Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. It is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting (abstaining from food and water from sunrise to sunset), increasing in good charitable actions, engaging in more worship, and building a closer relationship with God, self, family and the wider community.
As Muslims engage in this month, they rearrange their everyday routine. Muslims living in countries where there is a limited understanding of this month and, in some cases, no tolerance (sitting in the ongoing anti-muslim racism (Carr, 2014)) for this month. These can make the month unnecessarily difficult for Muslims as no considerations are made across all spheres- education, workspaces, healthcare etc. There is an added expectation to function at the usual capacity and for some to perform at an even higher capacity as their abilities are unfairly scrutinised. So it is natural that some Muslims experience this month as highly challenging to their mental health.
To address some of these mental health concerns. I have provided some tips that can help you better manage your mental health during the month of Ramadan.
What can I do to look after my mental health?:
Set manageable and flexible Ramadan goals:
Begin by setting goals that are based on your current lived reality. Often, people set expectations that do not consider the realities of what is going on for them in their family, at work, and how they feel in their own bodies. They set these lofty goals and immediately struggle to meet their expectations. They then start experiencing shame, guilt, anxiety, sadness etc., that they have not been able to live up to the standard they set for themselves. So, do a review, check where you are and use that to tweak your Ramadan goals. Allow for further flexibility. There are some days when you can do more than that goal but setting an attainable goal sets you up better for those days.
Engage in reflective practices:
Engaging in a meaningful reflective practice like journaling encourages you to remain curious about the emotions coming up for you and how you are experiencing Ramadan. It can provide you with a space to reflect on your various acts of worship and take stock of your mental health. You can pay specific attention to the negative self-talk that you may be engaging in that is inducing shame, guilt etc., that is getting in the way of the worship. You can also reflect on your various interactions and better understand their impact on you. The purpose of the reflective practice is to encourage you to continue to look after your mental health and well-being as you engage in the month of Ramadan.
Intentionally move your body:
This month can be tough on the body, either from disrupted sleep, change in eating habits, infrequent medication use, or more extended periods of prayer. It can be tasking on the body, and moving your body intentionally and meaningfully can be useful to you. This requires you to be mindful and tailor the movement accordingly. Light exercises such as stretches and short walks might be appropriate movements for you during this month.
Relationships and their management:
For various reasons, we may experience relationship difficulties with family members, colleagues, or the broader community. Awareness of the relationships that negatively impact you can be the key to setting the most crucial relationship boundaries. When I speak of setting boundaries, I speak specifically of the various areas of yourself that you are unwilling to share with that person. Ramadan can be a more socially active month, and as such, it might mean being confronted with other family traditions and cultural practices. However, some of these practices might have been useful at some point but are now more harmful than helpful.E.g.:
With friends and family, it might be negotiating the boundary of them not commenting on your weight or food at iftar time.
With in-laws, you might have a boundary of not sharing your financial state, and this is something that you find ways to navigate the conversation in such a way that you are not disclosing things that do not feel comfortable for that Relationship. Being able to negotiate your boundaries in these conversations and spaces can be one of the ways you look after your mental health. (Find out more bout setting boundaries)
Like any other month, when there is ongoing abuse in the relationship, this relationship remains unsafe, and attempting to set boundaries can be more harmful. You can seek specialised support from Women’s Aid, a 24h national freephone that offers confidential support to women in Ireland (www.womensaid.ie). Amal Women also support Muslim women and women in connection to the Muslim community nationwide (www.amalwomenirl.com).
Seek meaningful support:
Though Ramadan can be an incredibly joyous month, for some, this might not be a joyous moment in their lives. It can be isolating if you are away from all your loved ones or a new practising Muslim. Some might struggle with eating disorders, domestic abuse, substance abuse, grief, etc. If you are struggling, please contact trusted friends, family members, or trusted community leaders. If you could benefit from extra support, I have listed some below.
If you can afford a therapist, you can book a session and start engaging in therapy to help make further sense of these difficulties. If you find that your therapist cannot consider the Islamic and cultural realities even after several prompts. Feel free to ask for a referral or terminate the session altogether and find a new therapist. Therapy is beneficial; just because your initial therapist got it wrong doesn't stop it from being useful.
The Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland can be an added resource as they can signpost your various supports. www.islamireland.ie/
Your G.P. can also be a first point of contact; they can support your referral to state-funded mental health support.
Pieta Hous also provides psychotherapy, call and text support for those experiencing suicidal ideations and self-harm. Their services are free of charge. https://www.pieta.ie
50808 is a free, anonymous, 24/7 messaging service providing everything from a calming chat to immediate support. Text ‘HELLO’ to 50808 to get connected. 50808 - Text About It
In the case of an emergency, please present to your local emergency service or call 911
The realities of your current mental health difficulties:
While Ramadan has been reported to decrease the symptoms of anxiety and depression in some (Gilavand, & Fatahiasl, 2018), it has also been reported to exacerbate the symptoms of other mental health conditions (Heun, 2018). In addition, Ramadan has a significant influence on sleep, eating behaviours, and social and religious interactions. These factors have enormous relevance to our mental health and ongoing difficulties.
Pay particular attention to known triggers such as lack of sleep, and socialising, etc. use the knowledge of this trigger plan accordingly. For example, if eating in social settings is a huge trigger for you, devise a plan with your therapist that considers the realities of Iftar. Alternatively, if sleep is your trigger, consider skipping the Taraweeh prayers in the mosque and substituting them with shorter ones at home or only attending Taraweeh on weekends when you will be guaranteed extra sleep.
This is important; if fasting is causing you any harm or putting you at a more significant risk for any reason, then your religious obligation is not to fast. Ramadan is not limited to the act of fasting. There are other spiritual practices you can engage in and still make the most of the month of Ramadan.
If you have a Muslim loved one, a Muslim coworker, a neighbour, or an employee, and you are wondering how best to support them. I have also included some tips:
How to support Muslim Loved ones
Avoid asking questions like, “why are you not fasting”: There are several reasons why a Muslim may not be fasting, such as if they are pregnant, breastfeeding, ill, menstruation, travelling etc. Some of these reasons can be incredibly personal and might put people in a place where they feel like they have to disclose something they are not quite ready to share. To still get a sense of where they are, you can instead ask questions like “how is this month going for you” and “is there anything that I can do to offer you extra support with this month?”
Make meaningful considerations for them this month: Depending on where they are spiritually, mentally etc., they might need different things from you over the month. Please continuously discuss those needs, as it continuously changes as the month progresses. Demonstrate a willingness to support by offering flexible work options, scheduling meetings while taking fasting into consideration,
Eid is essential: unless your employee or colleague specifically asked not to take the day off, please make the necessary arrangements to support them in taking the day off. They have engaged in 30 days of worship, and Eid day is a way of being around others who have also accomplished that feat to celebrate together. Making taking a day off as simple as possible goes a long way in supporting them.