On the 23rd of March, Boris Johnson addressed the nation and implored us to “stay at home and save lives”. Life as we knew it was put on hold, with socialising banned and schools, businesses and non-essential shops closed in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Eight months on, and young people are still reeling from the UK’s first lockdown. Millennials, and in particular Generation Z, have been dubbed a “lost generation” – one that will feel the impact of the coronavirus pandemic long after its departure. According to the Office for National Statistics, 16 to 29-year-olds are more likely to report that the lockdown made their mental health worse, compared to their seniors.
This is perhaps even more true for young Muslims. Not only have BAME people been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, but countless teenagers and young adults forced to isolate with parents this year lost their external support systems. A recent report by British Muslims for Secular Democracy warned of a mental health crisis among young Muslims, stating that “lockdown has had a huge effect on young Muslims who are leading double lives and are feeling ‘suffocated’ at home”. The report concludes that there is a “crisis in the community, with some young Muslims unable and unwilling to access support for mental health”.
In my own family home, mental health has always been the elephant in the room. From around the age of five, I remember observing my father dipping in and out of sleep, weighed down by what I grew to understand as depression. When I entered my early teens, my sister began showing the same tendencies, and her battle with depression continued into her twenties.
Though my home has always been a loving and nurturing environment, like many households, we fall short when it comes to discussing mental health. Twenty-four-year-old Nia* moved back home this year, and also finds it hard to open up to her family about her feelings.
“I've had days where I don't feel like getting out of bed and sometimes, I can fight that feeling,” she says. “Mental health isn't really discussed at home, beyond ‘I'm so fed up with 2020'. Nobody is verbally checking in on each other, but I think we express our care and consideration in different ways.”
Nia is not alone in her struggle with mental health. According to a 2019 report by the UK charity Muslim Youth Helpline, 32 percent of 16 to 30-year-old British Muslims have had suicidal thoughts, and 52 percent have suffered from depression. During lockdown, calls to the helpline skyrocketed.
“That probably does tell you a lot about our community and the type of support they need,” says Maaria Mahmood, director of Muslim Youth Helpline. “We get young people who have never disclosed their struggles and once they do, they may never tell anyone again. Our community has suffered a lot and is still grieving.”
Mahmood tells me that the majority of their callers live at home. The appeal of the helpline is that the person on the other end has no personal connection to the caller, and so provides a safe space to discuss their struggles. Sami*, 22, also notes the role that friends and peers outside of the family home play in helping young Muslims to speak about their mental health. During lockdown, these networks were cut off for those living at home.
“Being Muslim is so often about community, especially for the younger generation,” Sami says. “The pandemic has had a sharp impact on us as we haven't been able to be with our friends and organically developed communities.”
Hana*, 25, moved back in with her dad over lockdown. She found it hard to speak about her mental health, so ended up internalising some of her feelings.
“This was the first time that I had lived with my dad, one-on-one,” she says. “During lockdown, I was dealing with severe panic attacks. With COVID and the paranoid hysteria that was being published online, being confined to a small space with just my dad seemed nothing short of daunting. It was an all-time low.”
In other homes, however, the trauma of the pandemic has prompted people like 27-year-old Naz* to speak honestly about her struggles with family members.
“It was hard being locked in with my parents and having to spend countless days with each other,” Naz says. “I suffer from anxiety with interim phases of depression, however, the worst phase has been during lockdown. It was a combination of uncertainty and grief-triggered anxiety.”
Naz and her family lost several loved ones to coronavirus. While she found lockdown hard, the shared grief prompted the family to begin a dialogue about mental health. She has subsequently returned to therapy.
The taboo surrounding mental health may remain in some Muslim homes, but the lockdown can also be an opportunity to talk openly about grief, depression and anxiety. As my experience and that of Sami, Hana, Nia and Naz shows, these conversations have to begin at home.
*Names have been changed.
The Muslim Youth Helpline is open every day between 4PM and 10PM. Call 0808 808 2008 or visit www.myh.org.uk.