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Why the Muslim-American community shies away from talking about suicide

While there are frequent cases of suicide within the Muslim population, community leaders still struggle to talk about it
A casket of a Muslim man is brought to a van for burial in New York City, on 9 May 2020 (AFP)

Yunus was 13 years old when his older brother took his own life. It happened at home and he still remembers the sounds of all the commotion. Twenty years later, his mother’s screams still haunt him at night. 

For the first few years after it happened, Yunus would drive himself insane trying to figure out the reason his brother did it. This man who loved everyone, who was loved by everyone - how could he do that to himself? But like so many who lose loved ones to suicide, he’d never find out why. 

“At the end of the day, research shows that there is often a multitude of reasons why someone kills themself,” he told Middle East Eye. “It is never just one reason. But there is a triggering point. And for the life of me, I don’t know what that triggering point was for my brother. He was laughing one day and in the grave the next.” 

At his brother’s funeral, the family decided not to share the true cause of death with the community. He died in his sleep, they told everyone. Yunus said his parents were so ashamed yet desperately heartbroken that their child took part in something they perceived as sinful. 

Now, 20 years later, Yunus has turned his pain into purpose. His free time is spent at the mosque speaking to young men about the importance of mental health. Though he and his family will always keep the suicide a secret, many young men have confided in Yunus about their own suicidal thoughts.

He remembers talking to a 16-year-old boy for a few weeks. The boy was distraught. One day he told Yunus that he had contemplated ending his life. But he remembered what Yunus had told him: how he would end up in hell's fire and that his family would suffer. He told Yunus that out of everything he had taught him about how beautiful life is and what good things tomorrow could bring, the thought of going to hell is what ultimately stopped him. 

And that is what stops a lot of people. Religion has been shown to be one of the protective factors against suicidality, data shows. But sometimes it isn't enough, and Muslim communities are struggling to come to terms with it.

Mental illness and suicide 

In the United States, suicide is a leading cause of death. In 2020, an estimated 12.2 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.2 million attempted suicide, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows.

The numbers increased the following year, where there were about 23 deaths by suicide for every 100,000 men, compared with about six for every 100,000 women.

While there is little data looking at the rates of suicide in the Muslim American community, experts say the numbers are high. 

In a 2021 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jama), nearly eight percent of Muslims reported a suicide attempt in their lifetime - compared with six percent of Catholics, five percent of Protestants and 3.6 percent of Jewish respondents. 

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One of the women involved in the study was Dr Rania Awaad, the director of the Stanford Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology Lab. Her lab focuses on mental health in the context of the Islamic faith and Muslim populations. 

The first time Awaad heard the term "suicide" was when she was a student in Islamic studies. One of her teachers was a hafidh, a memoriser of the Quran and a mufti in Islamic law, with deep knowledge of Islam. As a student, Awaad had no idea he was suffering from a mental illness.

One day when Awaad was not in class, he attempted suicide right in front of a classmate.

“It was really hard, and it was really triggering, and it was really shocking. It was the kind of thing where it boggles your mind because you're like, ‘You are teaching me, you are the most knowledgeable person and know miles and miles on end about Islam. How could you do this?’" Awaad told MEE.

She said they later found out he had a mental health condition. "And when you have something that's biological or genetic, it does not matter how much spiritual or how much religious knowledge you have when you are in an irrational mental state.”

In Islam, it is said that there are three instances where “the pen is lifted” - three instances where a person will not be judged. 

"The pen has been lifted from three: from the sleeper until he wakes up, from the minor until he grows up, and from the insane until he comes back to his senses or recovers," a hadith, or saying of the Prophet, says. 

But experts tell MEE that it is different when it comes to people who have thought about suicide, who have spent time planning it, knowing what they are about to do is wrong.

“Reaching a point of despair is a very human thing to happen,” Awaad said. “I can't tell you the number of people I have had in my own office who have said to me [that] if this wasn't haram in Islam, I would have died by now by suicide.”

Burying the dead for a living

One of the first people to see a dead body in his community is Umair Ahmed, the director of Janazah Community Services, a Muslim funeral home in Brooklyn, New York. Most of his time is spent in the “washing room” of his funeral home, where he performs the Islamic ritual of cleaning the body (ghusl) or teaching others how to do it. 

When it is a case of suicide, he is often the first to know, usually through the family or the autopsy. A few years ago, a police officer killed himself. Ahmed remembers to this day how the body looked when it was brought to him and the clear signs it showed that he had taken his own life.

umair ahmed funeral home
Umair Ahmed stands inside his funeral home in Brooklyn (MEE/Zainab Iqbal)

“That really aligns with what Allah has said,” Ahmed said sitting at his funeral home on Sunday. “That whoever chooses to take their own life, their punishment will be them doing it over and over again until the Day of Judgement. These are things that we believers have to believe. And we can’t just turn a blind eye to it.”

Ahmed says he sees a case of suicide every month in his funeral home, sometimes more than once. The ages vary. The youngest he has seen was 13 and the oldest was in his mid-50s.

He says there are two ways to view suicide in the Muslim community. One is the mental illness perspective - those who are clinically depressed or have other mental health issues. The other is through religion.

“As Muslims, we truly believe that life is a test. It is not roses all the time. It is not happiness all the time. So, why is it that when we are tested knowing that life is a test, we come to a state where we say, ‘No I can’t handle this anymore’ and we go against Allah when he says ‘Be patient’ or ‘I am closer to you than your jugular vein’ or ‘Allah will not burden a soul more than it can bear?'” 

For "someone who is mentally ill, it’s a different case. But in other cases where someone is choosing to die from suicide, where they are making a conscious decision, there is a lack of iman, faith, there. And we need to talk about that as a community.”

Seeking help

At the Khalil Center, a psychological and spiritual wellness centre for Muslims with offices across the US, the number of young people seeking help has risen dramatically in the past few years.

In 2014, the centre held between 50 to 60 individual counselling sessions a month. In 2021, numbers hovered between 1,500 and 1,600 sessions a month, and some of its locations have long waiting lists, with up to 1,000 people.

According to Fahad Khan, a licensed clinical psychologist and the deputy director of the Khalil Center, the Covid pandemic boosted the number of people seeking help. As for the rate of suicide and suicidal thoughts and attempts, he believes there hasn’t been much of an uptick, though there isn’t clear data looking at the general Muslim community to corroborate that yet.

'Once someone takes their own life, instead of supporting their family, we start talking against them and shun them'

- Fahad Khan, Khalil Center

According to data specifically looking at those who sought services at the Khalil Center, 40 percent of them said they had thoughts of death or dying prior to seeking service; 30 percent of them wished they were dead; about 20 percent said they had thoughts of hurting or killing themselves; and about 11 percent said they had attempted suicide. These are numbers looking at those who sought services at the Khalil Center from as far back as 2016 to now. 

“Yes, it’s a major sin in Islam. And Muslims have to accept that in this world we are supposed to have difficulties, and those who are most tested by Allah are most beloved by him. But the Muslim community looks at suicide differently,” he said.

“Drinking alcohol is a major sin. But if someone drinks alcohol and ends up killing themselves through it by damaging their liver, the community will not talk about it in such a negative way as they talk about someone who killed themselves from severe depression.

"Once someone takes their own life, instead of supporting their family, we start talking against them and shun them.”

Where the community is lacking

If the community knows there's a suicide problem, why are so many hesitant to speak about it? Ahmed believes it comes down to shame.

“This is something that's quite frankly shameless for the Muslim community to accept that there is a problem within our ummah,” he said. “

The Muslim community does like to sweep this topic under the rug. And I, to a certain extent, can understand that because of the privacy of the family. But this will only delay any type of progress to fix the situation.”

He said one step in working to mitigate the problem is to create an environment where everyone feels welcome. It’s about creating programmes and counselling services that are easily accessible to all members of the community. He believes the issue will only be adequately addressed when all members of the community make a collective effort to tackle it. 

'My brother’s death is something I will live with for the rest of my life. Doing the work I do won’t make the pain go away, but it slows it down'

- Yunus

Awaad echoes the need for greater access to clinical services. She explained that the intersection of mental health and spirituality is very important and we are just now witnessing the beginning of its growth. 

Suicide is preventable with proper knowledge and intervention, she says, and education is where the community is falling short. She argues that a lot of community leaders are “humble servants of the community” but lack formal training in any programmes pertaining to mental health and suicide.

Her organisation, Maristan, aims to provide professional clinical care, education, and research in advancing holistic, mental and spiritual wellness. It is why Maristan, by the end of 2022, is aiming to train 500 imams across the United States on suicide response. 

For Khan from the Khalil Center, to prevent suicide it is important to go back in time. It’s important to look at major factors like parenting, healthy marriages, and a cohesive community, he said.

“Mosques and community centres should have regular programmes about how to be a good tenant, how to be a good husband or a good wife, how to connect well with our children. They should have programmes where children do come to the community centres and have activities that are socially connected and not socially isolated, especially due to technology,” he said. 

Khan adds that at the moment, the community is concerned for a week or two, but it's too fleeting.

"So we're always reacting. We're always trying to catch up to it. We need to be ahead of it. And I think doing some of these preventative programmes will definitely help.”

That is exactly how Yunus spends his days now. His local mosque in Texas has programmes teaching people about healthy marriages, raising kids, and taking care of each other. Because for Yunus, even though he was not able to prevent his brother from killing himself, he wants to make sure he can prevent someone else from doing it. 

“My brother’s death is something I will live with for the rest of my life. Doing the work I do won’t make the pain go away, but it slows it down,” he said.

“We are a beautiful community. We have to take care of each other so something that happened to my brother does not happen to anyone else’s brother. It is our duty as Muslims to do so.”

If you need support in the UK, then the Samaritans can be contacted at [email protected] or on 116 123. In the US, please try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. For other countries, please see befrienders.org.

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