25 June 2011

Gathering puts focus on bipolar illness in Muslim community

"One in five people are affected by some form of mental illness.

That was the message conveyed by Saba Malik at a facilitated public discussion on bipolar illness held at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre on May 19.

Ms. Malik, a Montreal-based teacher, blogger, life-coach and author, was diagnosed with bipolar illness three years ago.

During her presentation, she spoke candidly about her illness and its impact before she was officially diagnosed.
"Highly educated and well-meaning people [said] that God was punishing me for something I had done, that I had weak character, I was a victim of someone's evil eye, and that I was possessed by evil spirits," stated Ms. Malik.

Because of her unusual behaviour as a result of her illness, rumours spread that she was a liar, impious, and dangerous. The disease took a toll on Ms. Malik’s personal life. She got married, but her husband did not understand what she was going through and divorced her after just three weeks of marriage. Hurtful gossip spread within the community, some of it suggesting that she had been divorced because she was barren.

Ms. Malik said she was in full denial for the first two years of her illness and only got the help she needed after consulting a sympathetic imam who advised her to see a doctor.  She is now leading an active life and helping others in similar circumstances.

With professional help, she has risen above her illness and now spends her energy hosting an online mental health blog (www.morningwind.org) which seeks to offer a "support system for Muslims with mental illnesses like depression, bipolar [disorder], and schizophrenia."

"You can choose to be a victim or a victor," she said, "... You can see only what is directly in front of you or you see the sunshine and dig your way out."

Ms. Malik outlined some of the strategies she used to move forward, including: living a healthy lifestyle, daily prayer, living for God, and cultivating a sense of sacredness in her life.

Also present at the event was Bassam Elghawaby of Ottawa who was diagnosed with bipolar illness 13 years ago. Reflecting on his illness and experiences, Mr. Elghawaby, a poet, read his poem, Waiting for Tomorrow.

He explained that the poem was about "seizing your potential and striving to achieve your personal best in all of your goals.... There is also reflection on sin, mistakes, or misplaced time, the consequences that has on the present, and the complete reliance on Allah for His Mercy and offers of renewal."

Dr. Helen Ward of the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group also spoke at the event. Together with the center's Chief of Social Work, Karen Poole, they discussed in some detail the various treatment options available for those diagnosed with bipolar illness. Dr. Ward's special interests include schizophrenia, mental disorder and violence, and medical leadership.

The event was part three in a series addressing mental health issues. The first session, held on Nov. 6, 2010, was entitled "Counselling: It’s okay to ask for help." Session two, held on Feb. 5, 2011, was on "Coping with Depression: Treatment and Prevention."

The Peace of Mind series was conceived by Chelby Marie Daigle and Farhat Rehman, two Muslim women whose lives have been affected by mental illness. The goal of the series is to challenge the stigma associated with mental illness among Muslims as well as educate members of Ottawa’s Muslim communities about mental health issues."

Written by Yahya Abdul Rahman    

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