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Religion and Mental Health Stigma

Suzanne Duval defines stigma and explains why mental health problems might be interpreted as spiritual problems in religious communities
My name is Suzanne Duval, and I’m the Black Asian Minority Ethnic Mental Health and Dementia Policy Manager at Diverse Cymru. With regard to the term stigma, I’d like to speak briefly to you about stigma in relation to faith, culture, spirituality, and spirit possession, and its impact on mental health and psychosocial disability. I’m sure that many of you will be aware of what stigma means but just a reminder of the negative connotations related to the term stigma. Looking at dictionary definitions. Stigma is identified as the mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person with association to negative words such as shame, disgrace, dishonour, stain, taint, blot, blot on one’s character, blemish, brand, mark, slur, smirch.
In mental health and psychosocial disability the words commonly associated are a mark, stain or blemish. So how does this negativity impact on faith, culture, spirituality, and spirit Possession? Myths, misunderstanding, ignorance, negative attitudes, can all result in stigma for people living with mental health conditions who may be treated as dangerous, different, or as if they are somehow less than other people. In service take-up and service delivery, I would suggest that it has a massive impact as this negativity can impact on decision making and service take-up and service delivery. For those in the community, it may help to explain away mental illness and how it is perceived and how they may cure it.
Going to faith healers or exorcists as a first port of call may exacerbate their conditions and lead to further complications down the line. But many communities would prefer to explain mental health as spirit possession than admit to a mental health condition. This is also part of the stigma or shame on them, their families and communities. For those providing services, these same negative views, fuelled by a lack of understanding, may lead to appropriate services not being provided. So how can they explain it away? How can they be excused for being ill, for not being themselves> For acting different? Words for evil spirits, jinn, jaadu, black magic, possession, words for evil spirits, some familiar, some not so.
But all concepts that medical staff, psychiatrists and the criminal justice system are having to countenance. As an example, I will speak of some British Asians who are Muslim, blaming the supernatural for mental health problems. Why exorcists are treating serious illness. And murder is explained away by blaming evil spirits. I do want to say, though, that demons or evil spirits, etc. is seen by all cultures and religions around the world, including Christians who believe in demons and are mentioned in the Bible. Yet, little notice or attention is given to this fact causing disparity, particularly with services provided. Just some further bits of factual information for you to reflect on.
I want to look specifically at jinn in relation to spirit, possession and mental illness among British Asians in Great Britain. The belief in evil spirits is widespread and can be concepts of black magic, and at its more extreme it is believed the body can be possessed by evil spirits and the concept of jinn is in the Quran. What jinn are is not universally agreed upon. Evil spirits and jinn are explained as the cause of epilepsy, bipolar disorder, criminal activity, even not getting a job. So-called healers can be harmless and a great source of help for some. Concerns are when they replace medical care for serious problems. There was a case where a young man became ill.
The family thought he was possessed by a jinn. Exorcists were called in and treated him over time, but he did not recover and was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He had become ill at 18 and was not taken to services until he was 31, 13 years later. And in all that time a lot of damage had been done. This is not necessarily a problem with social class or education for groups of clinicians working in an inner city area this can be common. It is key that patients admit to their religious ceremonies or healing because it can be helpful as long as it’s not an alternative for medical care.
For some cultures it is more acceptable to be possessed than mentally ill. It is a combination of how cultures make sense of people and how stigma just prevents them from recognising what it really is. Quite often people see abnormal behaviour as somehow being caused by some bad influence rather than a sign of mental illness. And that badness becomes an external malevolence or black magic by someone, a shadow, a jinn. That kind of thinking means now that courts are also having to grapple with the concepts of possession. There’s lots more I could say, but as a summary, I would leave you with these thoughts.
The negative connotations related to this term stigma, the myths, misunderstanding, ignorance, negative attitudes can all result in stigma for people living with mental health conditions. Impacts on Service take-up and service delivery. For those in the community, it may help to explain away mental illness and how it is perceived and how they may cure it. For those providing services, these same negative views fuelled by lack of understanding, may lead to appropriate services not being provided.
Spirit possession and mental illness some positive action to help improve understanding is the Royal College Feeling Stressed Leaflets. This is a leaflet produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which I believe is an excellent source of information and support. Some headlines in the leaflet, which may help to answer some of the issues that come up from service users and practitioners.

Suzanne Duval, BEM defines stigma and explains why mental health problems might be interpreted as spiritual problems in religious communities. Due to stigma, recognising mental health problems as spiritual illness may be more socially acceptable than admitting to having mental health problems.

Suzanne is the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Mental Health and Dementia Manager (Policy) at Diverse Cymru. Diverse Cymru is a mental health charity for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups based in Cardiff, Wales.

Understanding mental health problems as spiritual illness can lead to people not seeking medical support, and relying on religious practitioners to address the perceived spiritual problems instead.

Suzanne suggests that where practitioners hold fixed and negative views about particular spiritual beliefs and practices, this can reduce the likelihood of Muslims to seeking mental health support. Instead, Suzanne recommends that practitioners seek to form an understanding of these beliefs and their impacts on the lives of the people they are supporting to address their mental health problems. You have already been introduced to core religious beliefs and practices for Muslims. Later in Week 2 we will take a closer look at the mental health implications of some beliefs and practices.


Suzanne recommends ‘Feeling Stressed – Advice for Muslims Leaflet’ by the Community Access Support Service as a resource that appropriately and sensitively acknowledges religious and spiritual beliefs.

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Understanding Muslim Mental Health

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