Common Complications for Muslims and Mental Illness

Political pandering driven to simplistic sloganeering is creating a common challenge for Muslims and mental illness sufferers.

For Muslims in America, being perceived as sharing a common religion is an increasing burden following Orlando’s Pulse shooting, San Bernardino, the Boston Marathon bombing, Chattanooga, Fort Hood, 9/11 and other incidents. Foreign attacks, including yesterday’s airport attack in Turkey, don’t help either.

For those struggling with any mental illness, being perceived as sharing a common disease is an increasing burden following Sandy Hook, Columbine, the Colorado movie theater, Virginia Tech, and other incidents. The Germanwings crash and other overseas events only add to misgivings.

Since Muslims and mental illness are rarely discussed in mainstream media outside of tragic events, the perception of all Muslims and anyone struggling with mental health challenges is that violence is part of the label. For most, this is far from the truth.

Mental illness isn’t a singular disease. The overarching term applies to depression, anxiety and eating disorders, narcissists, substance abuse, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and countless other individual brain illnesses—each with its own challenges and attributes. Only a handful of these brain illnesses are associated with a risk of violence against others. A comprehensive study published last year in the American Journal of Public Health found that “a growing body of research suggests that mass shootings represent anecdotal distortions of, rather than representations of, the actions of ‘mentally ill’ people as an aggregate group.” Even among those few mental illnesses known to carry elevated risks, violence is typically higher only among individuals with the combination of a serious mental illness, substance abuse and violent history.

Islam isn’t a singular religion, despite the best efforts of President Barack Obama to say that “Islam is a religion of peace” when Islam is, in fact, many religions following vastly different beliefs. The overarching term of Muslim can apply—depending on whom one asks—to Sufis, Ahmadis, Ibadiyyahs, Alevis and Druze, as well as to the large minority Shia Muslims and majority Sunni Muslims who range in views from reformist to ultra-orthodox sects. Differences in beliefs are at least as extreme as in Christianity and Judaism, though violence from radical Islamists often classified as Salafi-jihadists far surpasses that produced by any other faith. Sufi Muslims focus their faith on internal purification while Wahhabbi, Deobandi and other Salafist Muslims cater to violent interpretations in their desire to impose 7th Century versions of Sharia Law. The Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam spread from Saudi Arabia is linked to a large portion of the most horrific terror attacks. Even among Wahhabis, though, there are disagreements on aspects of the faith.

There are clear differences, of course, between the perception challenges faced by the mentally ill and those faced by Muslims. Recent polling shows that nearly a quarter of American Muslims believe violence is acceptable when punishing those who offend Islam, while no such commensurate belief exists among those with a mental health challenge. Nearly 20 percent of U.S. Muslims believe violence is acceptable as a means to impose Sharia Law in the United States. While Sharia Law is adapted differently by Muslim majority nations, the version used by Saudi Arabia is similar to that implemented by ISIS. There is no organized or even disorganized effort on the part of those suffering from brain illnesses to demand anything other than treatment and support.

Despite some issue differences, the solutions to distorted images of Muslims and mental illness are the same.

  • Talk openly and honestly. Political leaders can’t continue to state that “there’s no issue here” and expect to be believed when evidence of problems exist as a series of lead-story headlines. Dishonesty turns debates toward all-or-nothing solutions when targeted actions are the right answer.
  • Be specific. There’s little evidence that even most of our political leaders understand the difference between Sufi and Wahhabi teachings, but the differences are enormous. When terror acts occur, we need to discuss the specific branch of Islam involved and put terror risks in context. When a mental illness diagnosis is part of the dialogue after an act of violence, we should talk about the specific diagnosis and other contributing factors to the action, but then put the actions in context of general population risk. Some Islamic sects actively promote violence against others. We should focus our efforts on understanding those sects, excluding new entrants who follow their violent beliefs, and ensuring we remain open to Muslims whose beliefs fit in western society. Moderate and reformist Muslims will welcome a respite from attack by their radical brethren. They are often victimized themselves.
  • Create meaningful engagement. For those suffering many brain illnesses, engagement contributes to healing. This engagement is hampered by stigmas, including those linked to violence. Polling shows that U.S. Muslims are far more likely to have friends from other faiths than those in majority-Muslim countries. This engagement may contribute to the more moderate views they hold compared to counterparts overseas. It’s important that our Muslim brethren see other Americans as equally human, and vice versa. This won’t happen if we divide and segregate.

In today’s short-attention-span media environment, too many issues are condensed to distorted sound bites. Muslims and mental illness are not sound-bite issues, even if so many of our politicians speak about them as if the answers are simple.

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