Mental health and being Muslim — can the two coexist?

Walking in as a fall 2017 transfer student, the only thing I worried about was the UC Berkeley environment. It wasn’t so comforting having to hear your dream school described as stressful, cutthroat, intimidating and incredibly pressuring. And what scared me most was the question I consistently asked myself: “Will I survive?”

You see, four months before I moved to Berkeley and started the semester, I was diagnosed with anxiety and clinical depression. Two months before starting the semester, I had just became accustomed to my pills and was becoming so dependent on my therapist, who allowed me to release and express myself in ways I never thought I could. Usually, making time to see my therapist also forced me to make time for self-care right after, which meant an hour to myself at a café. But moving to Berkeley meant I wouldn’t have the opportunity to physically see my therapist and that I didn’t have a safe space to cry in; being far meant that I wouldn’t make that time for myself anymore. So when I asked myself, “Will I survive?” I wasn’t questioning if I would continue with the school — I genuinely wondered if my depression was going to consume me and make me commit to a permanent decision that I wouldn’t even be alive to regret.

I wasn’t far from wrong. After a month of experiencing the environment, trying to adjust to change and attempting to find my place in the school, my anxiety was out the roof, and my depression was at an all-time low. After an incredibly draining depressive breakdown, I was told by a friend to look into the Muslim Mental Health Initiative, or MMHI, which she described as an organization that offers Muslim therapists for the Muslim community at UC Berkeley.

I was at a loss for words at the idea that an organization like this could exist. Why? Because mental health is a taboo topic in the Muslim community. It’s not talked about, it’s not acknowledged, and it’s very rare to find resources for mental health that are specifically targeted toward Muslims. At first, hearing about this made me weary, as I inquired whether the therapists were qualified or if they were just community members volunteering their time. I was concerned about whether or not they were taking mental health issues seriously and realized that a therapist is not just a job that anyone can do. After talking to my friend Yasmin Ahmed, a member of the organization, I realized that MMHI was everything I needed it to be.

It’s a campus organization that teams up with Khalil Center, a foundation that is able to provide social, psychological, familial, relational and spiritual wellness within the Muslim community through trained therapists. With the budget that MMHI is given from the school, the organization is able to financially support the services of Diba Ataie and Jabir Tarin, two therapists who work with Khalil Center. Both therapists offer their time, ears, empathy, advice and acceptance during individual and group therapy, which they call “Ummah Talks.” So essentially, MMHI is enabling a student’s mental health by giving access to therapists without cost or insurance requirements, and with the simplicity of booking an appointment online.

After learning about all of this and even experiencing a therapy session that I was able to schedule in between classes with Diba, the idea of this still sounded too perfect. As someone who’s getting medically treated from a psychologist and therapist through Kaiser Permanente, I know the frustration with booking an appointment, getting the nearest appointment scheduled and dealing with the expenses. As someone who takes antidepressants, I know that the pills are ineffective unless I’m talking my problems out and dealing with them through someone who is professionally trained. The idea sounded too good to be true. But luckily, it was true. On a campus that breathes the stress of others, on a campus that mentally exhausts you, on a campus with an environment so strenuous, Muslim students are taking their time and effort to provide an outlet for other Muslim students. At UC Berkeley, Muslim students are talking about depression, anxiety, mood disorders, eating disorders, etc. At UC Berkeley, Muslim students are taking taboo topics and making them into discussions. At UC Berkeley, Muslim students are making other Muslim students feel as if they’re not alone, they’re validating our emotions, and they’re telling us to take a break. At UC Berkeley, Muslim students are taking care of each other.

If we didn’t have MMHI, I don’t know if I would have stayed at this school. I don’t know where I would be or where my health would be. But what I do know, with the help of MMHI, is that I survived.

Rabiah Shere is a senior media studies major at UC Berkeley.