A tragedy has rocked the Muslim community. How can psychiatry try to help prevent further tragedies from occurring?
The Muslim community in Texas was shaken to its core by the news of a murder-suicide of a whole family on April 5, 2021.
Apparently, 2 young Muslim boys decided to kill their parents, their sister, and their grandmother, before killing themselves. One of the brothers left a chilling and troubling note listing some of his reasoning for committing such a horrifying act. He mentioned feeling empty, that life had no meaning; he talked about depression as a lonely and alienating experience, that having a supportive family can be a protective factor, but only to an extent. He even briefly described gun control in America as a joke—getting access to lethal weapons was not that difficult for him.
Religious leaders and mental health professionals have been quite vocal about showing moral and material support for the local community, especially the youth. They are also using this incident as both a learning curve and a teaching tool for the larger Muslim community, with the hope that lessons learned might help the future design and delivery of culturally appropriate services and resources, an approach that might help prevent or at least reduce the odds of having similar incidents in the future. This is an emergency that the Muslim community needs to urgently and immediately address.
Spirituality can be a protective factor against suicide. Like any other religion, Islam is practiced on a spectrum. With a population of more than 1 billion Muslims, there are diverse reactions and responses to challenges within the Muslim community. Some of the research I came across showed that the overall rates of suicide were lower among Muslims than non-Muslims, but there are many factors that come into play here, like cultural cohesion, familial bonds, and social support, which are highly valued components of the Islamic faith. Talking about religion needs to be tactful when approaching the topic of depression and suicide. Those with mental illnesses should not be judged as having weak faith or a poor relation with God; rather, we need to extrapolate using examples from the Quran and the life of Prophet Muhammad that focus on self-care, the reward of mending broken hearts, and bringing healing to injured souls.
Imam Yasir Qadhi, PhD, a prominent scholar in Dallas, Texas, gave a heartfelt talk to help shatter taboos about mental health and emotional wellness, and to address misconceptions that are quite prevalent in the Muslim culture, despite having nothing to do with the authentic teachings of the religion that encourage stress management, emotional-expression, and speaking up. Here are some of the points that sheikh Qadhi covered in his speech:
1. As written in the suicide note “who knows, some good might come” out of this tragedy. Hopefully there will be more education and awareness about the prevalence and magnitude of the issue of depression in Muslim teens.
2. We need to show sensitivity and respect to the family. We are in no position to pass judgment, as the “fate of those involved will be determined in the divine court.”
3. In some form or another, everyone who died was a victim. This is not to justify the homicidal or the suicidal act, but rather to try to understand the bigger picture from a trauma-informed perspective.
4. Humans tend to try to process and make meaning out of suffering. Sometimes it is difficult to comprehend the reason or “the divine wisdom” behind such traumatic events.
5. These community discussions can feel awkward, but they are essential and overdue.
6. We need to aggressively advocate through educating community members that mental disorders are as tangible as physical ones. When afflicted with cancer, broken bones, or bleeding wounds, patients are rushed to the emergency room; emotional injuries should not be treated any different.
7. Desperate people do desperate things. When they reach a point where life becomes meaningless, they might become unreachable. Hopelessness and loneliness are awful feelings. Try to be a light source, mend broken hearts, show up for others, tell those around you that “maybe I do not understand your pain, but teach me, I am here for you.” A simple act of kindness like a smile or eye contact might brighten someone’s day—or even save their life.
8. People cannot just snap out of depression. The mental box is different than the spiritual one, and both boxes need to be filled. Prayers are wonderful, but they are one tool of many.
9. Adults should not shut down or dismiss pleas for help. Many parents do not know how to talk to their teenage children. Although there is a lot of silence in Muslim household, this is not a Muslim-only phenomenon—youth depression and suicide are invisible global pandemics.
10. Tragedies such as this one should serve as a wakeup call and motivate the community to act. Mental health staff and religious leaders need to come together to address short- and long-term solutions, as well as action steps. Bottled up emotions should not be the norm. Our children are our top priority. Muslim homes and houses of worship should be seen as a refuge, not a prison, and should always feel like places of safety.
The 13th century Persian poet Rumi eloquently wrote that “there are beautiful things that you can only see in the dark.” There is always some good that comes out of trauma—the Muslim community is forced now to have difficult, but honest and healing conversations.
There are culturally humble and responsive services and resources that are made available for the community. Here are few examples:
The Family and Youth Institute: https://www.thefyi.org/
Yaqeen Institute: https://yaqeeninstitute.org/
Khalil Center: https://khalilcenter.com/
Stones to Bridges: https://www.stonestobridges.org/
Naseeha Hotline: https://naseeha.org/
Calls for comfort: https://www.callsforcomfort.com/
Project Untangled: https://projectuntangled.org/
Dr Reda is a practicing psychiatrist, Providence Healthcare System, Portland, Oregon.