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Closer Than You Know

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

What is intersectionality? As Sue Cardenas-Soto writes, intersectionality describes how "individuals are

empowered and oppressed by the intricate ways in which parts of their identities connect."

Madiha Ahmed (she/her), who holds a MA in Industrial & Organizational Psychology and a dual BS in Human Resources and Psychology, joins the conversation today. Coming to this conversation as a lifelong Muslim, the eldest daughter of immigrants from Pakistan, with lived experience of anxiety, and having witnessed barriers to care–Madiha shares her unique perspective on mental wellness. Madiha has Implementation Manager and HR support roles and volunteers at Aisha Fatima Community, a faith-based nonprofit serving the holistic needs of Muslim women.

As we begin, Madiha remarks she is often very involved in activities. She and I met at Elmhurst University, where we worked on student events together. As the oldest daughter of a family of immigrants whose parents are from Pakistan, Madiha reflects there is a context of generational trauma in which she found expectations to be the "more mature and the easy, quiet kid." She found herself wondering if her parent's expectations were cultural or religious. In instances of contention between her parents and herself, she'd ask herself: "is this coming from religion, culture, or is it a simple argument?"

From an early age, Madiha realized that perhaps many restrictions weren't necessarily God-ordained. To please her parents, she'd carry guilt and wonder: "What would they do? What would they say?" Her parents' early attitude towards mental health, Madiha shares, is a common one: "we don't talk about feelings." In turn, Madiha continues, she internalized that perhaps her problems weren't so big. After all, those before her dealt with war and immigration–issues of a much larger scale. Even so, she saw the effects of discounting another's mental distress. Madiha saw many people struggling within her private high school environment without mental health support. A year after high school, she found out one of her friends was self-harming. This situation "tore" her, Madiha shares, as mental health and struggles were so uncommon to speak on.

Early in life, Madiha witnessed the danger of the idea that weakness in yourself or your faith causes the symptoms of mental illness.

In contrast to high school, Madiha was glad to find and use a significant amount of mental health and other resources at Elmhurst University. Therapy sessions helped her focus on self-care, set boundaries, and begin to notice and address a pattern of overworking and burnout. She did not learn of the mental health resources until junior year, during which she particularly needed them.

Madiha's search for clarity continued during her undergraduate studies as she saw other students with similar familial expectations. Believing her parents wanted her to be in a field with a more "guaranteed job," she contended with her parents over her choice of study major. Eventually, choosing Industrial/Organizational Psychology as her graduate field of study, Madiha found what was suitable for her, even if others didn't initially agree. After learning to be okay with making choices independently, Madiha went on to have a graduate assistantship and loved her Master's degree.

Madiha finds comfort in knowing that the Qur'an and the Prophet highly emphasize mental health. You are encouraged to cry out while knowing that God (Allah) does not burden you more than you can bear. Madiha finds solace from a Qur'anic verse that when things don't go your way, God states, "They plan, and Allah plans; and Allah is the best of planners (8:30)". In another verse from the Qur'an, Madiha finds reassurance in the truth that Allah is closer to you than your jugular vein.

Allah is deeply present, understanding your struggles and experiences, even if you cannot explain it yourself.

Reflecting on the cultural shift in conversations about mental health, Madiha never imagined we would be talking so plainly about mental health. Still, she finds it difficult to change someone's attitude when their lived experience is one of untreated symptoms. We need more resources to help convince loved ones to seek help, whether a mindfulness practice, mental health app, support group, or something else. Madiha shares that she recently stopped seeing her therapist. They believe that they met the goals they set. Still, she finds comfort in knowing she can go back.

We have mindfulness built into Islam, Madiha says. Each day, Muslims pray five five-minute prayers. Each prayer includes a prescribed set of paired words and physical actions (prostration), always recited in Arabic. Additionally, additional prayers have free-form or specified words of requests, conversation, and thanks in any language without physical actions (supplication). Learn more.

Muslims, Madiha shares, understand that Allah does not need anything from humankind, so nothing happens to Allah when she misses a daily prayer. Instead, if she goes without reading the Qur'an or supplicating for a while, she notices something is missing. This emphasizes the prayers' purposeful nature–they are there to help you slow down and express your needs, humility, and gratitude. There is even a special prayer in which you can ask for Allah's direct intervention and guidance when there is a critical decision to make.

We have mindfulness built into Islam. We pray five five-minute prayers which help you slow down and express your needs, humility, and gratitude.

Reflecting on what is most important, Madiha remarks on the centrality of Islam in her life. She finds Islam a way of life; in the Qur'an, a book written 1,400 years ago, you find everything you need to live. She speaks to the vital role of her family, including her husband, who, with his family, started Aisha Fatima Community. Madiha has surrounded herself with people who share the same faith and values.

Madiha desires to connect with her end purpose; to be the best Muslim and person she can be. Madiha is "reprioritizing life" and deciding what is most important. While unsure, she might scale back on career goals or projects if it means feeling better about who she is. Whatever form this takes, her goal is to create a life where she feels good about where she is heading.

Feel free to view this Islam, Christianity, and Judaism conversation video Madiha kindly shared.

NAMI KDK helps fill the mental health resource gap in Illinois's Kane-south, DeKalb, and Kendall counties. We provide free support groups, education, a resource guide, advocacy opportunities, and community presentations. We recruit staff and interns that look like and represent our community. NAMI KDK has support groups for those experiencing symptoms (Connections) and those who support those experiencing symptoms (Family and Loved Ones). We have Spanish-speaking Connection and Family support groups and programs and support groups specifically for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities.

You can learn more about our partner Interfaith America, who generously supports this project with a grant.

The views and opinions expressed in these conversations are those of the guests and host and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of NAMI KDK, Interfaith America, or any entities they represent or with which they are associated.

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