Muslims face a suicide crisis in America. The taboo of talking about it must end.
Rania Awaad and Taimur Kouser/USA Today
Sana was gripped with fear. Her mind raced as she debated whether Allah would forgive her for being so ungrateful. She became certain that her newborn and toddler would be better off without her, a mother who couldn’t bond with her children.The thoughts surprised her. Sana considered herself religious and was aware that suicide is forbidden in Islam. But it seemed like the only solution.Her characteristically joyful personality had given way to uncontrollable feelings of guilt, despair and hypocrisy. Here she was, a lawyer and teacher of the Islamic sciences, considering suicide.Seeking help from friends was futile, as they told her what she already felt — she was suffering from weak iman (faith). They encouraged her to read more of the Qur’an and pray to restore her faith and gratitude.
On the day Sana had planned to die by suicide, a concerned friend called to check-in. She had just completed a suicide response training developed by the Stanford Muslim Mental Health & Islamic Psychology Lab and offered by Maristan, a community partner with the lab.Sana’s friend recognized red flags that she had learned about, explained to Sana that her symptoms were the result of postpartum depression, and insisted that she take her to an emergency room for a psychiatric evaluation.
Learning about her symptoms and that they were unrelated to her level of education or religiosity helped to comfort Sana and ultimately saved her life.Mental illness is still highly stigmatized around the world, but its stigma in Muslim communities is especially strong. Instead of seeing mental health challenges as medical problems requiring (in part) medical solutions, many Muslims view such challenges as purely spiritual ones that can be prayed away or addressed with similar spiritual solutions.
Suicide, in particular, is a taboo within a taboo not only because of its connection to a mental health vocabulary, but also because it is morally forbidden in Islam.A combination of Qur’anic verses and Hadith (narrations of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) underscore God’s explicit prohibition of killing oneself, emphasizing the special status that He has given to each human life and reminding Muslims about the nature of trials in this life and the need and goodness of patiently enduring them.
But moral prohibitions alone do not afford Muslims blanket immunity from suffering suicidal thoughts or dying by suicide. Research shows that a significant number of Muslims attempt and die by suicide each year, despite the fact that reported rates of Muslim deaths by suicide are low.There also may be a good reason to believe that the rates are actually much higher than reported.
In addition to its social stigma, suicide is criminalized in many Muslim-majority countries, which may yield underreporting or misclassification of deaths by suicide as “accidental deaths.”