Dr. Rania Awaad was participating in a virtual religion program that Ramadan when the discussion turned to an unexpected question: Is it religiously acceptable to pray for someone who has died of suicide?
Suicide is a complex and sensitive issue that Awaad, as director of the Laboratory of Muslim Mental Health and Psychology at Stanford University, knows a lot about – but one that she doesn’t think is discussed nearly enough in Muslim communities in the United States. If so, she said, it is often poorly understood and shrouded in misunderstandings.
Awaad and other mental health professionals are trying to change this by working with some faith leaders and activists to bring nuance and compassion into such conversations, raise awareness in Muslim communities about suicide prevention and mental health, and provide religiously and culturally sensitive guidance to offer.
The effort was given renewed urgency after an apparent homicide-suicide that killed six family members in Allen, Texas in April and sparked shock waves through Muslim communities in the area and beyond. Investigators believe that two brothers made a pact to kill their parents, sister and grandmother before they commit suicide.
The incident sparked a flurry of activity in Muslim spaces, from public discussions on mental health and suicide response training to healing circles and private conversations.
“The community’s initial reaction was total shock,” said Imam Abdul Rahman Bashir of the Islamic Association Allen, where the family’s funeral was taking place. “Their reactions ranged from shock to sadness and concern for other families around them: Are they saying something that they cannot hear? Is there something out there that you can’t see? ”
“It definitely started the conversation to understand what mental health is and the importance of mental wellbeing,” he added.
Suicide is theologically forbidden in Islam, and Awaad acknowledges this, but takes the issue in a nuanced way and argues that it is not up to the people to judge. Contrary to what some have said about people who have committed suicide, she believes that the departed can receive prayers regardless of how they died.
“We don’t know a person’s state when they reach this point in their life, and we don’t know their mental state at that moment,” she said. “… Only God can judge it.”
The importance of seeking professional help with mental health issues without worrying about what people might be saying is a message the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation wanted to bring home in a recently released video. It was aimed at the South Asian American community and featured actors, young activists, and others sharing their experiences in an attempt to break the stigma.
Saadia Ahmed, director of the foundation’s youth leadership program, said some community leaders in Texas grappled with suicide and mental health issues after a Muslim-American woman committed suicide in 2018. After the Allen tragedy, she heard from many people who came forward to share their personal struggles or ask how they could help their loved ones.
One young man spoke openly about having had suicidal thoughts before and how it got better at getting help. There was a high school student who needed therapy but her parents weren’t getting any; With the help of a school counselor, she eventually found help. Ahmed also heard from parents who were concerned about their children.
“I feel like at least I can see progress,” said Ahmed.
Sameera Ahmed – no relationship – a psychologist and executive director of The Family & Youth Institute, a nonprofit research and education institute, said when her group developed suicide prevention resources for Muslim communities a few years ago, some questioned the need.
“People didn’t want to share what was happening because they were afraid of the stigma,” Ahmed said. “They were afraid that people would not come to Janazah” or the funeral of loved ones.
But today she sees more openness to conversation and says that some prominent imams have started to approach the subject from more compassionate perspectives. Still, there is still a lot of work to be done, she added.
Following the Allen tragedy, Awaad gave virtual suicide response training from her base in California to help people cope with the aftermath, including religious and community leaders. Her Stanford laboratory provided guidelines for Islamic sermons.
“The crisis response is the hardest part,” she said. Many imams and religious leaders struggle to “strike a balance between healing the community and Islam’s stance on the impressiveness of suicide.”
She is also the co-author of an article describing the do’s and don’ts after suicide, such as:
By the end of 2022, Awaad hopes that 500 Muslim religious leaders have received training on suicide using materials developed by the nonprofit Maristan in collaboration with their laboratory in Stanford, based on both science and the teachings of Islam .
Several religious leaders have thrown their weight behind the effort.
One of them, Imam Bashir of the Islamic Association Allen, said that while Islam does not allow suicide as a means of solving problems, belief “encourages the community to be one body with ears, eyes and arms around one another to help”. don’t get to a point where that would be a consideration. “
Wrestling with difficult suicide issues is not only reserved for Muslims. Mathew Schmalz, professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, said the theistic tradition believes that one’s life belongs to God, so it “fundamentally violates” God’s most precious gift.
Still, attitudes have evolved with a greater appreciation for the complexities of mental illness, he added, and it is important to question the belief that suicide signals moral weakness or a lack of gratitude to God.
“It is important to understand God as merciful,” said Schmalz, “but it is just as important to be part of a religious community in which psychological problems are taken seriously and not stigmatized.”
Resources from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are available at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org and the 24 hour hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.
Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the Lilly Foundation through The Conversation US. AP is solely responsible for this content.