An animated woman's face is split in two parts.
In 2022, a study found that more than a third of UK Muslims say that fear of judgment stops them from seeking mental health support. Illustration for Hyphen by Marine Buffard

My time in a psychiatric ward made my religious father confront the reality of mental illness

With every visit, his preconceptions changed to empathy and acceptance

Bologna’s fireworks don’t look as spectacular when seen from the window of an ambulance. This New Year’s Eve, my mental health had reached a tipping point and, as the rest of the world celebrated the arrival of 2024, I was being transported to the nearest psych ward, my mother’s hand wrapped tightly around mine. My phone, shoelaces and belt had been taken from me by the nurses, but I could still think of ways to harm myself. Not even the mixture of benzos I was given helped me sleep, so I watched a group of ants scramble over some crumbs of food left on the floor of my hospital room, probably by a previous patient. 

I had never told my parents I struggled with OCD or depression, though I had for years and saw a psychotherapist in secret. Growing up in my Muslim Tunisian home in Italy, suffering from any form of mental illness was seen as a weakness and I had always feared that being open about my struggles would result in my independence being denied. The word “crazy” was often used to describe people with mental health problems, and in Tunisian Arabic there’s even a saying: “You forgot to take your meds”, used when you disagree with someone. 

I didn’t know where to begin to explain to my parents what a mental disorder is, let alone that it can be treated with psychotherapy or medications. After all, I had grown up hearing my father say that western medicine cannot be trusted. 

My first panic attack happened a week after I had surgery to remove an ovarian teratoma last November. The diagnosis had sparked my already-debilitating OCD, and I began to struggle with panic disorder, generalised anxiety and depression. 

It was a cold night at my parents’ house, and I was alone with my father. We’d always had a rocky relationship. I felt he was too religious and believed that he tried to make me feel guilty for not praying or wearing the hijab. I, on the other hand, fasted only during Ramadan and called him twice a year to say Eid Mubarak. But as I lay on the floor gasping for air, holding my father’s hand while waiting for an ambulance, I said for the first time: “I love you Dad,” as he recited the Qur’an and cried. 

Still, he insisted that what he was witnessing could not have been caused by my mind. Once we reached the hospital, he pushed for me to see a cardiologist instead of a mental health professional. He also distrusted doctors and believed strongly in the healing power of faith. At that time, there was no way of convincing him I was struggling mentally. I, too, understood very little of what was happening to me at the time. It felt like living in a nightmare I could never wake up from. I only knew I could not rely on my father’s advice this time. 

I recall him phoning his friends to ask whether they had heard of anything similar. He then began to believe that the medication I was taking post-surgery was the cause of my panic attack. He asked the imam of the nearby mosque to do a collective prayer for me on Fridays. Then he suggested reciting certain surahs from the Qur’an with some Zamzam water next to us, which he let me drink. At the time I felt this was detrimental to my mental health as I was not accessing the medical care I needed. 

While I understand that my father and the imam had only good intentions, Muslim communities must move faster to destigmatise mental illness. My experience is indicative of the challenges many Muslims face in accessing mental health care. In 2022, a study found that more than a third of Muslims in the UK say that fear of being judged is one of the biggest barriers to accessing support. I refused to let anyone who wasn’t my mother near me or speak to me, as she was more understanding of my experience. I could tell my father and brother were worried about me, but they largely left me alone. 

Weeks after my first panic attack, suicidal ideation developed in my mind, which led to my hospitalisation on New Year’s Eve. “I can’t take any more of this, my brain is on fire. Help me,” I said to my mother as I sobbed and begged to be taken to the emergency room immediately.

During the month and a half I spent in hospital, my father was forced to confront the reality of having a daughter in a psych ward. I witnessed how shocked he was at the fact that his daughter, who had earned two degrees, who explained geopolitics to him and translated online articles from English to Italian for him, could end up in such a place. 

But I watched with pride as, with every visit, his preconceptions of mental health changed from something insignificant to something worthy of empathy and acceptance. When he visited me he often stared at the floor with his head down, as if he felt guilty for not understanding what I had been going through earlier. 

One particular evening, a patient kept asking the nurses for playing cards. My father ran outside and returned with a deck of cards and some chocolates to share with the other patients. Francesca, a woman in her 40s, flirted with every man in the building, and she didn’t spare my father and brother. She had a laugh so loud and contagious that it often brightened my days. When I explained to my father that Francesca was flirting because she was in her manic phase of her bipolar disorder and that soon she would fall back into severe depression, I saw his smile disappear. He cried for a young man I befriended in the hospital who lived with agoraphobia and schizophrenia, and who had not left the building in more than six months. 

The more my father visited me, the closer we grew. In those moments I felt he would have done anything for me, and also for anyone suffering like me. Each visit ended with him warmly telling me: “Keep taking all your meds. May Allah heal you. Remember everything will be OK. I always pray for you.” 

Strangely, during those moments, his mentions of religion and prayer never bothered me, perhaps because I had realised that he finally understood the seriousness of what I was experiencing. I, in turn, was growing closer to Islam because I witnessed first-hand how it was aiding my father during my hospitalisation. Putting my trust in Allah helped me to trust the process, the doctors and the medications, and to realise that the nightmare would eventually end.

In the UK or Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted by phone on 116123, a free service. You can find other ways of contacting Samaritans here.

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