No shame in getting therapy
Wednesday, April 27th, 2016
How do you know if it’s a good idea to see a counsellor? It can be particularly daunting if you’ve not seen a counsellor before, and ultimately a very personal decision to make. The first big step towards change is the one that happens in your head. I hope that in talking through some of the genuine concerns that people have, you will be better informed as to whether this is right for you (or someone close to you).
Paying attention to one’s inner well-being or what some would call mental health is as important as physical health. Whilst we often pride ourselves on our individual ability to withstand the rigours of life, it is also true that Muslim communities and individuals are increasingly under stress. Our way of life, values and identity have always been dynamic evolving processes, but working that through under the bright lights of (western) modernity and its sense of entitlement, and the even harsher lens of Islamophobia, is often a near unbearable pressure. Stress does not exist in isolation and compounds existing problems, lowering any in-built resilience we might have. This is not to blame anyone, but simply to acknowledge that as Muslims we are under intense pressure – both to achieve and succeed, yet to be charitable and economically modest, to be good but also to partake in the material world, to experiment and thereby make mistakes, but also be good and unimpeachable. We are under pressure to answer for the sins of others, under pressure to take care of our families, young and elderly, to belong and not be apologetic, to be modest as well as not repressed, to marry and not divorce. We are or have friends who have been traumatised by wars and economic deprivation. We are under pressure to adroitly juggle the tensions between political and religious factions, to understand and participate in global politics and religion, to be strong, anti-racist, feminist, not homophobic, yet traditional and halal, true to our cultures and faith, as well as to be up front about our ties to Islam, religion and the host country in which we live. This leaves little space for exploration or development. Yet these tensions, and many others, are now part of the fabric of our lives – and that is in addition to all the other stuff of life. A major benefit of counselling is that it gives you space – space to think and feel, to explore this unfolding territory.
Stigma and Shame is a huge issue that can get in the way. However strong we are, people’s attitudes affect us. In most cultures stigmatizing attitudes to mental illness are evidenced by insulting language, (such as pagal in Urdu) and this makes it hard to express our need for help. It also means that confidentiality is even more of a concern. Having said that, over the twenty or so years I’ve been in the field, I’ve noticed that attitudes are changing, both in our communities and in UK society has a whole. For example, in 2014, Ipsos Mori carried out a survey on behalf of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) suggesting that 28% of people in the UK have consulted a counsellor or psychotherapist and in total, over half of Britons have either had therapy themselves, or know someone who has. In my own practice, both as a counselling tutor and counsellor, although there is stigma, there is greater awareness that counselling is a good, confidential resource that can help. Organisations like Imams against Domestic Violence, The Lateef Project, and Solace all cater to different needs within the community – perhaps in acknowledgement that many of the problems that have been buried for so long can no longer be, wisely, ignored.
Maybe harder than the attitudes of other people, is the fear of facing yourself and denial. I know that for many people deciding to have therapy confirms the fears inside, and makes it harder to brush things aside. Just thinking about it can make people confront fears that perhaps they can’t make it on their own. This is hard– sometimes so hard that we will do ANYTHING to run away from ourselves. Allah says, ‘Never a sign comes to them but they turn away from it.” [Surat Al-‘An`ām (The Cattle) 6:4] Sometimes desperation becomes so extreme that we no longer have a choice. All of us have coping mechanisms some of which we know aren’t really working, and sometimes keep us stuck, but they are what we know. But there is an alternative, which is through knowledge and understanding, and through trust. If you can trust enough to take the first step, then I believe you will discover for yourself that counsellors are trained to understand and work with these feelings, to know that it’s important to take care of how delicate we can be. I train counsellors in Islamic Counselling, and we insist that trainees experience first-hand what it feels like to be a client. They may not know exactly what it’s like to be you, having gone through therapy themselves, but they can anticipate your fears as well as know the value of the process because it’s also helped them.
Is it right? Religiously-minded people often wonder whether it’s morally correct to seek help in this way “Should I just pray harder/ am I being punished for wrongs I’ve done?” Again attitudes are changing. I’ve found that more people are challenging the idea that seeking help is spiritual weakness. Imams also attend our training, recognizing that it’s needed and that it’s actually courageous and a sign of spiritual strength even, to admit that you need help. Finding healing is part of putting one’s trust in Allah. As the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said: “Tie your camel and trust Allah”
Ibn al-Qayyim said: Ignoring the means is a sign of helplessness that goes against the true essence of tawakkul, which is that the heart relies on Allah to bring the servant [of Allah] whatever will benefit him in this world and the next, and to protect him from whatever may harm him in this world and the next. But along with this reliance, it is essential to take the appropriate means, otherwise he will be going against the wisdom and command of Allah.” [Zad al-Ma’ad, 4/15]
An Islamic counsellor is someone who is motivated and trained to pay attention to your heart without judging you in any sense; not for your anger, your tears, your spirituality or lack of it, your parenting, not any of it. A counsellor doesn’t impose their own solutions onto your life, so that you walk away thinking they don’t understand, but actually takes the time to understand how you see things and what you want and even to hear things you are only barely realizing yourself. Counselling can take time, and money too, but it can help you overcome difficulties that seem insurmountable, to bear pain, to live with anger, to find peace, to come to terms with loss and illness, to relate better, to support yourself, to become more confident, to make healthy friends and relationships family and otherwise, to find the strength to be assertive, etc. It can help you also to find or hone your direction, to discover your true heart and soul, and to offer real answers that you have chosen for yourself, from knowing more and more about who you are and who you want to be. Rather than relegating counselling as something considered in extremis, people are realizing that counselling is helpful for ordinary people in everyday situations, just to improve their lives, their understanding and or their worship.
Sabnum Dharamsi is a Senior Partner with Stephen Maynard & Associates. In 1996, she co-founded Islamic Counselling accredited training, a modern spiritual perspective on counselling now accredited to diploma level. She is a practising Islamic Counsellor, whose work also includes research and policy advice for the NHS and local government, training and consultancy within the Muslim community including Imams, the Muslim Youth Helpline, and the International Academy of Self Knowledge.