Inspirited Minds: (Facing the reader) Stigma.
Reader: Ugh, that word again!
Inspirited Minds: It’s time we stood up to stigma, and defeated it once and for all.
Reader: Here we go again, ha, typical.
Inspirited Minds: Mental Health is accepted in Islam, it’s time we took hold of our rich Islamic tradition in this field.
Reader: (Crossed arms) Yes, we get the point. We should know our history, we should research more, etc, etc.
Inspirited Minds: We need to understand stigma, the why’s and the how’s.
Reader: But – *pause*, yes, but – if, it’s not as easy as that
Inspirited Minds: We need to have an answer for the if’s and the but’s
Reader: Okay, well *pause* well –
Inspirited Minds: Don’t you think it’s time we stop making excuses for the inexcusable?
The origin of the word stigma has its roots in Greek where it denotes as a mark made by pricking or branding. A physical and observable mark made by a physical action by someone of assumed superiority upon another human being, presumably of less authority, status and simply vulnerable.
This sounds abhorrent, right? We are all equal as humans and deserve to live our lives without unnecessary physical abuse, I’m sure you will all agree.
Today, stigma is similarly known as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. A thought or feeling that is considered being of better value, imposed on others due to things that perhaps cannot be helped, to make them feel degraded and isolated.
This also sounds inappropriate, but sadly, it is widely accepted in our communities. It is more saddening to know and see that these acts of stigma are accepted on a much wider scale. It is never between bully and victim. For that bully to have gained the confidence to attack or stigmatize the victim, they must have gotten some form of approval or support to have gained the platform. This creates the illusion of righteousness, and authority to intimidate the victim. Now, this does not mean that there is no potential underlying ignorance, or that everyone who doesn’t understand mental health is a bully, but this is where the “bystander effect” comes in.
Reader: (whispering under breath) What is the bystander effect?
The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon which refers to cases where people (bystanders) do not offer any help to a victim (effect) due to other people being present (cause).
Reader: That’s ridiculous! I would help anyone in need regardless of who was there.
There have been experiments on top of experiments to try and figure out this bizarre human marvel, and there have been many variables that explain different things, but the most significant ones which can be applied here are: Emergency VS Non-emergency situations, where individuals will evaluate the need for their required assistance e.g. the more urgent it is, the more likely they are to help [Darley & Latane, 1970].
Diffusion of responsibility, where the increased number of bystanders is positively correlated with the thought of “someone else will help them” – and people will often look toward other bystander’s responses and expressions to understand their duty toward the victim [Schwartz, & Gottlieb, 1976].
Cultural differences, which despite having a variety of findings, has found that those from an individualistic culture where the notion of looking out for yourself, has more reward than looking out for others. However, with collectivist cultures – they are more likely to help those who share the same cultural norms, than complete strangers [Pozzoli, Ang, & Gini, 2012].
Reader: What has this got to do with stigma?
The problem is, we don’t see those who we stigmatize as victims. How often do we see ‘homeless people’ as victims? Similarly, we don’t see sufferers of mental illnesses as victims of their own minds as well as victims of society and culture. More importantly, we don’t see ourselves as bystanders when we witness such victimization.
Let’s put all of this in a mental health context.
Emergency vs non-emergency
Someone who suffers from a mental health problem may never show their true self, and most are actually masters of masking their own mental struggle. Therefore, when they express their emotions, or they are being stigmatized – we will never know whether it is an emergency or not. We will never know if that one nasty comment is going to push them to self-harm an hour later. We will never know if that experience will bring back flashbacks, or if by not listening, it will increase negative thoughts and guilt. Besides, as Muslims, followers of a religion that sees every soul as sacred, and every good act as lofty, should our help only extend in an emergency?
Whoever relieves a believer’s distress of the distressful aspects of this world, Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) will rescue him from a difficulty of the difficulties of the Hereafter [Sunan Ibn Majah]
Diffusion of responsibility
If we always wait for our neighbor to be kind to us first, and they are waiting for us to be kind to them first – who will go first, and will either ever be kind to the other? It’s a vicious, unproductive and a hate fueling cycle that we need to snap out of. That person who is silently screaming for help will always be greeted with blank faces which are too occupied with looking at other people’s faces to see what their response is, rather than focusing on their own. Does our help, our support, our aid to a victim fight their battle depend upon other people’s reaction? Reaching out to someone shouldn’t be sluggishly slow; it should be a race to get there first, regardless of how many bystanders there are. With the only reward being a sense of peace and companionship restored into the victim.
… And help one another in acts of piety and righteousness. And do not assist each other in acts of sinfulness and transgression… [Qur’an: Chapter 5, Verse 2]
No doubt we are social beings, but we should not bow down to culture and go against the very things that make us human beings. Compassion and empathy should not be displayed depending on where we were brought up in the world, or who we are around. It is a trait that encompasses human functioning which is vital for us to live together, to feel together and fight together. It’s true, we may be able to relate more to someone who is of similar geographical or religious nature – but humans must be in an awful place to say that our help, care, and assistance is also dependent on the same thing. The Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said,
“O people, your Lord is One and your father Adam ‘alayhi’l-salām (peace be upon him) is one. There is no virtue of an Arab over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab, and neither white over black nor black over white, except by righteousness.” [Ahmad]
Reader: Is this the root of stigma?
Probably the single, most important contributor of stigma is fear. Us humans, however, are quite an arrogant race and refuse to accept that we “fear”. We try our utmost to ignore its existence and are ashamed when it manifests. It somehow represents cowardice, incapability and when we are found face to face with something that prods this emotion – logically we should “fight or flight”. Perhaps stigmatizing is a combination of both reactions, but in reality, we are not solving anything, rather increasing our own fear as well as the fear of others.
We define mental illness as someone running AWOL down the street, or hanging themselves from trees, or throwing themselves from wall to wall (we won’t even entertain the concept of jinn possession, that’s an article of its own!), but we need to realize that “madness” is everywhere. We need to acknowledge this in all its glory, from mild anxiety to paranoid schizophrenia, from dissociative self-harming to anorexia. Mental illness is probably not what you think it is and it most certainly is not out to get you.
However, there’s something else that is feared. The fear of “I could be like that one day”. Probably half of the stigma that is received by victims comes from people who have actually experienced similar symptoms. Instead of accepting it or even sharing the platform to simply converse, a barrier is built up. They either build a wall to protect themselves from the unknown or cage that person to contain their “plague”. Simply considering the idea and confronting the fear that they have of mental illness is just not an option, but this is not healthy or safe.
It’s time to move on from this disease that has tiptoed into our once rich-with-knowledge Islamic culture. We have reclaimed a lot of things such as medicine, science, sports, literature and many others – but, now it’s time to reclaim mental health. It’s time to stand up to stigma.
One of the findings of the bystander effect was the extent of knowledge of the environment the bystander obtains e.g. the more familiar with the environment, the more likely they were to intervene. What does this mean for us? We must know our grounds. We must become versed about mental illness. We must know how to help someone in need, or even learn how to listen attentively. We must know how to react to stigma, whether it is a joke or witnessing someone being ostracized for their mental illness. Have you ever been in a situation where you have wanted to voice your opinion but did not feel confident enough due to lack of knowledge or confirmation?
We must be willing to prepare for stigma ourselves or even mockery as we have to understand these misconceptions are deep rooted and will take a lot of hard work from dedicated champions to slowly change minds over time. It’s encouraged to start small, we are not going to make everyone accept mental illness overnight, especially with the older folks amongst us.
Make mental health a casual concept for yourself. Do not be afraid to use certain terminology (obviously within boundaries, we do not encourage you to say things like “oh the weather is being so bipolar”). Once it is made casual, those around you will be put into a good but uncomfortable position, they will also be forced to discuss it in an appropriate way and know that you won’t stand for stigma. Remember, patience and kindness are key.
Learning to speak out is big. Learning to empathize is even bigger. Really feeling someone’s pain and struggle can be difficult to comprehend, but once achieved, it will become a part of you – which moves us onto our next point.
You have to take care of yourself first. If you are struggling with mental illness, you have to be your own superhero before you save anyone else. You have to be your own success, and you have to be the author of that story.
That’s a wrap.
What do you suggest to help people struggling with mental illness? Share them with us in the comments to benefit others
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