When I was a teenager, growing up as a religious person in a sea of atheist peers always posed certain difficulties for me, whether that was having an unreasonably early curfew, not being allowed to stay overnight at sleepovers, or being the only girl wearing frumpy, modest school trousers instead of a skirt like the other girls.
As I grew into adulthood however, none of these small teething pains seemed to matter so much, and fearing being different was replaced by daring to be different.
By the time I reached age 19, my faith was just as big a part of my life as my mental illness diagnosis. The two never did seem to marry well. I would go as far as to say these two huge aspects of my life collided into each other with the same grace an angered bull charges at a provoking matador.
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression during my second year of university and, while other students were taking caffeine tablets to cram in extra hours of study, I was taking a carefully prescribed dose of citalopram to cram in extra serotonin. I was having regular panic attacks and couldn’t get out of bed; even showering seemed like an insurmountable task, let alone attending my lectures and completing my essays. I was locked into a cycle of not being able to carry out basic tasks because I was anxious, and being anxious because I could not carry out basic tasks.
“My faith was just as big a part of my life as my mental illness diagnosis. The two never did seem to marry well.”
I recall speaking to my family on FaceTime who, with the best of intentions, would tell me that I should try to pray, as it would give me something to focus on and guide me towards some inner peace. I suppose if you’re not religious, it’s equivalent to using meditation to put yourself at ease during a period of high anxiety or a depressive episode. I would nod along at their suggestions because I didn’t know how to express that it wasn’t a feasible option for me, and that I needed more than the abstract help that my faith could offer me at this time.
It’s the case among many different religions that suicide is a taboo – in fact, it’s considered to be a damnable sin. The reason for this is that your time on earth is viewed as a short ‘test’ to determine what becomes of you in the afterlife. This means that people of faith view life as a gift from God to be grateful for, and any pain you are feeling is attached to this world and is, therefore, temporary.
With all of these different considerations spiralling around in my already exhausted brain, the first time I ever had suicidal thoughts (of which I am so pleased to have now left behind), the guilt and fear washed over me in overwhelming waves that I thought would drown me. How ungrateful was I, a person with perfect physical health and no tangible or imminent problems, to think that I would be better off not living?
Of course these feelings of guilt are very normal for any person in this situation but I had the added torment of knowing that if I did end it all and complete the ultimate ‘sin’, there was a chance that what was waiting for me on the other side was not in fact going to be relief or peace.
“I had the added torment of knowing that if I did end it all and complete the ultimate ‘sin’, there was a chance that what was waiting for me on the other side was not in fact going to be relief or peace”
“It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die” is a lyric from Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come that used to resonate with me and I would play it over and over as though the familiarity of these words would lead me towards a sudden solution. I existed in a zombie-like state of physical existence but mental absence, suffocating under the weight of religious expectation that I simply wasn’t in a state to meet.
I found it impossible to be completely honest with those around me, when the ‘S-word’ elicits such an understandably concerned reaction, especially from those who condemn it. The reality is that if I had someone to unpack my suicidal thoughts with, independent of judgement or preconceptions, I might have been able to realise, earlier on, that this wasn’t the solution for me. Instead, I carried around these thoughts and feelings like they were someone else’s possessions that I had stolen – stealthily and with a lingering feeling of shame.
Having a mental health illness can be in itself such an isolating experience – stack religious stigma atop social stigma can be extremely damaging and can make it near impossible to resurface from a dark period. I had friends who were navigating the complexities of religion and other friends who were navigating the difficulties of poor mental health, but in a Venn diagram of the two experiences, I sat alone in the middle.
“Looking back, I can’t tell if I’m grateful that my beliefs kept alive when I didn’t want to be, or whether they only caused me to torture myself”
Looking back, I can’t tell if I’m grateful that my beliefs kept alive when I didn’t want to be, or whether they only caused me to torture myself with the guilty thoughts of how my community would judge me or turn their back on me. Either way, it’s the reason I’m still here and the reason I want to use my lived experience to help other people in similar situations.
You might have noticed I haven’t named my religion in this piece. That’s because I am not looking to criticise my faith when it has shaped my morals and character for the better in so many ways. Instead, I want to talk about the cultural limitations that stop us – educators, mental health professionals and people like me – from having those cross-cultural conversations we need.
We all know problems cannot be solved by avoiding them until they miraculously disappear. So this is my call to action for all religious communities to strike up open and honest discussions about mental health and demystify suicidal thoughts. Teach people that they can turn to God and prayer during hard times, but also acknowledge that sometimes this isn’t enough – and rather than using guilt and fear to deter vulnerable people from prohibited actions, use light to draw them out of the darkest corners of their minds.
Armani Syed is a freelance journalist
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Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.