PERSONAL
10/10/2020 06:00 BST

I Run A Muslim Mental Health Helpline. Covid Has Put My Community In Crisis

Calls have spiked since lockdown as we faced a lonely Ramadan and stressful A-Level results day. But we will always be somewhere to turn to without fear of judgment or chastisement.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
A Muslim man wears a face mask to protect against coronavirus as Muslims gather to pray at Minhaj-ul-Quran Mosque, at the start of Eid al-Adha, in London, Friday, July 31, 2020. Britain’s health secretary is defending the government’s abrupt re-imposition of restrictions on social life across a swath of northern England. Matt Hancock says it's important to clamp down quickly on new outbreaks of COVID-19. The affected region has a large Muslim population, and the restrictions come prior to the Eid al-Adha holiday starting on Friday. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

I’ve always been aware that I was very lucky growing up. I was an overly perceptive young kid and would take things to heart, but my mum recognised this and would prioritise my wellbeing, always practising active listening at the dinner table. 

My mum helped me identify my stresses and change my perspective so I could cope better, and would always encourage us to talk about what was on our mind, to share our problems and open up – and she would actively listen. 

It wasn’t until I left home and went to university that I realised this was far from a typical upbringing. While we need to prioritise our mental health just as much as our physical health, many of us aren’t used to opening up about our feelings, and the taboo of talking about mental ill-health has only recently started to lift. 

For the British Muslim community in particular, there are specific extra barriers to getting support, including concerns around the double stigma they may face due to religious identity and mental health. 

In many Muslim families, the normalisation of conversations around mental health has been slower than in mainstream society. And from talking to my peers, I’ve learned that reaching out to mainstream support services as a Muslim and a person of colour often comes with its own challenges. In order to feel confident that someone is giving the best holistic support, sometimes people seeking that support prefer to share with people who understand their background, culture or religion. This would also save them from having to explain their experiences. 

We then noticed a rise in calls coincide with Ramadan, a time of year when Muslims traditionally come together with family.

According to recent research, Muslims in the UK are less inclined, compared to other religious groups, to seek mental health services because they highlight a preference for help with a spiritual underpinning. A poll conducted by the Muslim Youth Helpline (MYH), which I run, showed 40% of Muslim men said they talked to nobody about their mental health.

Our helpline officers are not counsellors – nor are they religious scholars who are qualified to give callers religious advice. Instead, we are the first point of call, where our helpline officers practice active listening as opposed to giving advice. We give agency back to the caller, asking them to reflect on their feelings, with the aim of them coming to their own conclusions. We can then signpost to the appropriately tailored support services: addiction, domestic violence, suicide prevention.

That’s why services like MYH are so crucial – and this has proven just how overwhelming the need is. 

Covid-19 and the lockdown have made 2020 unimaginably difficult for us all, and throughout this crisis, the phones at MYH have been off the hook. We’ve seen a staggering 313% rise in calls since March. We saw spikes at significant times of the year: the beginning of lockdown when everything was up in the air, and nobody quite knew what the future held. 

Ethnic minorities in the UK were disproportionately impacted by Covid-19, and shockingly, every Muslim I’ve spoken to knows someone who’s lost a loved one. This was reflected in calls to MYH in April when Covid-19 peaked to the extent that we had to retrain our officers in handling bereavement calls. 

We then noticed a rise in calls coincide with Ramadan, a time of year when Muslims traditionally come together with family. With us unable to do that this time, we saw a surge in calls relating to loneliness and suicidal thoughts. We also saw spikes on A-level results day with the chaos of so many people not getting the grades they expected, and again at the start of the new academic year.

As people experience unimaginable anxiety this year, this World Mental Health Day is unlike any other.

The team at MYH have opened up their homes to operate the helpline since Covid-19, showing real resilience and strength to uphold our mission to support young Muslims with their mental health and wellbeing. By offering a safe space where people can turn to through our non-judgmental and culturally sensitive free helpline. Space for MYH to operate is essential now more than ever, and we must continue to ensure mental health conversations remain on the agenda. 

My faith describes ways to worship God, through prayer and fast; but also a principle of my faith is to help and aid others as a form of worship. Our communities must come together and support each individual who is suffering in silence, by discussing mental health and creating safe, honest spaces for people to open, and by donating to mental health charities who are offering support services.

In lockdown, our service users have had Increased exposure to stressors, coupled with the loss of their usual coping mechanisms and a sharp reduction in access to traditional mental health support, and organisations like MYH are filling in the gap as listening services.Thanks to financial support from funders like Islamic Relief UK, we have been able to keep going throughout this time to support this caller and others who approach us. 

Some people have been affected by this crisis far more than others, but in some ways, it has united us all. As people experience unimaginable anxiety this year, this World Mental Health Day is unlike any other. But I want young British Muslims to know that there is somewhere they can turn to without fear of judgment or chastisement, where we will listen, provide empathy and support.

The Muslim Youth Helpline is open every day between 4pm and 10pm. People can access support by calling 0808 808 2008or going to their website, www.myh.org.uk

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