Asiya N. Shaheed, chief empowerment coach and founder of J.E.S.S.I.C.A. Cares, answers her phone with enthusiasm. She is passionate about mental health and wellness in the Muslim community, and communicates to Muslim women about the need for mental health care.
“Mental health is essential for all of our everyday lives,” she said. “Being aware of our mental status helps us cope better with the stresses of life.”
The topic of mental health in the Muslim community isn’t something foreign to Shaheed. She has spent the past 20 years as a life coach.
“I started J.E.S.S.I.C.A. Cares back in 2010 and became Muslim in 2014,” she said. “That is what enhanced the program itself: the coaching, our outreach.”
The acronym for J.E.S.S.I.C.A. Cares stands for Journey to becoming an Extraordinarily Strong, Successful Individual with Courageous Aspirations. Shaheed named the foundation after her non-Arabic name, Jessica.
After she took her Shahadah — a Muslim declaration of faith — Shaheed took on the Arabic name Asiya, which means “the one who tends to the weak and heals them.”
“I wanted to create something that empowered girls and women,” Shaheed said.
“Many Muslim women in America will go years without seeking mental help, mostly because it is rarely discussed in households and in the larger community,” she said.
Faswillah Nattabi, 20, said her family never discussed mental health while she was growing up.
“I was 17 when I began to experience psychosomatic symptoms,” she said. “I had no idea what was wrong with me and the doctors couldn’t find any biological causes. I was OK to them, but I didn’t feel like it.”
A lack of information about mental health left her feeling adrift, so she began to research her symptoms herself.
“I discovered the direct link between mental and physical health,” she said. “I discovered that my symptoms were related to a traumatic event I had experienced years ago that I had decided to keep quiet about. All the muscle pain, headaches, panic attacks, and stomach problems were my body was telling me that I needed help.”
Unfortunately, prior negative experiences with mental health professionals left her cautious when seeking help.
“Until then, I had seen about two therapists and school counselors but had very bad experiences and thus avoided any therapy,” she said.
One societal misconception about Muslim women is that they are oppressed and Islam prohibits them the freedom over their mind, body, and soul. However, the Quran states that faith is a personal journey and an individual is allowed to find their own path in life.
“I think this is the case in many religions but as Muslims, most of us are taught to pray it away,” Hanifah Jones, 23, said. “It can be hard to have transparent conversations about mental health when people think a simple prayer or making Wudu — purification before prayer — will just wash it away.”
Assumptions about faith can make people reticent to talk about their mental health, Jones said.
“It’s especially hurtful when people assume that mental health problems stem from being ungrateful to your Lord,” she said. “However, I do think things are getting better and Muslims around the world are having these tough conversations.”
A lack of conversation around mental health can also leave those struggling invisible to their family members and community, Shaheed said.
“A lot of parents aren’t aware that their Muslim daughters are suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions,” she said.
When talking about her own mental health, Shaheed’s voice changed, dropping almost a full octave as she discussed her own personal struggles.
“As a young girl and even into my adulthood, I struggled with low self esteem and low sense of self worth,” Shaheed said.
Jones feels other women in the Muslim community would benefit from talking more openly about mental health.
“Mental health is important because we owe it to ourselves to maintain our mental psyche,” she said. “It’s important to do the work to take care of your body and mind in all aspects.”
Many of the Muslim women interviewed said talking about one’s mind and emotions are an important part of overall well-being.
“The biggest thing in taking care of your mental stability is listening to your emotions,” Fatimah Ahmed, 18, said. “Be honest about how you feel in the current moment.”
“During these uncertain times, it’s easy to feel less motivated or stressed,” she said. “Going for nature walks, eating healthy, and enjoying times with loved ones are some of the physical therapy practices I do.”
Amira J., 14, was diagnosed with schizophrenia two years ago at the age of 12 and requires professional help. She is using a pseudonym and requested anonymity due to her age and privacy concerns.
“Mental health instability is a chemical imbalance in the brain,” she said. “With physical illnesses we are able to see them. However with mental illness it is not as visible.”
She sees a therapist regularly and manages her symptoms with medication. While taking care of one’s own needs is an important part of emotional and mental well-being, seeking professional help is often necessary and not something people should feel ashamed about, she said.
“You still need professional help,” Amira said. “Whether you need help with emotional management, clinical depression, bi-polar disorder, or schizophrenia, it all matters.”
Amira said seeking mental health care is no different from seeking medical attention for an injury.
“For instance, if your leg is broken you get a cast,” she said. “You are in pain and you see a doctor. Mental illness, you are still in pain but the pain is in your heart, emotions, and mind.”
More than 1 in 5 women in the United States experience a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, and/or bipolar disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
“For many women, a history of not talking about mental health has left them unsure of where to turn when they do need help,” Shaheed says.
This is why she created a resource for both Muslim and non-Muslim women.
“My job is to empower young women to love themselves and to care for their minds and bodies,” Shaheed said. “We do self-care retreats with our girls; book clubs, and we travel.”
Though COVID-19 has slowed her in-person work, Shaheed has found ways to keep connecting with women digitally.
“Due to the pandemic, our program is all virtual but we have become global,” Shaheed said. “In one of our webinars, we had a woman joining in from Dubai!”
For young women like Amira, more people talking about therapy in the Muslim community means changing the support structures people have access to and lessening the stigma.
“The idea that most people have about therapy is that it is for people who are mentally insane,” Amira said. “The more people in our community that know about mental health the easier it will be for their loved ones to get the care they need.”
If you, a family member, a friend or someone just in need is suffering from a mental illness and is in need, please call the Philadelphia Crisis Line 215-685-6440.
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