Mental health issues aren’t the only factors that predict suicide. People can feel hopelessness and find themselves in the depths of despair without any mental health illness. Whether it is environmental or social issues, find out how different factors contribute to this horrible epidemic and what you can do about it in the article I wrote for ISNA’s Horizon’s Magazine. I discuss the disconnection that is rampant in today’s society and the wisdom behind some of the sunnah the Muslim community should reinstate in order to help fight this epidemic. Love, concern & connection are some of societies most powerful healing tools when it comes to the cure of social or emotional ailments.
Why Suicide Happens?
By: Afshana Haque PhD, LMFT-S
The recent suicide of fashion designer Kate Spade and CNN presenter Anthony Bourdain has raised numerous questions in the mind and hearts of many. When reflecting upon the lives of actors, singers, and millionaires it would seem that they have it all so why would they be sad, or hopeless, and resort to taking their own lives?
Unfortunately, depression, mental illness, and feelings of hopelessness do not discriminate by demographics. A wealthy person, an impoverished person, a person known by all, or a person known by none, a religious person or an atheist are all susceptible to these conditions. Also, people who live in such levels of despair are not necessarily struggling with mental illness. In the same vain, having a mental illness does not necessarily imply that one is more susceptible to suicide. There are definitely identifiable risk factors that increase the chances of a person taking this path. But there is no guarantee that any one of us are immune to them.
Although the suicide of high-powered celebrities typically makes headlines, there are far more people taking their own lives who go unnoticed. In January 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that every year nearly 800,000 people commit suicide and even more attempt it. Moreover, suicide rates in America alone have skyrocketed to epidemic proportions. We have been silent about this issue for too long and must work towards a change now.
It is difficult for people to understand suicide unless they have been on the brink or have attempted to commit suicide themselves. What is suicide? Helpguide.org defines suicide as “a desperate attempt to escape suffering that has become unbearable. Blinded by feelings of self-loathing, hopelessness, and isolation, a suicidal person can’t see any way of finding relief except through death. But despite their desire for the pain to stop, most suicidal people are deeply conflicted about ending their own lives. They wish there was an alternative to suicide, but they just can’t see one.” (https://www.helpguide.org/articles/suicide-prevention/suicide-prevention.htm). According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Help Guide there are several factors that increase the risk of suicide. These can be health factors, environmental factors and/or historical factors as shown in the table below:
Table 1: Suicide Risk Factors (https://afsp.org/about-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs)
|Health Factors||Environmental Factors||Historical Factors|
|Mental Health Conditions: Depression, Substance use problems, Bipolar disorder, Schizophrenia, Personality traits of aggression, mood changes, Conduct Disorder and Anxiety Disorders||Access to lethal means including firearms and drugs||Previous suicide attempts|
|Serious Physical health conditions including chronic pain, terminal illness, physical disability (for elderly)||Prolonged stress, such as harassment, hostile school or social environment, bullying, relationship problems or unemployment||Family history of suicide
|Traumatic brain injury||Stressful life events, like rejection, divorce, financial crisis, other life transitions, loss, retirement, loss of independence, loss of sense of purpose||Childhood abuse, neglect or trauma
|Exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide|
|Increased isolation or loneliness|
All of us have been touched by one or more of these risk factors, and for many the prohibition of suicide by Allah (swt) is a protective factor against taking their lives. But others may need more protection. Experts have noted that the difference between a person following through on a plan for suicide and a person who decides to give life one more chance is another person who is willing to listen. When people are drowning in their own pain and on the verge of ending their life, the last thing they need is to be shamed, questioned, or judged. Allah may have forbidden the act of suicide, but only Allah knows the contents of people’s minds and hearts. Only HE has the capacity to judge so there is little benefit in trying to determine their fate in afterlife, rather, it is more beneficial to discuss what we can do as a community to promote suicide prevention and protect others from a similar demise.
The Muslim American Community is comprised of highly educated professionals from various fields; however, when it comes to understanding emotional, psychological, or relational health we need to do more work. Saving face and avoiding the appearance of weakness are often prioritized over seeking help. But just as we learn to take care of our physical bodies, we must also to learn how to take care of our mental health. Acquiring and implementing coping skills, working through trauma, and discovering our inner strengths are essential to dealing with the inevitable pains of life. The more equipped we are in these arenas the better we can reduce the need for extreme measures.
Often times, suicide can be a cry for help because at the moment a person sees no other alternative. Nevertheless, a person contemplating suicide does not necessarily want to be “fixed” nor given answers. A listening and empathic ear can be far more healing; moreover, the sheer act of caring and just being there can save a life. Loneliness and isolation are a suffering person’s worst enemies, so as a community we need to learn how to “be there” for each other.
Many Islamic tenets help us remain consistently connected to each other. Islam builds community by starting from shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot, to mandating us to greet even those we don’t know. Praying in congregation five times a day has benefits beyond amplifying our reward for prayer. The simple act of touching another releases a bonding hormone which is protective not only against mental health disorders, but against even cardiovascular diseases. Imagine if as a community we revived the sunnan of connection not only by praying in jamaat but by actually competing with each other to visit the sick, feed the poor and take care of each other in ways practiced by the Prophet (pbuh) and his Companions. Certainly, there would be no room for loneliness or isolation. Furthermore, we would drastically reduce so many diseases that plague our society.
The best place to start implementing our religious tenets and establishing connections is in our own home. How connected are we to our spouses, children, siblings, or our parents? If we can fortify these relationships how much better will we be prepared to connect with our neighbors and our larger communities? As a practicing mental health professional, I have learned that improving our primary relationships can also improve mental and even physical disorders. Most importantly, we need to develop our relationship with God, The Most Loving, The Protector. People are not exclusively physical, psychological, or spiritual beings. We are all of these: mind, body, and soul. Therefore, taking care of only one or two aspects of ourselves will not protect us from dis-ease. We must address all of these simultaneously. Only then can we start to heal from any pain that afflicts our mind and hearts. Only then can we be fully protected from thoughts of taking our own lives. May Allah ease our pains, arm us with the coping skills and support systems needed to overcome difficulties. May He increase our empathy, connection, and love for each other. Ameen.
If you or your loved ones need help right now, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.