Deacon Ian Punnett –
Is there a stigma in Islam that discourages the proper treatment of mental illness? The Journal of Muslim Mental Health believes that too often “Mental illness may also be perceived as a test or punishment from God” (Volume 7, Issue 1: Stigma, 2012). The results from lack of treatment can be devastating.
Richard White, 62, a deeply religious Jehovah’s Witness, a non-mainstream Christian sect with extreme views on “the End Times,” was killed while attacking a TSA checkpoint in the New Orleans airport earlier this year. Using wasp spray and a machete, White attempted to hack several TSA agents before being brought down with three bullets. White was neutralized before he could activate the bag of homemade gasoline bombs he had with him.
Neither law enforcement nor the media ever referred to him as a domestic terrorist or a religious extremist. He died in the hospital, refusing blood transfusions according to Jehovah’s Witness tradition. His family cooperated with investigators. His sister explained that White was on medication for paranoid schizophrenia but because of budget cutbacks, could not get any more help from his VA hospital. Further investigation labeled White a mentally ill “loner.”
On July 16, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, 24, a successful, college-educated computer engineer, shot and killed four Marines and a Navy seaman at U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station. He had been suffering from clinical depression for years, but friends say that he was well-liked, never bullied, and he was a great athlete. He liked beer and football, but the alcohol was becoming more a problem, his family thought. He had been sent to relatives in the Middle East, his family said, because they hoped that by getting in touch with his roots, he could ease out of his depression and stop drinking. After returning from a seven-month visit to Jordan, he joined the family in weekly worship at the local mosque, but as evidenced by an arrest for DUI in April, his self-medicated depression had not abated. Obviously, a long vacation was not enough.
His family also cooperated with investigators. Within hours of Abdulazeez’ attack, however, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee Bill Killian said, “We are treating this as an act of domestic terrorism.” Further investigation labeled Abdulazeez an ISIS-inspired “lone wolf.”
Maybe The Journal of Muslim Mental Health is wrong when it says that Muslim families may resist formal treatment for mental illness because it “may also be perceived as a test or punishment from God,” but it’s interesting to note that in his last blog before the shooting rampage, Abdulazeez wrote, “This life is that test designed to separate the inhabitants of Paradise from the inhabitants of Hellfire.”
In the aftermath of tragedies involving religious persons, could the simple difference between a “loner” and a “lone wolf” be the mental health paper trail that discourages law enforcement from focusing on a religious connection to the attack and encourages instead a focus on the mental condition of the attacker?