When Mental Illness Is Mistaken for Demonic Possession
When Nadia was 18, her parents took her to a Muslim faith healer who claimed to be able to exorcize her depression.
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
Throughout her adolescence in Saudi Arabia, Nadia* struggled to find joy in life.
"As time went on, I felt like I couldn't hold myself together," Nadia said. "It feels like my life is wasted, because society doesn't think that I have value, there is so much pressure to be something you are not here."
Around her 18th birthday, her angst turned into full blown depression. She often felt worthless, suffered from anxiety and at times could barely get out of bed. Nadia knew she needed help and turned to her parents for support. Uneducated about mental illness and extremely superstitious, her parents took her to a religious (also known as faith or traditional) healer to perform an exorcism on her. They believed that she was possessed.
Nadia explained her symptoms to the religious healer who affirmed her parents' fears and claimed that evil spirits entered her because of her lack of faith.
"He made me drink something strange, recited the Quran and then choked me with two of his fingers until I passed out," Nadia said. "When I woke up he convinced my parents that I was definitely possessed, because if I wasn't, I would have never passed out—even though I had marks on my throat." Her parents thought that the healer laying hands on her was part of the ritual.
Read more: How Islamophobia Hurts Muslim Women the Most
After the exorcism, the religious healer claimed she needed ten more similar sessions to take the demons out. Nadia refused and told her parents that she would kill herself if they ever tried to brought her back to the healer. She described the session as "hell."
"So, here I am, ten years later and still apparently 'possessed,'" Nadia laughed. "I had to learn to try to get through the days on my own."
Whether it's shamans from Ecuador to Russia or Christian religious leaders from the US, various regions and religions across the globe use faith healers. Religious healers may have little to no psychology or medical related background, and earn their living by performing religious rituals and healing people from supernatural issues such as possession. According to one Stanford University researcher, "The concept and practice of exorcism crosses cultural and historical boundaries."
Muslim communities in the Middle East use faith healers, too: According to the Pew Research Center, approximately half of the population in Iraq (47 percent), Egypt (44 percent), the United Arab Emirates (45 percent) and Jordan (42 percent) use traditional Islamic healers. "Popular beliefs in Middle Eastern cultures," states a report in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, "have traditionally viewed mental illness as a punishment from God, the result of possession by evil spirits (Jinn), the effects of the 'evil eye' or the effects of evil in objects that are transferred into the individual."
Abdul Majeed Ali Hasan, an imam in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs for the UAE government, stated in an interview that the majority of "possession" cases are in fact psychological illness "wrongly assumed to be possession." He also revealed that people's superstition often causes them to think they themselves are possessed.
"Many people who come for a [spiritual] treatment do not have any illness or possession, but their sickness is mere imagination, due to watching horror movies and reading novels, which propagate possession," Hasan said.
The lack of awareness around mental health issues in Muslim communities prompted clinical psychologist Dr. Nafisa Sekandari to co-found a mental health resource and awareness center online.
I don't think it's necessary to separate religion from treatment; I believe in using whatever connection people have to aid in treatment.
"We believe education is key and that is the main reason we started our website: Mentalhealth4muslims.com," Dr. Sekandari said. "Many [religious healers] prey on those with limited understanding and take advantage of them [people] financially."
Dr. Sekandari is based in the US, where she has also seen people's confusion with mental illness and possession get in the way of treatment. She said that people often focus on trying to get evil spirits out instead of working on the real issues that lie within. In order to support her patients that have a strong focus on the supernatural, she strives to educate Muslims that the Quran does not only include supernatural possession, but it also teaches about mental illness. She then offers a "multimodal approach" where people can get the psychological support they need and still incorporate Islam as part of their treatment.
"I don't think it's necessary to separate religion from treatment; I believe in using whatever connection people have to aid in treatment," Dr. Sekandari said. "For some it's prayer, so prayer can be used in addition to more traditional treatments such as medication and therapy. I have had the most success when I meet my patients where they are instead of expecting them to change completely who they are."
While educating individuals is necessary for proper treatment, Dr Sekandari says that in order for this harmful confusion between mental illness and possession to stop, imams (Muslim religious leaders) must be educated. Religious leaders often lead and set the tone for Muslim communities, which includes religious healers, so Dr. Sekandari and her colleagues at Mentalhealth4muslims.com are currently training imams about mental health and are giving them tools to communicate the information effectively to their congregation.
Nadia became aware that she was struggling with depression because of such resources that she discovered. However, she is not able to process or work through issues with a doctor or anyone in her Saudi community because of the stigmatism around mental illness. The only time she feels able to share about her depression is with her international friends—where she doesn't feel judged.
"All of my friends from abroad talk about mental health issues as though it is something normal," Nadia said. "But in my culture, it's not normal...it's crazy."
Nadia met these friends at her international workplace. At times, even getting to work can be excruciating because of her depression. After suffering from depression for 10 years, Nadia has endured a long and "dark" struggle where it can be extremely difficult to get out of bed. On her most difficult days, she feels like she is "falling apart" but has been unable to find a counsellor that will "stop spiritualizing everything." Instead, she sees her international friends as her "'support group.'"
"They need to separate religion from psychology, especially for us women, who suffer from depression because of our shitty circumstances, or we cannot—and will not—get help," Nadia sad. "Society also needs to be rid of this of shame toward mental illness and stop saying that people are weak or not perfect believers, or possessed! Spirituality is important but it doesn't mean that you deny what is really going on because it will only get worse."
* Name has been changed