The 21 Day Mental Health Challenge, Day 6: Dad’s anger fed my brother’s mental illness (Guest post from Mombasa, Kenya)

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I have a 30 year old brother who is often overcome by fits of rage when he is angry. There’s this time, when we were younger, he got so enraged with my other brother that he almost slashed his neck (yeah that bad!). Abbas is a grown man but his anger isn’t a grown-up problem. I’m convinced that the seed of anger was planted much earlier.

When Mum was pregnant with Abbas, Dad was a terror! He used to shout at Mum and angrily remark that the unborn baby was not his! (….plus lots of stuff which i would rather forget).

There’s a time, when Abbas was in Standard 5 or 6,  one of my sisters dared to disobey my Dad. She went against his rule of not to taking part in a popular inter-school theatrical arts competition. According to Dad, it was immoral for Muslim girls to ‘parade’ themselves in public. She went participated in the competition anyway….without Dad’s permission.

Dad hit the roof. He issued a divorce to Mum on a piece of paper. His logic was that she was to blame because she supposedly was unable to control ‘her’ daughter. Mum shredded the divorce note. She did not leave but she stayed in absolute terror, always hiding behind closed doors when Dad got back home from work.

“Are you still here?” he would shout in contempt, addressing my panic-stricken mother as if she was a ghost suspended in air. He tirade against my mother continued, often dragging Abbas, the alleged bastard child, into it. My brother, 10 or 11 years, was witness to all this abuse. All he could do was watch.

During the divorce fiasco, Mum went up and down trying to seek a resolution to this domestic nightmare . She went to our local mosque to plead with the Maalim to intervene on her behalf. Maalim came home to try to reason with Dad but all Dad said he was that he had had a dream where he saw all his children lined up excluding Abbas. “The dream is enough to prove,”he adamantly insisted, “that Abbas is not my child.” Maalim told Dad that dreams can be interpreted differently, but Dad wasn’t having any of it. Maalim lectured Dad on the parent-child relationship, citing the story of Noah’s son who went against his father’s guidance and perished in the end. Each human, child included, is responsible for their own actions.

“In short,”Maalim said, “you cannot punish a parent for a child’s faults. You cannot blame your daughter’s faults on your wife.” Only then did Dad calm down…

When I went to university, I took a child psychology course and I learned that the unborn child hears (e.g dad shouting) and feels the mum’s psychological state. So therefore Abbas must have already been psychology disturbed before he was born! Many years later, I tried to tell Abbas that he needed counseling to deal with his anger issues but he brushed the suggestion off, saying that he was ok. Sadly, people are not even aware that they have mental health issues and so they will never get the help that they need.

How you bring up a child (the first 5 years of his/her life) will determine his/her mental health in the future. Mistreating a child-, ignoring, shouting, hitting, making decisions for him/her- all these things have an impact on children.

Anger is a mental health issue. Personality disorder is a mental health issue. Self esteem, loneliness, OCD are all mental health issues and in my opinion, they all have roots in childhood. A few mental health issues are random and related to particular environmental issues or genetics. Some women suffer from disorders after giving birth. Some suffer disorders during their menses (lots of anger and depression),others suffer during menopause. Some mental health issues are related to the burden of responsibility at home or at work. Others are brought on by drug abuse. Of course, there are other related to the spirit world (sihr/magic). Food can also mentally affect us and can affect the unborn baby too.

All these are factors that play into our mental health. These are my own personal experiences and therefore, my opinions, of mental illness.

Guest post by Rehema, from Mombasa, Kenya.



21 Day Mental Health Challenge, Day 5: What to say (and what not to say) to someone who is depressed

Have you ever found yourself in situations where you want to support someone who is depressed but you just don’t know how to do it?

I know I do. Sometimes I get scared of saying anything wrong, so I don’t say anything (painfully awkward) or I get so desperate to make the problem go away that I end up saying the wrong things which makes the person feel worse.

Depression is different from sadness* (as a good friend of mine recently pointed out to me), so blaming the depressed person for lacking willpower, the attitude,or for not being spiritual enough only serves to make him/her feel more guilty or ashamed for being depressed.

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So what should we say to someone who is depressed?

I asked this question on a Facebook group whose focus is on mental wellness and these were some of the responses that I got:

-That sucks! Is there anything I can do to help?

-I’m here for you

-You are not your depression

-Can I hug you?

-I love you

Some answers came from people who suffer from depression and they pointed out that sometimes the doing is even more important than the saying:

“My best friend invites me to coffee at a coffee shop. It gets me up and showered and out of the house. I’ve lived with depression for so long now I don’t need words of encouragement, I need someone to show me they care. I have another friend who calls and ask me if I want to take our dogs for a walk. It’s those little things that mean so much to me.”

“Honestly, I need someone to remind me to take my meds. I’m SO much better with them but when I’m struggling, I find that I forget (which is when I need them most).”

“Bring me flowers, bring me food, take a movie over and watch it with me, ask me to do things even if I say no. It’s hard to take care of yourself when you live with depression and nice when someone lends a hand.”

“How about connecting?… talk to me about connecting with my inner being and with others… OR just connect with me.. don’t necessarily say anything. Just be and feel the connection and in feeling that togetherness, there’s a feeling of oneness… no words are necessary.”

Here are some of the things that you should NOT say:

-Just get over it

-Smile even f you don’t feel like it

-It’s all in your head

-Suck it up

-Think about all you have to be thankful for (makes them guilty for being depressed) 

-Just pull yourself up

-Anything related to ‘just do it’, for example, go to the gym, eat better, change your lifestyle. You can gently suggest but do not prescribe. 


*Sadness is a normal human emotion. We’ve all experienced it and we all will again. Sadness is usually triggered by a difficult, hurtful, challenging, or disappointing event, experience, or situation. In other words, we tend to feel sad about something. This also means that when that something changes, when our emotional hurt fades, when we’ve adjusted or gotten over the loss or disappointment, our sadness remits.

Depression is an abnormal emotional state, a mental illness that affects our thinking, emotions, perceptions, and behaviors in pervasive and chronic ways. When we’re depressed we feel sad about everything. Depression does not necessarily require a difficult event or situation, a loss, or a change of circumstance as a trigger. In fact, it often occurs in the absence of any such triggers. People’s lives on paper might be totally fine—they would even admit this is true—and yet they still feel horrible. (Psychology Today)


Are there any other things that you think are helpful in supporting someone with depression? If you are depressed, what does support look like to you?

The 21 Day Mental Health Challenge, Day 4: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single act of honesty

When you are in a thick cloud of depression, it’s hard to see hope.

What do you do when you are overcome by feelings of intense sadness and pain? How can you claw yourself out of a labyrinth of emotions that seem to just circle in around themselves? What can you do to feel more yourself?

Depression is messy and scary and the only way I’ve managed to find my own way out is by being honest: first with myself, then with others around me.

In an Instagram world where everyone seemingly has their sh** together, it’s easy to think that your struggle is yours alone. It’s easy to think that perfection is real when in fact, it’s just a mirage in the desert of our social landscape. No one has their sh** together, not even those whose instagram profiles may profess otherwise. We all struggle with one thing or another and the sooner we can let go of the idolisation of perfection, the sooner we can accept and love our imperfections. Real joy lies in being honest about our struggles and in embracing our beautiful mess.

I hope you are having a nice day but if you are not, reach out to someone you trust to share your pain with. There are mental health professionals who can help you cope with mental health issues and depending on where you live around the world, one may be just a phone call away. Finally, there are valuable resources online that help support mental health and wellness. In the UK, the NHS has a dedicated website that deals with all things mental health.

The point is, you don’t have to go at it alone. Forgive the cliche but it is true: a problem shared is a problem halved.

“He told me about his monster. His sounded just like mine without quite so much mascara. When people shine a little light on their monster, we find out how similar most of our monsters are.”
― Anne LamottBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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21 Day Mental Health Challenge Day 3: Is the solution actually part of the problem?

The popular clinical model for psychiatric illnesses in many developed countries is institutionalization. For years its been thought that is the gold standard to treatment: isolating patients in special ‘homes’ and medicating them in order to fix whatever biological imbalances they present. Maybe we are wrong.
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One day a few years back, I listened to a podcast episode that changed the way I thought of mental illnesses. The episode begins with a narration of a man’s quest to fix his bathroom plumbing and gently superimposes his journey-the journey to finding a solution-onto the standard mental illness model in the US. Lulu, the show’s host, argues that our obsession with ‘fixing’ problems, is actually part of the problem.  We give labels to people who have been diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses, burdening them with apparent fragility and low societal expectations. She offers instead, an alternative thousands of miles away from the US in Geel, Belgium.
Geel is a city that is home to hundreds of psychiatric patients although in this city, they called ‘boarders’ instead. The locals of Geel have opened their homes to mentally ill people from all over the world and treat their guests as any other lodging would.
“Do you find it a burden to live with someone with a mental illness?” the shows asks numerous Geel hosts.
“No” they all answer back at various points of the research, “It’s just normal life.”
Normal life. 
Unless you are new to the city, no one blinks an eyelid when people talk to themselves out loud or when they walk from side to side in a zig zag manner.
The podcast is fascinating.
Towards the end of the show, the podcast host interviews a woman who attempted to recreate the Geel model in New York city, starting a housing community of residents hosting mentally ill boarders. It was a success, to some degree. A resident host, Tony, had had a string of boarders in her home who went on to get successfully treated.  All, that is, except the one person whom she loved the most-her son. Apparently, the more you care about a mentally ill person, the more you set them up for failure. Tony’s son had more relapse episodes living with his mother than he had anywhere else. This is precisely the paradox of fixing the mental illness issue: if you care too much and you try to hard, you are making the problem worse.
Crazy as it sounds, sometimes the best way to fix the problem is to actually focusing on it less. For families dealing with mental illness, this means being more careful about expressing our own emotions towards our loved ones with mental illnesses. They don’t need to hear our frustration about them or instructions on how to ‘be better’. What they need is for us to treat them with compassion and empathy no matter where they are on their mental health journey.
Couldn’t we all use less fixing and more acceptance?

The 21-day Mental Health Challenge, Day 2: Is being stressed part of mental health?

Yesterday I woke up at 5.30am ready to tackle the day, my mental health checklist in hand. As per the pre-scheduled arrangement, I did yoga, read the Quran, read and had a cup of tea. All was good and zen until the children opened their eyes at 7am.

After that, everything went zig zag. By 8am, I had already refereed a verbal argument between two little humans and shouted after them to pick up their toys. By 9am, I was deep in an internal argument with myself while washing dishes (what will give me greater peace: a clean cups and plates or a lie down on the sofa?) By 11am, I closed my eyes for a quick second only to wake up half an hour later in a panic over being late to a party that we were due to attend.

My husband-ever the zen-master-looked over at me as I was getting dressed and casually remarked that I looked stressed.

It wasn’t even midday but Day 2 was already a failure, or so I thought.

While talking to a good friend of mine (a medical doctor) about yesterday’s ‘failure’, she reminded me that being aware of  these stressful feelings is half the battle against mental illness. Self-awareness is important because it helps us understand who were are and why we behave the way we do. The more self-aware we are, the better masters of our emotions we become. Instead of feeling helpless in the face of stress, we can take control and respond to it in a healthy and productive way.


The 21 Day Mental Health Challenge, Day 1: Children and Grandmothers


I wanted to start my first challenge day with some research on positive psychology-the field of psychology involved in studying happiness-so I went straight to the experts on this subject: my own children. Below is an excerpt of my interview with them.

What makes you happy?

Sakina: Movie night, ice-cream, crisps, and chocolate.

Muhammad: Chocolate, ice-cream, a rainbow, the Queen, and castles.

What are some of the things that you do that make you happy?

Sakina: Hugging, and kissing you.

Muhammad: Squishing your tummy.

What things make you sad?

Sakina: Time-outs.

Muhammad: Time-outs.

How do you cheer yourself up?

Sakina: I play on your bed.

Muhammad: I give hugs, I wipe my tears.

What can people say to you to make you stop crying?

Muhammad: ‘I love you.’

Earlier today while walking, I listened to a fascinating TED talk on how grandmothers are at the frontlines on the fight against depression in Africa. Dixon Chibanda- a psychiatrist based in Zimbabwe-created a program called the Friendship Bench after finding that a large population of the country did not have access to mental health services. Because there are very few psychiatrists in the country, he decided to train grandmothers as informal mental health workers in their communities. The grandmothers did not provide formal psychiatric diagnosis but rather, they provided emotional support through evidence-based interventions and guidance. They use indigenous terms to identify mental health problems and provide culturally-relevant solutions that focus on eliminating shame and stigma and thus empowering patients with hope.

Have a listen to the full TED talk here: here


I did some exercises while watching two World Cup matches, each lasting about 10 minutes. They weren’t intense but they did raise my heart rate. I also drank my quote of water, wrote my in my gratitude journal and wrote tomorrow’s top 3 goals in my bullet journal. Now I’m off to bed with a book. I’m reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.

I feel pretty good about today.



A missing child; a lesson in gratitude


At 7.20am today, my 5 year old daughter went missing.

I was still in bed waiting for 7.30 to make its mark on the clock: the exact time every weekday morning when I wake the kids up to get ready for school. Anwar, my husband, who had woken up earlier to get ready for work, went into their room at 7.20am to see them before he left.

“Good morning, Muhammad! Asalaam aleikum.”

Our 3 year old gave him a mumbled response of acknowledgement.

“Good morning, Sakina! Asalaam aleikum,” Anwar chirped enthusiastically to our daughter.


“Sakina, Sakina, where are you?”

Another echo of silence.

I heard the shake of duvet covers and a rustle of slight movements across the bedroom floor. The bathroom door opened and closed. I sat up in bed, concerned.

Anwar came into our room. His face looked all of a sudden tired, a sharp contrast to his upbeat mood from just a few minutes ago. I looked into his eyes and heard the question that I had just asked myself: “Where is Sakina?”

Worried, I shot out of bed and ran into the children’s bedroom. I lifted the rumpled duvet cover off Sakina’s bed. Nothing was underneath. I did the same for Muhammad’s bed. Still nothing. Anwar and I looked at each other again, confused by the alteration of events in our otherwise normal and ordinary daily schedule. We both ran downstairs, checking the nooks and crannies of our sitting room, then our dining room, then our kitchen, then our store room. I opened the front door. It was cold and dark; not the kind of environment that my princesss-y daughter would venture out into, but I  called out her name anyway.  There was still no Sakina.

By now, my entire body was trembling and my heart was beating so hard, I had to let out a loud breath of air just to calm myself down. I looked over to Anwar as we stood at the foot of the stairs and I could tell that he was about to be sick. We ran back upstairs to check again.

A thunderbolt of instinct suddenly hit me. I walked to the shower room and peeked behind the door.

“HAHAHAHAHAHAAHA” we heard the familiar peals of laughter coming from behind the door. “I tricked you!”

At 7.30 am, we found our daughter.

Anwar and I collapsed into a relieved heap beside the laundry. We hugged and scolded Sakina simultaneously, making her cry from confusion. She was not expecting this kind of end to her game. We were not expecting this kind of morning.

As we picked ourselves up and resumed with our normal schedule, I realised what a blessing ‘ordinary’ is. In an instance, everything can change and what once once ‘boring’ will seem priceless. I was reminded of this couple who lost their son to meningitis recently. In less than 24 hours, their 5 year old son went from being a vibrant boy to a corpse.  He was taken ill one evening and by morning, he was dead. I cannot even begin to imagine the magnitude of grief that family is going through and what they would give to have ‘ordinary’ back into their life again.

We may be creatures of exploration and new discoveries, always going after the glitter of new experiences, but our ordinary, un-glamorous, every day lives are what give life meaning. Look around at the mundane and give gratitude for them; those things that you see everyday that sometimes becomes invisible are the very things that you will one day miss.