Faith, culture and mental health: Meet the young Muslim women raising each other up through the art of conversation

Hanaa was 20 years old, and studying Medicine at university, when the panic attacks she'd suffered with for years began to become unbearable. She felt there were no dedicated spaces at that time for Muslim women at the university to discuss their lives and when she was officially diagnosed with anxiety, she decided to set one up.

In a one-off documentary for BBC One, Nadiya: Anxiety and Me, Nadiya Hussain met with Hanaa to learn all about it and to share her own experiences of anxiety.

Hanaa chose the name Hawaa for her female-only support group. In Islam, the name has its origins in the Arabic word for ‘Eve’ – the wife of Adam – and Hanaa saw it as a synonym for female empowerment.

Putting up posters around the university, she got a lot of interest and since Hawaa's first meeting, Hanaa has continued to spark group conversations with regulars and newcomers on different set topics every week. "We respect all the speakers and everyone’s opinion counts. We’re all on a journey, and we discuss problems, questions or ideas without judgement here," Hanaa explains. The group explores what members can implement practically in their lives to help themselves and their families, and they look to the Qur’an for inspiration and guidance.

Nadiya meets with the women of Hawaa as they discuss their experiences of mental health from a cultural perspective.

Things began to improve for Hanaa when she accessed a university counselling service and made lifestyle changes, including eating more healthily and taking regular exercise. However, she found the greatest breakthrough came from gaining an understanding of what triggers her anxiety, and speaking about it openly with her family, friends and the Hawaa group.

Hanaa believes taking a holistic approach to her recovery has been important – "Looking after the physical, mental, social and the spiritual as equal parts of myself has been key, and personally my faith plays a big role. Most religions give guidelines for people in need. I remember reading about when the prophets would go through extreme states and trials," Hanaa says, "and that gave me inspiration to keep going. When the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) would go for long walks of contemplation, we could interpret that now as exercise, and mindfulness through prayer." Hanaa feels that although terminology around mental health is relatively recent, mental health conditions have always existed, and they occur in every culture in the world.

Understanding what triggered her mental health struggles, and seeking reassurance in specific passages of the Qur’an, helped Hanaa frame her personal experience with anxiety and depression to her own parents. They had seen her panic attacks and felt that 'anxiety' and 'depression' were alienating terminology that held a stigma. Hanaa said breaking down her real-life experiences helped her talk, and be understood: "I sat down with mum and had an open conversation with her about what happens to me when I have a panic attack, how my heart beats fast and I feel sick and consumed by worry. The penny dropped – she understood because it turns out she had experienced the same thing when pregnant with me!"

Other members of Hawaa also felt a disconnect when discussing mental health with older generations of their families. Hanaa is keen to point out, however, that this is a generational gap, not necessarily a cultural one – "Our parents had a different set of problems when they were young. They talk about the stresses of paying rent and putting food on the table, which means they might not easily relate to a different kind of stress, but most of us find our families naturally want to empathise and help."

So, how has Hanaa’s faith affected her experience of anxiety and depression?

"Islam believes every illness has a cure and, as Muslim women in the support group, we’re all united by our faith, regardless of background, profession, walk of life or level of religious practice. At my worst, I would pray and call out to God. It was a relief! I didn’t need a mindfulness app to remind me to take a break - I was already praying five times a day so it helped me find the space I needed."

Hanaa’s advice if you are feeling isolated, with a mental health issue:

  • First, realise you have an issue. Name it: get a diagnosis or recognition and you can start to understand it
  • Next, own it. It is a part of who you are right now and what you have been through, but it doesn’t have to be part of your future
  • Reach out to organisations, find support groups, workshops, events that could be of help. Seek help. I found the Aafiyah project very helpful.
  • Try a holistic approach – look after your physical, mental, social and spiritual aspects, whatever each means to you
  • I like to use the ‘rule of 10’ – if something is making me feel worried or sad, I ask myself: will it still bother me in 10 minutes? 10 days? 10 weeks? 10 months? This helps me gain perspective in the moment
  • Remember that family and friends are there for you. Have the conversations. Surround yourself with positive people and don’t get disheartened if some people find what you are going through difficult to understand. Explain how you feel without the alienating terminology because your family will care how you feel. Tell them how they can support you.

Hanaa reflects on how far she's come, with the help of counselling and community: "I was in a really dark place. Now I barely have panic attacks and I feel in control of my life. If I could say one thing to myself in the worst moment it would be that it gets better."

The future of the Hawaa empowerment group looks busy and bright. As more women share their problems, they begin to see that they are not alone.

They never were.

If you need to speak to someone about your mental health, the Samaritans phone line is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can also call Childline.

Nadiya: Anxiety and Me is available on BBC iPlayer.

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