Mental health is similar to physical health — everybody has it and should take care of it. When we reflect about our health in general, it is important to include the health of our minds as well as the health of our bodies in our thinking, plans, and conversations. On the occasion of World Mental Health Day, 10 October, we reflect on the importance of sound mind and a dignified quality of life.

In Muslim belief, the human mind is accorded an elevated status and importance. The mind is the faculty through which each individual can achieve knowledge of Allah and His creation. Thus, preservation of a sound mind is among the foundational principles of Islam's ethical code, which strives to ensure the dignity and honour of each individual from day to day, throughout the course of life.

During times of good mental health, we find ourselves thinking and feeling as usual, in the way we would like. But when going through a stage of poor mental health, the way in which we think, feel, or react can become difficult or impossible to cope with.

In some cases, social pressures or traumatic life events have the capacity to significantly reorient one’s emotional state. In other cases, natural or man-made disasters, an outbreak of disease, or the displacement of people or communities can contribute to an altered frame of mind.

Mental health difficulties can affect up to one out of four people each year. Conditions range from common troubles such as anxiety and depression, to rarer problems, such as eating disorders, bipolar, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder, and postnatal depression, among others. Many of these conditions often go undetected and unreported, as people can be reluctant to seek assistance.

Historically, this may be due to a perceived stigma attached to speaking about mental health, or to a lack of qualified health professionals in a certain area. However, this is changing as workplaces, educational institutions, governments, and civil society organisations are placing emotional wellbeing higher on their respective agendas. Occasions such as World Mental Health Day help to raise awareness, and encourage discussion among groups and individuals.

Experiencing a mental health condition can be confusing or even frightening to begin with. Such fears are at times reinforced by TV and media narratives. In reality, these experiences are a natural part of being human.

Today, anxiety in particular is becoming increasingly common among young people. Symptoms include worry, stress, and fear, particularly about the future. Anxiety is natural and common, but can become a problem if it impacts your day-to-day life. Social media anxiety disorder has also become a recognised condition, brought on by the increasing use of Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms, which can make users susceptible to comparison, unrealistic aspiration, and envy. The inability to switch off can lead to a seemingly endless downward spiral.

Those who are no longer young — though not yet old — may be affected by the pressures associated with work, studying, or taking care of a family. Depression can appear in mid-life or earlier, sometimes due to prolonged stressors, and sometimes a combination of events. Symptoms can include persistent sadness, low energy, and difficulty with motivation.

In later life, mental health issues can become more common; Depression affects 7% and dementia affects 5% of the older population. Dementia is a brain disease that can significantly impact the lives of those affected, and those around them. Symptoms include forgetfulness, confusion, and changes in behaviour. The ensuing isolation can negatively affect a person’s dignity, further compounding the condition.

Being part of a community provides a support system for people to offer a helping hand or a listening ear to someone in need, and to receive the same from others. To ensure that nobody is stigmatised or marginalised, everyone should be seen as an equal person — with hopes and dreams — and not labelled by their condition.

Those providing assistance need not be limited to health staff, social workers, teachers, or emergency responders. Any one of us may take on the responsibility — the ability to respond — to someone we may know who needs a person to speak to, or a shoulder to lean on.

It is important to remember that mental health conditions are treatable. Like any health condition, the earlier it is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances of a full recovery. There are various steps which can help ensure a good quality of life for yourself and those close to you:

  • Remain mentally and physically active. Make time for activities other than work or study, such as prayer, meditation, reading, music, sport, art, or any other hobby. Attend a yoga class or take a walk in nature for a change of scenery.
  • Build and maintain relationships with family, friends, and neighbours. Numerous studies have shown that socialising increases happiness overall, for yourself and others.
  • Take a break from all screens. Put down your smartphone, close your laptop computer, and switch off the TV. See how long you can go without checking social media, email, and messages. Drink plenty of water, and get enough sleep.
  • Recognise mental health conditions among others — reach out to offer assistance or encourage them to ask for help. Caregivers should remember to practice self-care, so as not to become overburdened.

If you have concerns about mental health, speak with someone, reach out to a doctor, or contact the Aga Khan Health Board.