Lots of Arabs, regardless of their religion, tend to ascribe mental illness and, in particular, depression to lack of faith. Patients are usually prescribed medical treatments as a last resort because of this.
On a recently aired episode of MBC's Maali Al Mowaten talk show, this topic took center stage. As a guest, Osama Al Jama, a Saudi clinical psychologist, answered a question regarding how most people in the region seek religious forms of treatment or are told to get closer to God when they suffer from depression.
"I've been asked about this so many times. Going to a religious healer is fine when it's a case of an evil eye but what we're talking about here is a disorder," Al Jama said, explaining how there's medicine for every illness and that such issues, specifically depression, need to be treated by a psychologist or psychiatrist.
"Depression has nothing to do with being close or distant from God, it isn't related to whether you're religious or not," he explained.
The professional believes religion and spirituality can speed up recovery for some patients "but it doesn't prevent them from suffering mental illnesses."
The worst thing that can be said to a person struggling with depression, according to Al Jama, is "Go pray and ask God for forgiveness." As an example, he rebutted this standard reply by reminding viewers of all kinds of patients who need help: clerics, mosque workers, muezzins, and so on. "When you tell them they have depression because they're distant from God, you're increasing their suffering," he explained.
The psychologist also highlighted the fact that people often mistake feelings of sadness and depression, calling on them to seek professional help to get a proper diagnosis.
Al Jama's statements weren't taken lightly by many social media users who attempted to discredit him.
"What he said is completely untrue. The opposite is a fact, the more you distance yourself from God and praying using the holy Quran, the more you're prone to depression," one Twitter user wrote. While another boasted about praying day and night while staying at a mosque till dawn until their life was turned upside down, without the need of a professional.
Not everyone was opposed to Al Jama's comments, as many completely agreed with him and urged people suffering with depression to seek treatment. "Depression is an illness caused by imbalances in chemicals that affect the brain. The amount of ignorance in these comments is unbelievable. None of you suffered of depression or at least researched it," a tweep responded.
Depression is a major issue in the region
The world's earliest known mental health hospitals were actually built in the Arab world, and Muslim scholars were global leaders when it came to writing about mental health issues. Unfortunately, this history hasn't translated into advancements when it comes to dealing with mental health problems in the region.
Misconceptions regarding the issue are one thing that prevents people from seeking much-needed treatment. Another aspect is the fact that mental health is still considered a taboo in many local communities.
While there still aren't solid numbers on sufferers in the Arab world, both depression and anxiety are considered major disorders in our countries.
Clinicians and researchers working in the region have often stated that Arab youth are highly "troubled by anxiety and depression." The latter's rates have been on the rise in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and several countries across the region.
In 2017, Vancouver-based Muslim lecturer Sheikh Azhar Nasser took to Twitter to urge people not to tell others to "treat their depression by solely reciting Qur'an." In his tweet, Sheikh Nasser addressed those who undermine the struggle of depressed Muslims.
Speaking to StepFeed at the time, he explained that "mental illness and depression are serious issues in our communities," adding that society will be held accountable for the repercussions of its ignorance.
"They [depressed people] are often dismissed as people just 'feeling down.' With that attitude, God will hold our communities responsible for any person who ends up taking their own lives," he said.