This Ramadan, mental illness and suicide are on Loyola Muslim chaplain’s mind

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Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain — celebrity suicide victims.

The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain shook Muslims for the same reasons they shook everyone else.

Kate Spade designed a line of products that were less expensive than other prestige brands without compromising style.

Anthony Bourdain brought respectful American eyes to myriad cultures across the globe. Many of the people he broke bread with were Muslims from parts of the world that are often vilified and dismissed.

Personally, I also had to address multiple suicides in my Muslim community this Ramadan.

We tend to be festive, communal and generous during this holy month. In my work, though, suicide has been a dark cloud hovering above, so prevalent that I have been giving sermons on this and will again this weekend during Eid al-Fitr services –– marking the end of Ramadan. My subject this weekend: mental health, faith and suicide.


In our work as preachers and chaplains, we deal with suicide more than others. Sometimes, it’s through counseling people seeking help wrestling with their demons. Sometimes, it’s at funeral services. Sometimes, we are consoling the families and friends of suicide victims.

In the spring, I’ve seen a surge in thoughts of suicide among Muslim and non-Muslim students alike. In conversations with therapists, we suspected some of the increase was related to a wavering of resilience among younger people, especially as final exams and summer planning approached.

Consider the particular plight of young Muslims. As with other students, they have the pressures of youth, wondering whether they will be loved and find their purpose.

The average millennial also bears massive burdens with social media. Through selfies, gifs and memes, many find themselves in continuous performance mode. These students have no memory of 9/11, but wars have been a backdrop their entire lives.

For a young Muslim born and raised in the United States, add to all of this the fact that the perpetrators of 9/11 had Muslim backgrounds and that America has been at war with countries with Muslim majorities, and the current administration seeks Muslim bans.

Why would a young person –– a young Muslim –– not struggle with mental health?

Omer M. Mozaffar. | Provided photo

Omer M. Mozaffar. | Provided photo

A husband and wife once took my classes and shared that their daughter had taken her life. They spoke of suicide as the result of a person’s brain succumbing to depression, in the way another person’s body succumbs to cancer. This approach is wise.

Many of our religious traditions condemn suicide. The condemnation is for suicides committed with a sound mind. But I have yet to have a case in which a suicide victim seemed to be making a rational choice.

Mental illness is stigmatized. Speaking from my own experiences with depression and encounters with therapists and psychiatrists, I stress to students that treatment for mental health overlaps treatment for physical health, indeed that some mental health matters are physiological. Treatment is needed. It’s no different than me needing to exercise, eat right and take medication for high cholesterol.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is worse in religious communities. Many people –– including preachers –– think depression, anxiety, addictions and thoughts of self-harm are indications of weak belief.

Their unscholarly prescription? Pray more.

This approach often fails. And because it fails, it unfairly challenges the sufferer’s faith.

Thankfully, there are many preachers now who openly speak about mental illness as something real, with real treatments. They send sufferers to trained counselors or 12-step programs.

I should mention there are multiple treatments within our traditions for such symptoms, but most preachers just don’t know them.

Another problem in minority communities is that, when you have the perception of being marginalized by society, you often feel a need to react to that. Many members of such communities cope with feelings of inferiority through exaggerated piety, masculinity and “American-ness.” They overcompensate, giving the illusion they are well, though they are suffering.

Ramadan is for us our annual boot camp. A monthlong period of intense fasts in the day, long prayers in the night, with deep reflection throughout.

This Ramadan, I have had to think much about suicide. Such is our world.

Omer M. Mozaffar is the Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago.

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