Mike Gillani, a Chicago based consultant, explains that “in my age group, we have a different mindset. Where we come from, we were told no one should have mental problems, so you just didn’t tell people.”
“When we hear issues of grief or depression, we are reminded to pray and things will get better in time. That is good, and we need it, but sometimes we also need professional help,” his wife, Minaz Gillani, added about the attitude so often found in tight-knit communities. For many of us, religion and faith serve as a source of comfort and a sense of belonging that, among other things, can help us cope with life’s challenges; however, for others, the solace from one’s faith can be supplemented with professional help.
The Gillanis shared their journey of coping with the grief that came with the passing of Mike’s mother. The lack of desire to talk to people, to engage in activities, to be productive at work; these were all behaviors that Mike was exhibiting, and Minaz recognized “something was off, but we didn’t have the resources to label it or even ask anyone.”
The stigma often associated with mental health has been so ingrained, that even the recognition of it seems a bleak possibility. When things ‘are off,’ we can sense it, but have not been taught to identify it, let alone seek help.
Salima Ali, a management consultant from Atlanta recalls, “spending years brushing off anxiety and stress and anger, similar to the way my grandfather might brush off a toothache.”
“It will go away on its own; don’t be dramatic,” she would tell herself.
It is perhaps for these reasons that the Gillanis also didn’t seek help. They stressed, “People will talk. People will put a label on you. Log kya soche ge (What will people think). We were very involved in the community, and we feared that we wouldn’t get to serve anymore.” This fear is a major hurdle stopping many people from getting the help needed to heal.
For Zahra Somani, a secondary teacher in Dallas, this limitation actually came from within.
“I think there is a stigma, and it definitely took me a while to seek therapy. It took me a lot longer than it should have. I stigmatized myself and I think that was the hardest,” said Zahra.
While the Gillanis’ journey with mental well-being did not lead to receiving professional help, Zahra was able to find the professional counseling she desired. Her journey of mental wellbeing is rooted in her faith and spirituality as she tried to get past the stigma and consequential skepticism of therapy to become a better person.
“If you want to embody fitness, you don’t just eat clean; you go to the gym and take care of nutrition. It’s a multi-pronged approach to reach this fitness higher self. The same can be said of our mind and spirit. Self-discovery through therapy is a key part of that.”
This proactive path that Zahra chose, allowed her to see past her skepticism and she found that investing paid dividends. Now, she not only recommends therapy as a part of daily life but believes in its impact so much that she pivoted from a career in education to one in Marriage and Family therapy.
Just as Zahra chose to be proactive about her mental health, Salima too realized she could not brush away her need for introspection and help when faced with the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Some part of me 'woke up' right when the pandemic started to rise. I realized that I needed to better protect my mental health. It felt as though I had been sprinting for years, the whole time believing I was just walking, and then someone told me I needed to start running a marathon. It hit me all at once that I was not prepared,” Salima reflected, on her decision to begin equipping herself with the necessary tools.
She continues to use the various techniques she researched and learned, such as meditation and good nutrition to build her mental agility and continue on her marathon, with hopes of seeing more Jamati members recognize the need for awareness and openness to professional help. The Gillanis echo this sentiment for the future and “cannot thank the Jamati institutions enough for the multiple programs they have to support others now.”
“The fact that we are even talking about it now, that we can be open about it, that is the first step to normalizing mental health and taking away the stigma,” Minaz reflects. Mike adds, “The Jamati institutions have so many programs now that are changing the way the Jamat sees depression or mental health challenges. We are raising that awareness that it is ok to talk about it. We should encourage talking about feelings.”
With the added struggles of the Covid-19 pandemic to our already challenging lives, it is important to be kind to ourselves and recognize our need for mental health support, just as we do for our physical health.
Some of the techniques and avenues that Minaz, Mike, Salima, and Zahra shared of their journeys towards mental well-being include: keeping and writing in a journal, reading self-help books, talking with your family about feelings - to empower them to do the same, meditating and practicing mindfulness, and exercise and physical movement.
“Seek help early, as a part of your health routines,” Zahra highlighted. “We need to normalize mental health. It isn’t something we should only seek when something is ‘broken,’ but can be a source of better discovering ourselves and connecting with those around us.”