. We asked you to move this to your personal page to avoid being attacked.”

I appreciate the sentiment. These women genuinely believe that I am in danger and that they are doing what is best to protect me. But I am strong and capable of protecting myself. I am an autonomous adult and I control my own voice. For years, I have received hateful messages for my political posts on Facebook.

[bctt tweet=”I am neither playing victim nor somehow weakening myself by telling my story.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I have been told that I should avoid certain careers because I am a girl and that I should keep quiet for my own safety. I refused to give in to those voices then just as I refuse to give in to those voices now. I am publicly and unapologetically an outspoken minority and I have already weighed the costs against the benefits. As a capable, intelligent, and reasonable person, I made the decision to share a story on a taboo topic and I felt disrespected when my ability to make that decision for myself was questioned.

“What will the community think?”

That’s just it. I want the community to think. I hold a leadership position in this group and am often praised for having my life well organized and under control. By coming forward with my story, I am making it clear that my public profile is just as real as the person who was struggling underneath. I was hoping that the community would think about how they view mental health and that it would change the narrative for the better.

A few MSA members have come to me since this happened and told me that they feel more comfortable talking about their struggles. My story was the catalyst they needed to change something in their lives and get help. Someone told me that I was the first person they knew who had openly shared their mental health story. Let’s focus on that for a minute. According to Active Minds, 1 in 4 adults has a diagnosable mental health disorder and those statistics are even higher for college students. Over 25% of the people she regularly interacts with likely deal with some sort of mental illness and somehow I was the first person she had ever heard tell their story.

I know I’m not alone. I met one of my good friends in the waiting room for my school’s psychological services. I know firsthand that there’s an underground network of girls in our MSA dealing with mental health issues. If you need to vent, we’ve got a shoulder to cry on. If you can’t be alone, we have a couch for you to crash on. If you need a hug, we’ll be at your door in 5 minutes with hot chocolate.

Because of them, I am not giving up on this dialogue. The fact that I wasn’t even given the chance to receive hateful messages genuinely upsets me. Instead of shutting me down, I want to see the Muslim community support me. I want to hear that no matter what happens, regardless of the insults thrown my way, they’ve got my back. I want to hear that they will do what it takes to help anyone in need. That when someone comes to us resources will be provided, friends will be responsive, and when it comes time to tell their story, the community will be receptive.

Let’s talk about mental health. Let’s demand to be heard.