Often, if we feel pressured to think or act in a certain way that goes against how we really feel, it can start to affect our mental health. Worrying about being judged can affect how we feel too.

You might feel very confident about your identity and beliefs, or you might feel confused about how you truly want to be – and that’s ok. Life is a journey! No matter what our background, most of us feel some kind of unhelpful pressure, at some point in our lives, from society, family or our community, to be a certain way. This could be pressure about what we study, how we dress, who we hang out with, or what we believe about ourselves and the world around us. But when that pressure is constant, or overwhelming it can start to affect us.   

Talking about how you feel is often the first step to feeling better. But when we’re struggling, talking about our problems and our mental health can feel even harder if the person (or people) we’re opening up to isn’t used to having conversations about mental health – particularly if they feel some kind of cultural stigma about doing so.

We know that young people from every different ethnic and religious community each face different types of cultural challenges, pressures and stigma when it comes to mental health. There is, of course, no universal ‘Muslim culture,’ but when it comes to being a young Muslim in the UK, many young people share some common experiences when it comes to dealing with cultural pressure and mental-health stigma. That’s why we spoke to young Muslims from different backgrounds, and partnered with YoungMinds, to offer you culturally-sensitive tips and advice that might help.

Dealing with religious or cultural pressure 

Feeling pressure from family to live in a certain way is an almost universal experience – but some of us experience it to a greater degree than others.  

Parents and guardians tend to want the best for us, and sometimes they think they really do know best. Families and communities can feel like it is their duty to tell us how to behave, how to think and guide us to success. This can be incredibly helpful and give us the support and safety we need to grow and find our way in life. Other times, it can feel too intense, restrictive or overwhelming. 

In Islam, freedom of belief and freedom to choose your actions voluntarily, is an essential right: “There is no compulsion in religion.” – Qur’an 2:256. But unfortunately, this concept doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t ever experience religious pressure from the people around you who think they know better, or that they are ‘saving you’ from yourself.

Often in the UK, Muslim families have family ties to different countries and cultures, which have their own customs, values and pressures that come with that. If you’re a convert to Islam from a non-Muslim cultural background, that can come with its own set of pressures and challenges too. 

Being a Muslim in the UK might mean feeling like you are constantly navigating between two or three different cultures – and possibly experiencing disapproval or judgement from both sides. This can lead to feelings of anger, sadness, resentment, unworthiness, loneliness, guilt, and despair. But if you’re feeling this way, there are things that can help you feel better.    

Difficulty talking to family about your mental health

Across the world, people from every country, culture, and religion, can experience the most positive and helpful support with their mental health. Equally, no matter what background, some people will experience difficulties with their family, which can negatively impact their mental health, and their ability to talk about it. 

Reasons why families can struggle to get along and understand each other can include:

– different communication styles

– different upbringings 

– different values, worldviews and belief systems  

– language barriers 

– community pressure 

– societal pressure 

– struggling to deal with stress from relationships, money, work, or general life

– lack of shared experiences and things in common

As Muslims, we may face some intergenerational differences when it comes to mental health. Young people may try speaking with their parents, and met with responses like: 

– “It’s because you don’t pray enough.”

– “Maybe it’s jinn!”

– “Depression is a trick from the shaytan. Try to strengthen your faith.”

– “I went through a lot more growing up. If you’re depressed, I must be worse!”

Remember that your feelings are real, and mental health conditions are real. Words like ‘depression’ don’t exist in every language, and your parents or loved ones may not have the same exposure that you do. Exercise patience and understanding of where they are coming from, but also try to speak in a manner that can allow them to understand where you are coming from. 

Here are some more things you could try: 

– Have you tried explaining to them what life feels like for you right now? It might sound obvious, but sometimes we assume people can see or understand what we are going through just because they are close to us. We might not have clearly said how we feel out loud. Or we might be worried about voicing our feelings because we’re trying to protect them from getting upset or worrying about us. But remember, if they don’t know what you are going through, it’s unlikely they will know what to try differently to support you.    

– Have you clearly expressed what you want, and why you want it? Often, we can feel a bit scared to say what we want, in case we don’t get it. Maybe if we say what we really want and why we want it, it might upset someone, or make us feel silly or dramatic. But if you don’t express what you want, you’re much less likely to get it. 

– How might this sentence look for you: I want you to do X because it makes me feel Y.  

– Think about all the different things you want. Do you want some space, time to yourself, support with something particular, more appreciation, more help, less interference, more independence… 

– Is it easier to write a text, email or letter? If face to face conversations lead to heated arguments, or you sometimes feel like it’s difficult to get your point across, you might find it easier to send a message. This way you can choose your words carefully and say what you want without being interrupted. 

– Are you assuming the worst-case scenario will happen? It’s natural to panic about how badly wrong something can go. And sometimes we assume we know exactly what will happen if we say or do something. But what if we’re wrong, and things turn out unexpectedly better than we could have hoped? 

– Is there someone your family likes and respects who can speak to them on your behalf? Sometimes a third-party can help explain things in a helpful way and smooth things over. This could be a relative, family-friend, teacher, or religious figure.  

– Is there anything that might help you understand their point of view more deeply? You don’t have to agree with your family to empathise with why they think and feel the way they do. Think about what struggles, upsets and heartbreaks have they been through. What are they going through right now? What were they raised to believe about the world and about what it means to be a good family? This is not about making excuses for unkind, controlling or abusive behaviour, but it might make you feel differently about how you choose to communicate or react to them. 

– Use language the other person can understand. Medical terms and diagnoses might not be the best way to start a conversation who has a lack of (or different) understanding of mental health. Speaking about your core feelings, and how they impact your life, can allow the other person to better understand what you’re going through, without the barriers of medical jargon. 

Preparing for a conversation about your feelings

– Try writing a few notes about what you want your family to know and understand. This might help you get your thoughts in order and take away some anxiety about getting flustered.

– Think about which language you feel most comfortable speaking in to describe your feelings. 

– Is there a TV show, movie, or book you and your family are familiar with that you can use as a relatable example of what’s going on and what life feels like for you?

– Do you want to set a time limit on the conversation and go and see a friend, or plan something to boost your mood afterwards? 

– Be prepared for the conversation to go differently to how you were expecting. It could go better than you could have imagined, or it might not be as easy as you first thought. But whatever happens, be proud of yourself for taking that first step. 

– Consider having a practice conversation with someone to rehearse what you want to say. 

– It’s ok if that first conversation isn’t perfect – it might be difficult, frustrating or tense. But however the conversation happens, be proud of yourself for taking that first step. 

– If your family don’t respond in the way that you’d hoped, don’t give up. It might take a few attempts to get them to understand you. 

– After the conversation, try to note what went well, or what didn’t. This can help you practice what to say for next time. 

– Remember, it’s ok if your family are not able to be the support you need right now. Some things take time, and right now, there will be other people in your life who can be there for you – like friends, a teacher, school/uni counsellor or a trusted adult. 

Dealing with cultural stigma around mental health 

There are many different social and cultural stigmas around mental health all around the world. Hearing real stories from people who have directly experienced the types of cultural or religious issues you are particularly worried about can be very helpful. It can be very validating to realise how many other people are going through the same thing and know that you are not alone.  

We acknowledge we don’t have all the answers, and we recognise that there is no one-size-fits all approach to overcoming different cultural stigma around mental health. But we care about what you are going through and the difficulties you might face. ‘That’s why our partner, YoungMinds, spoke to lots of young Muslims about some of the trickiest responses they encountered when they started talking about their mental health at home. Together we thought about some suggested ways you might approach starting off a conversation if you experience any of these reactions from family or community. These suggestions might not necessarily feel appropriate or relevant to you, and that’s ok. If this advice doesn’t feel right for you, we recommend speaking with a trusted adult who can relate to your situation. 

Shhh! Don’t talk about these kinds of things! We shouldn’t talk about mental health. 

You could try saying something like this: 

“I want to be able to tell you anything. I want to be able to talk to you about this because I love and respect you, and because I know no one loves me more than you do. When you tell me not to talk about my feelings it makes me feel very lonely and very upset.” 

“There is no harm in talking, but there is harm in me feeling this way.” 

“I want us to work this out together as a family so that I can start feeling better again. I would really value your patience and understanding with this.” 

“I know this isn’t an easy conversation for either of us, but please will you promise me that you will try to understand. If you are prepared to listen to me, I think it will bring us closer together.”

“Your response to this issue is making me feel like maybe no one has been there to listen to you in the past when you have been upset, or that maybe you always felt like you had to be strong and keep your feelings hidden. I want you know that I would never judge you for how you feel if you ever wanted to share anything with me.”

You’re possessed, this is a jinn / someone has done black magic on you 

Please be aware, if you’re hearing voices, hallucinating or experiencing anything out of the ordinary you may be experiencing psychosis or schizophrenia which can be helped by medical attention. If you are worried you might harm yourself or others, contact emergency services immediately. 

You could try saying something like this: 

“I am really glad you’re helping me look for a solution. And I am happy to explore these possibilities with you, if you are also happy to explore other possible explanations with me too.” 

“I know it upsets you to think of me suffering. But I think you might be suggesting this because it’s easier for you to accept that someone/something else is causing me this problem, rather than accepting that there are difficult things happening in my life right now that might be making me feel this way. I would really appreciate being able to talk to you about some of things that are going on with me right now, so that we can think together about how I can get through them.”   

Someone has put the ‘evil eye’ on you! 

You could try saying something like this: 

“It is something I have considered, but I think in this case, the root of this problem might be deeper. I need more support with how I am feeling. Whatever has caused me to feel this way, I am struggling and would really appreciate you being open to exploring different things with me that might help me to feel better.”  

You’ll be fine if you just pray more. Be more grateful. Be a better Muslim!

You could try saying something like this: 

“I know you are saying this from a place of love, but when you say things like this it feels like you are dismissing my feelings and it makes me feel invalidated, upset and guilty. Every human being has difficult thoughts and feelings at some point – even people who pray all the time. I am trying my best right now, and when you say things like this it feels like you are shaming me.” 

“If I broke my leg, you wouldn’t just tell me to pray, you would also make sure I saw a doctor and rested. And you would check up on me and see how you could help me while I wasn’t able to move around much. Just because you can’t see my pain, doesn’t mean it isn’t there, or that there aren’t lots of different things that might help me, as well as prayer.” 

“When the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), saw a man leaving his camel without tying it up so that it might wander off in the desert he asked him, “why don’t you tie down your camel?” The man answered, “I put my trust in Allah.” The Prophet (pbuh) then replied, “Tie your camel first, and then put your trust in Allah.” Didn’t the Prophet (pbuh) teach us that while we should pray for the best, we should also do whatever we can to make our prayers a reality? Please help me to tie my camel.” 

If you tell people about this – what will they think of us? We will look like bad parents/family 

You could try saying something like this:

“I really appreciate how important your reputation is, and I know how judgmental people can be, but the truth is every single family goes through ups and downs – even if they hide it. If people really care about you and respect you, they will be kind and want to help you, rather than judge you.” 

“I know you love me more than anyone and that means you will want to put my health and happiness above the opinion of people outside this family. We are all going to have to be brave. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but we can get through this together.” 

You will feel better once you are married – we just need to find you a partner! 

You could try saying something like this: 

“I know you only want the best for me and I really appreciate that. And I don’t think marriage is the solution to my problems and how I am feeling at the moment. If I get married, my problems will still be there. I feel like I need to focus on myself right now.”  

“When I choose to get married, I’d like to go into it feeling happy, healthy and mentally strong.” 

“I don’t know if or when I will get married, but I deserve to feel happy now. I know that it is possible for me to feel great on my own, even before marriage, but I am going to need help with that.” 

“When you say things like this it makes me feel like I am not important to you and that my life is not valid unless I am married. I have lots of different goals in life other than marriage.” 

“The pressure you are putting on me to get married is affecting my mental health. Please can we not talk about this topic any more until I let you know that I am ready. I promise I will let you know when that time comes.”