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Faith adds another layer of complexity to debate over mental health and violence

By Hanna Rahman –

In response to the influx of mass shootings and gun violence by citizens and authorities alike, recent events and political discussions have increased the focus on mental illnesses. However, the complexity of the issue often results in incomplete discussions about the development and management of that mental illness. According to experts, a mental health condition isn’t the result of one event, though typical media coverage of those who act out violently focuses around a “breaking point.” Research suggests that multiple, interlinking causes such as genetics, environment and lifestyle combine to influence whether someone develops a mental health condition. It’s not as uncommon as some may think, and the way people think about mental illness can have a significant effect on how it impacts them. Religion, ethnicity, culture and family can all play a role in whether or not mental illness is recognized and managed.

New research suggests that what you actually think about your illness matters just as much, if not more, in determining your health outcome. In a recent issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, authors found that people’s perceptions of their illness bear a direct relationship to several important health outcomes, including their level of functioning and ability. In fact, some research also suggests that how a person views his or her illness may play a bigger role in determining health outcomes compared to the actual severity of the disease.

Furthermore, culture and religion play a great role in diagnosing mental illness and seeking treatment. With the significant growth of the Muslim population all over the world, there exists a corresponding increase in the need for mental health services that suit this unique group of patients.

In a recent study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found that many Muslims hesitate to seek help from mental health professionals in Western countries due to the differences in their beliefs and the helping professionals’ lack of understanding about Islamic values, which is reflected in their treatment modalities.

Consequently, Muslims refer to the Qur’an to seek help for personal problems. Islam encourages people to stay hopeful and patient. In many cases, Muslims are told to face any adversity with positive thoughts and to follow the way of the Prophet. While faith is considered a positive factor in treatment of illness, experts in the field suggest that this is not necessarily enough to cope with a mental illness.

The diagnosis of a mental disorder is sometimes used to establish a quick explanation of actions. For instance, the U.S. media attempted to diagnose shooter Adam Lanza with schizophrenia in the days following the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. “Was Adam Lanza an undiagnosed schizophrenic?” asked Psychology Today.

Similar themes have permeated through recent events. His defense attorney portrayed James Holmes, who opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, as a man with a “broken brain.” They argued that Holmes suffered from schizophrenia and depression, which made it difficult to express his feelings. In addition, media diagnosed Craig Stephen Hicks, who killed three Muslim students in North Carolina, as a man who suffered from anxiety disorder and was unfit to be in social settings. Many outlets overlooked his Facebook page banner that read, “Of course I want religion to go away.”

Some experts suggest that focusing on mental illness as a trigger for violence, and not a symptom of larger, ongoing issues, may be the difference between a solution and an excuse.

However, debate surrounds the diagnosis of mental disorder as a provable disease. A diagnosis of mental disorder often is dependent solely upon the psychiatrist’s opinion defining the disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Many psychiatrists suggest that a person diagnosed with one mental disorder can see another psychiatrist and receive a completely different diagnosis. “There are no objective tests in psychiatry – no X-ray, laboratory, or exam finding that says definitively that someone does or does not have a mental disorder. There is no definition of a mental disorder,” said Allen Frances, psychiatrist and former DSM-IV task force chairman.

One in five adults will experience a mental health condition every year, which may include schizophrenia, anxiety disorder and depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a mental illness is a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis.

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