Suicide Is On The Rise In The US, And Muslims Aren’t Immune
It’s hard enough dealing with the suicide of a loved one, but for a lot of Muslim families, that’s just the beginning of the heartache.
Bassema, a 36-year-old Muslim woman in New York, watched her younger cousin grow up in a tumultuous household. By the time he was a teenager, he’d fallen into a cycle of addiction and jail stints, despite family efforts to get him into rehab.
Last year, a routine traffic stop snowballed into an ordeal with a missed court date, cops showing up to the house, and, ultimately, despair.
“While waiting for court the next day on a ticket for a headlight, he hung himself,” Bassema said.
The sudden loss was more crushing because of what happened next. Bassema, who asked that neither she nor her cousin be identified to guard her family’s privacy, took charge of arranging the traditional Islamic burial. She called Muslim funeral homes one after another but was rejected each time when they found out the death was a suicide. Finally, she begged an uncle’s contacts at a mosque half an hour outside the city to help. They agreed to, on condition that her cousin’s body didn’t enter the mosque.
“We kept the body outside and away from the Friday prayer throng. We had to hide his neck marks, too,” Bassema said. The lack of sympathy still brings her to tears as she describes it.
Bassema’s struggle to give her cousin a dignified burial shows how fraught the issue of suicide is for US Muslims, as old taboos bump up against calls for new ways to approach suicide prevention and response.
Muslim mental health professionals worry that the deep-rooted stigma around suicide in Islam will result in the nation’s 3.4 million Muslims being sidelined from the national conversation that has emerged since the deaths of celebrities like Avicii, Anthony Bourdain, and Kate Spade. While there are no national numbers to back up their observations, counselors and clerics say they’ve seen an increase in suicides among US Muslims in the past few years, a trend they say is exacerbated in a climate of open bigotry toward Islam.
The rise in suicides among Muslims is in line with national statistics, which show increases across age, gender, race, and ethnicity, according to a report released in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 34. The report says nearly 45,000 people killed themselves in 2016, more than twice the number of homicides, prompting calls to recognize it as a public health crisis.
It’s a crisis US Muslim leaders aren’t prepared for on either the spiritual or logistical front. Many US mosques still refuse to perform funeral rites for Muslims who die by suicide, and the disgrace associated with it forces surviving relatives to mourn in silence and isolation. Pinning down even an estimated suicide rate for US Muslims is impossible because most families choose to keep the deaths quiet, sometimes lying about how someone died for fear of being blamed or shunned.
A nascent movement led by Muslim activists, mental health professionals, and clerics is trying to change the conversation about suicide to one centered on Islam’s compassion for the struggles of others and the religious duty to prevent harm. They’ve set up counseling centers and hotlines, and are writing guidance for imams and families that introduces broader, more empathetic language than the old mantra that Muslims who kill themselves have no chance of entering paradise.
One face of that movement is the Harlem-based rapper Mona Haydar, 30, who’s known for her rhymes about thorny issues such as predatory sheikhs and the headscarf. This month, she finally released a song she wrote three years ago and has kept private ever since because the topic was so painful: the suicide of a close friend in 2012.
“The last time I saw her she was walking out the door and she turned and said, ‘I just want you to know I really love you.’ And that was it,” Haydar said. “The next time I saw her she was lying on a table wrapped in white cloth.”
The loss forced Haydar to look hard at her own life and realize that she, too, was falling into depression, “a numbness,” largely because she was role-playing the part of the dutiful Muslim daughter. Within a month of her friend’s death, Haydar had quit teaching at an Islamic school – the job that pleased her parents – and moved to an off-grid commune in northern New Mexico for a fresh start. She lived in the mountains for three years.
That spiritual awakening led her to chaplaincy, a growing field for Muslims, especially women who are drawn to the clergy but don’t have a path to become an imam. In seminary, Haydar studied how to counsel people expressing suicidal thoughts, but she also learned the limitations of her role. In her first year as a chaplain at New York University, Haydar said, she saw about 100 students, and roughly half told her they questioned why they were alive.
“I walked 10 or 15 over to the mental wellness center and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to make this call together and find you a therapist and get you some care,’” she said. “Sometimes people need more than spiritual counseling, and there should be no shame in that.”
Haydar said she hopes her song, “Suicide Doors,” will encourage young Muslims be more open to seeking help. The haunting, two-minute track opens with “Nobody wanna talk about it,” both a lament and a callout for US Muslim communities that still treat suicide as shameful and unforgivable. Of the students she counseled, few expected to find support from religious leaders. The silence of the clerics infuriates Haydar, who says that if mosques promoted good mental health, maybe they wouldn’t be forced to weigh in on burial protocol for young Muslims.
The sanctity of life is emphasized throughout the Qur’an, including in verses warning against self-harm. One verse says, “And do not kill yourselves. Surely, God is most merciful to you”; another warns, “And do not throw yourselves in destruction.” In some hadiths, or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, those who die by suicide will face hellfire and will experience their suicide again and again for perpetuity. Some religious authorities conclude that suicide is an unforgivable sin in Islam; others counter that such an interpretation contradicts another verse that says all sins are forgivable except for disbelief in God.
Islam is hardly alone in its debates on suicide; most major religions similarly have wrestled with the issue. A roundup of religious views on suicide by the Religion News Service describes the history of Judaism and Catholicism denying funeral rites to those who kill themselves. In Hinduism, suicide is called “atmahatya,” Sanskrit for “soul murder,” and it’s said to bring karmic reactions that prevent the soul’s liberation. In Buddhism, the report says, suicide violates a basic tenet: to abstain from taking life.
For centuries, Islamic scholars have examined suicide from every angle — what happens to the soul, what kind of burial is allowed, and so on — and the debates continue today, evolving with new medical information about mental health and depression. Without a consensus, communities decide on an uneven, case-by-case basis how to deal with suicides. Depending on where a family lives, they could find an accepting Muslim response that includes counseling, fundraising for burial, and an Islamic funeral, or they could get cast out into the wilderness, unable to wash, bury, or pray for their dead among other Muslims.
Adnan Zulfiqar, an assistant law professor at Rutgers University and a specialist on Islamic law, said there are four basic steps to laying to rest a Muslim: funeral prayer, washing the body, shrouding the body, and burying the body.
The ritual becomes complicated, however, when the deceased has committed a grave sin such as killing, typically including killing oneself.
One camp rejects prayer for a Muslim who’s committed a grave sin; another points to a saying of the Prophet Muhammad that all Muslims deserve prayer. If prayer is ruled permissible, then the other rites should proceed as normal, said Zulfiqar, who researched Muslim funeral rites for a dissertation on collective duties in Islam.
“The question we’re really getting at is: When does criminality remove you from the category of ‘Muslim’?” Zulfiqar said.
It’s not just suicides that cause hand-wringing. The issue has also arisen in a handful of cases of US Muslims who have committed deadly terrorist acts — mosques wanted nothing to do with the burials, both because of the sin of murder as well as being associated with militancy. Zulfiqar said he was personally involved in the scramble to find someone willing to bury Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who in 2015 opened fire on two military offices in Tennessee, killing five people before dying in a gunfight with police.
But suicide is particularly fraught, he said, because in a way it’s the supreme denial of faith: “You’ve lost faith in God’s plan and are taking your own life.”
Zulfiqar has seen up close the pain caused by confusion over how to deal with suicide. Last September, he escorted a visiting Islamic scholar from Pakistan who was speaking at Swarthmore College. After the talk, three Muslim women, all visibly distressed, asked for a few private minutes with the scholar.
Days before, the women said, a young Muslim man they were friends with had killed himself. He was given a traditional burial, but there was immediate backlash from some local Muslims who objected to religious rites in the case of suicide.
The women’s eyes grew wet and their voices cracked as they asked the scholar whether the burial had been religiously correct, and whether it was all right to pray for their friend, the openly bisexual son of a prominent Muslim family who’d become depressed because of tensions surrounding his identity.
“His response was, ‘Yes, of course he should receive prayers and be buried. You should always approach these things with a level of compassion and kindness, and be mindful of what people are going through,’” Zulfiqar recalled the scholar saying. “The women sat at this table where they had poured their hearts out, and there was just this big sigh of relief.”
US Muslim suicide statistics are hard to come by — there’s no central authority to collect them, and families typically try to keep the deaths as quiet as possible. In academic databases, searching for “Muslim” and “suicide” turns up dozens of papers on Muslim suicide bombers overseas, but almost nothing on US Muslim mental health and suicide. The closest thing to an official count comes from Islamic mortuaries that arrange Muslim burials, said Heather Laird, a Muslim therapist and founder of the year-old Center for Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology at the University of Southern California.
Laird’s research on suicide has focused on Southern California, where she’s seen a dramatic increase in suicides by Muslims, with nearly 50 in 2017 alone, according to figures from mortuaries in Orange and LA counties. A decade ago, she said, there were just five in a two-year stretch.
Mosques and communities around the country call on Laird to help them navigate the aftermath of suicides. She’s alarmed by the unpreparedness she’s seen among Muslim leaders when it comes to talking about suicide, from spotting warning signs to consoling grieving families. She holds community education sessions, with breakouts for young Muslims who might not be comfortable confiding in their parents or imams.
“I had a session with the teenagers and we talked about 13 Reasons Why,” Laird said, referring to the Netflix show about suicide. “We talked about how many know someone who’d thought about, tried, or completed suicide. Every single one of them knew someone in those categories but they didn’t want to talk about it.”
Laird said prevention resources remain scarce for most Muslim communities in the United States. Her center in LA, for example, won a small grant through the mayor’s office to offer mental health services for Muslims. The response was overwhelming: Around 5,000 people received help.
“All of these people had never been in the system before because they didn’t trust it,” Laird said.
But then the grant money dried up and Laird was forced to refer clients to a sliding-scale payment system or to public health services that, unlike her center, are not rooted in Islam. As a result, she said, only a fraction continued seeking help.
“The rest of them just stopped coming, which was a real shame,” Laird said. “We have every kind of trauma and ailment you can imagine, everything the dominant culture has, plus a few more: trauma from war, from being refugees, from religious persecution.”
According to studies of Muslims who’ve attempted suicide, among the main drivers are family environment, culture conflicts, mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse, and financial loss. There’s also a body of research showing that religion can act as a deterrent against suicide, with some Muslims crediting fear of committing such a grave sin as the main reason they’re alive. What the studies don’t show, however, is a blueprint for what to do when suicide occurs in a Muslim community with no clear stance on how to handle the body or console surviving relatives.
Muslim nonprofit the Family and Youth Institute last year issued a toolkit, believed to be the first of its kind in the United States, that charts a new way for Muslim communities to deal with suicide.
“Muslims are not immune,” the text says. “The stigma around mental health and suicide has prevented much-needed research on the prevalence of suicide within the Muslim community.”
Perhaps the most important part of the institute’s toolkit is guidance on how to recognize and respond to someone contemplating suicide. Clerics and parents are encouraged to listen and empathize rather than launch into religious lectures. “Do not say, ‘Don’t you know suicide is haram?’” the guidebook advises. “While Islam prohibits suicide, this is not the time to preach.”
Another section urges Muslims to refrain from subjecting grieving families to judgment about the manner of death, or speculating on the deceased’s faith — common remarks in many immigrant Muslim circles. “Give them the same love, care, and respect that you would have provided had the person died from any other method,” the guidebook says.
“The gatekeepers, the mental health specialists and imams, are getting these calls and they don’t know what to do,” said Sameera Ahmed, director of the Family and Youth Institute, explaining the need for the toolkit. “We’re giving them something they know is religiously, culturally tailored to them. We’re taking the clinical information and acknowledging the value of religion.”
Last December, 30-year-old Mehran Nazir, a California-based tech consultant, had a breakdown.
For years, he’d struggled to understand why he had such a hard time dealing with setbacks — relationship and job troubles — that other young Muslims he knew took in stride. His depression deepened last year when he was overwhelmed by a series of personal and professional blows. He spiraled to the brink of suicide, but said he was yanked back by a friend’s straightforward, nonjudgmental question: What do you think allowed you to move in this direction?
Nazir said the question forced him to search for logic in the dark thoughts swirling in his head. The answers poured out in long journal entries, the first time he’d ever tried to fully lay out the thoughts and devise a plan to overcome them. He was so relieved by the exercise that he did something virtually unheard-of among US Muslims: He published his musings on mental health and suicide. On a public blog. Using his own name and photo.
“My mother asked me, ‘Is this right? Our community members and aunts and uncles are on Facebook. Is that something you’re worried about?’” Nazir said. “I jumped on that. I said that’s exactly why we have these problems — we as a community are concerned about image and maintaining this façade of strength, and maybe that’s not the healthiest thing to do.”
Such a public discussion of suicide is still rare among Muslims, but momentum is growing.
The commentator Haroon Moghul opened his memoir released last year, How to Be a Muslim: An American Story, with a scene of him walking to a bridge to end his life. He’s used publicity around the book to talk about his diagnosis of bipolar disorder and other mental health concerns for Muslims, such as the pressure on the children of immigrants to achieve material success and to be seen as pious. In an interview on NPR, Moghul said what stopped him from jumping was a deep connection to God “that was almost independent of any Muslim community.”
Last November, the Khalil Center, which promotes faith-based mental health and wellness for Muslims, introduced a helpline that promises a “safe and empathic space” for people in crisis. Naseeha, a Canadian nonprofit that serves US Muslims, also operates a confidential, toll-free helpline for callers seeking support for issues they might be reluctant to discuss with their families or clerics. The group’s website said the helpline received more than 18,000 calls in 2017, and “2018 is on course to double.”
Muslim mental health professionals have begun discussing suicide and suicide prevention at their conferences. Black Muslim mental health professionals are also creating responses tailored to their community’s history and needs, which are different from those of immigrant Muslims.
Laird's doctoral students at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology are creating suicide prevention materials that delve into how Muslims think about suicide, with an emphasis on using religious arguments as a deterrent. Last year, her Center for Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology at USC received a private donation to set up a satellite office in Maryland after six suicides and other attempts in the past year or so gave Muslims there a grim wake-up call.
“The numbers speak for themselves. They’re increasing at an alarming rate,” Laird said. “As a community, we need to face our fear and listen. Our children are speaking out — in a very profound way. They’re speaking out by killing themselves, or trying to.”
Kecia Ali, a Boston University professor known for her writings on women and feminism in Islam, knows firsthand the difference a religious support system makes after a suicide. She went public about her 16-year-old daughter Shaira’s suicide in 2012, a difficult decision made easier by the care her family received from local Muslims, starting with the mosque.
Ali said she knows fellow Islamic scholars might have religious objections to some of the community’s decisions, but none were expressed to the family. “In the face of a grieving, bereaved mother, the human response was absolutely and completely supportive,” she said.
Shaira was buried in the town cemetery, in a plot with room enough to tilt the grave 50 degrees to face Mecca. The school paper covered the loss, making clear that Shaira killed herself. Students sang and floated candles on the pond where her body was found. Her friends from a hip-hop group, Phenom V, recorded a tribute with the line: Such a sweet soul, y’all would concur, I appreciate everything you would’ve been, and what you were.
The family welcomed the social media memorials that poured in from Shaira’s classmates, though the parents were adamant about celebrating their daughter’s life without glamorizing her death. Even through their devastation, Ali said, the family chose to speak of the death as a suicide, a deliberate decision “not to outright lie, not to dissemble, not to cover up.”
“The thing that’s always true with suicide is that survivors spend a lot of time thinking, if only. And one of our if-onlys, or what-ifs, was: What if there hadn’t been such stigma about mental illness?” Ali said. “One of the things we didn’t want to do was hush up and contribute to that stigma.” ●