Ramadan signals joy and spirituality for millions of Muslims worldwide, but, for some, we look at Ramadan with anxiety and fear. While everyone knows that the sick and ailing are exempt from fasting, they often overlook those suffering from mental illness or other “invisible” illnesses including; Anorexia Nervosa, Bi-polar Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, Borderline Personality Disorder and so on. This stems from a broader problem in the Muslim community which does not accept or embrace its members with these illnesses. The question is, how can we help our brothers and sisters with these illnesses have a Ramadan filled with joy and spirituality?
Personally, I am afraid of Ramadan as it creeps ever closer this year. I am afraid of losing sleep as my husband wants to go to Taraweeh every night. In addition, the early morning suhoors (pre-fast meal) mean I will be losing a lot of sleep. Sleep for me is a key indicator of how my mental health is doing. This is true for many mental illness sufferers. We need a regulated sleep schedule to be able to function. Often, our medicine makes us sleepy and we already struggle to get up in the morning. Over the course of the month, this lack of sleep could seriously throw off our delicate balance of wellness.
The fasts this year are particularly long, with the fasting time in my area reaching 16.5 hours. It is one of the main struggles of Ramadan to remain hydrated during these long days. I have, in the past, chugged as much water as I could between iftar and suhoor. This was without the compounded effect of the medicine. Now, I take a few medicines twice a day and one of those is lithium. You require a lot of water when taking lithium. Is it safe to abstain from your medicine during the day? Only your personal psychiatrist can answer that question for you.
All of these problems lead a person with a mental illness to have to choose between deen and health. Do you stop taking your meds and try to fast for Ramadan or do you not traditionally fast and feel isolated from the community?
It doesn’t have to be this way. I wish the community embraced these people and opened opportunities for them to feel accepted. One of these ways could be not asking someone why they aren’t fasting. Another way you can support a mentally ill person during Ramadan is to accompany them to the doctor and help them make the right decision about fasting. Don’t guilt them into going one way or the other. Instead, support them in the right choice for their health. If their mental health deteriorates during Ramadan, the best thing you can do for a mentally ill person is be there for them. Help them make good health decisions and keep their confidence.
Ultimately, it is the mentally ill person who must decide what to do concerning fasting and they will bear the consequences. Please do not push or guilt your brothers or sisters into fasting if they are not prepared. I will be fasting this Ramadan and, while I am scared, I also look forward to the many blessings that come with this month as should all Muslims whether they are fasting or not.