Managing Mental Health Amid a Pandemic with Berak Hussain

“I’m not a big advocate for this productivity thing that is causing a lot of stress in people to get things done…for those who are up for it absolutely but for those who are struggling, be kind to yourself and compassionate, and don’t push yourself too hard especially when it comes to spirituality.”

“I’m not a big advocate for this productivity thing that is causing a lot of stress in people to get things done…for those who are up for it absolutely but for those who are struggling, be kind to yourself and compassionate, and don’t push yourself too hard especially when it comes to spirituality.”

On this week’s TMV Podcast, Chief Editor Salim Kassam spoke to mental health expert Berak Hussain, the Muslim Counsellor, to talk about what the COVID-19 pandemic means for our mental health.

To listen to the full podcast, click below:

TMV also spoke to Berak and asked some of the most pressing questions on our minds today, and how we can ensure we are staying mentally and spiritually healthy during these unprecedented times. Here is our separate conversation with her:

TMV: Coronavirus seems to have taken over our lives – physically, mentally, and even spiritually. I pray you are in good health and spirits, can you tell us how you’ve personally been coping with all of this? 

Berak: Bismillah, thank you for having me. Alhamdulillah, I have been doing well given the circumstances. I am blessed that I am still continuing with my employment. I am working full time at home – we moved all of our services virtually. So our counseling is now virtual…so alhamdulillah work-wise I am very busy.

Unfortunately, many people have been laid off or been asked not to work…so I can appreciate how that can be challenging for other people…I’ve been very blessed to be continuing my work. In terms of my spirituality, its obviously a bit challenging to work from home, especially when there’s a family. So finding the time to balance that is very important, so when you’re done with work you should leave work, even though it’s from home. I’ve been able to do that so alhamdulillah.

And like I said, overall just following the guidelines of what we’ve been asked to do within our city – with the physical distancing and only going out as needed for groceries and even then taking the precautions so just being very mindful and being aware that this is definitely a different place that we’re in right now. We’ll see over the next weeks how things will go over.

TMV: I know for a lot of us this has all been really stressful, and perhaps a lot of us aren’t remembering to take care of our mental health. What are some signs that we may be having mental stress?

Berak: Stress, in general, can be something different for each person, so people experiencing stress could potentially show signs such as overeating, undereating, oversleeping, undersleeping, becoming agitated…they could have physical responses within their body as well, whether it’s having stomach issues or headaches, or muscle tensions.

There could be emotional signs as well, so becoming more frustrated, more sensitive, and more angry are all mental symptoms. There are also symptoms like a loss of concentration and focus, bad dreams, and things like that. Behavior habits come out as well, for example like we mentioned with eating habits, sleeping habits, nail-biting, smoking, loss of appetite, or other nervous habits.

As the situation progresses and we’re stressed in terms of finances and in terms of being at home with families and things like that, we tend to forget to take care of our mental health and to watch for these signs so it’s really important to be aware of how we respond to stress to begin with. Think of how you normally respond and how you’re responding now, because it could be different so it’s really important to pay attention to the physical cues as well as the mental and the behavioral cues.

TMV: What are some basic (and realistic) steps we can take to ensure we’re staying healthy mentally? 

Berak: This again goes back to understanding stress and responding to it, so we can reverse the effects of that. I always focus on eating well, sleeping well, exercise, and having healthy relationships and spirituality.

So what we want to do when it comes to mental well-being is to make sure that all of these aspects are in full balance in our lives. So making sure especially during this time – and it’s so tempting to eat all sorts of things and go overboard with our eating and sleeping these days because some of us are not working or have different work schedules – that even though we are going through this time of change, and unprecedented change, we still try to stick to our routines as much as we can to not have a huge shock to our system.

We are already dealing with so much shock to being with through this pandemic – it’s a lot to take in – so we want to try to bring our basics back to basics, to bring everything back to a functional level of eating well, sleeping well, exercise, and having good relations with friends and family and keeping up with our spiritual activities that give us the motivation and energy to deal with these difficult situations. If this all becomes too much, of course, please do reach out to a mental health specialist. Counselors and therapists are all online, and there are a lot of resources now – you can also access free counseling as well but if it’s a specific counselor you really want to get in touch with, make sure you contact them and you can always work out a deal in terms of cost.

TMV: And how do we ensure we’re still spiritually connected despite being in isolation? Do you have any personal tips or words of advice to help those struggling with faith? 

Berak: So it is very difficult right now, we’ve missed out on a lot of big events, celebrations, and our regular programs within our centers in our mosques. It becomes really sad, especially heading into Ramadan and we may feel disconnected because of this isolation…but we definitely can do this at home.

It’s as simple as turning on our TVs or having the regular duas that we have throughout the week…we can have somebody in the house recite them, and get the kids involved in reciting them at home. This is something that I grew up with in my household, where my dad got my brothers to get into the practice of reciting the adhan. My aunt who was with us for a while really loved that, and so she now incorporates this into her house routine where her sons take turns throughout the day at home reciting the adhan. So this is something that is really beautiful.

But even if you don’t have somebody reciting it, just having it on at home can help bring you towards that call to God and that call to reflection and supplication. I know people who traveled to Muslim countries and when they come back they notice the difference when they don’t hear the adhan, so this is something we can cultivate within our homes in our inner routines.

Having the recommended duas within our homes is important – even if there are people in the house who are not a part of that or don’t like that, they can definitely hear it on their own or from our phones in our rooms – so that’s one way of ensuring that we are still hearing duas and creating a routine. We also have the opportunity to read books on spirituality and listen to lectures online – there are so many resources and lectures and books that we can access online – even getting to that pile of books that have been collecting lots of dust over the last few months and years in our homes. Writing, journaling, reflecting, drawing, artwork – I think these are really great ways of connecting spiritually.

I recall when I was younger I would listen to my favorite nasheed or latmiyah or Quran reciters and I would listen to those late into the night while I would draw, water-paint, write poetry, or sketch – I found that was so spiritually uplifting and healing for me, and this is definitely something I would like do to more often. I give this as a personal tip for people who are struggling with this right now, and that is to continue doing what you normally do to stay connected – with everything that is available online right now there is so much out there and we can see this as an opportunity to connect.

I’m not a big advocate for this productivity thing that is causing a lot of stress in people to get things done…for those who are up for it absolutely but for those who are struggling, be kind to yourself and compassionate, and don’t push yourself too hard especially when it comes to spirituality. Take it one day at a time, set some goals out for yourself that you would like to accomplish, be gentle with yourself as you get through it because it can be quite challenging.

TMV: Ramadan is coming up – how do you see this Ramadan being different? 

Berak: Definitely this Ramadan will be different in the sense that we cannot go to our centers like we usually do – whether it’s engaging in salah together or whether it’s engaging and preparing iftars and having gatherings in our homes…it’s going to be very different for us and I can see that the world is reflecting on that and trying to figure out how it is going to be for us this year.

But this doesn’t mean that we don’t have these things – we can still do these things in the comforts of our homes in our rooms – obviously not going to each other’s homes but we can still have beautiful, spiritual iftars with our families and really being moderate with our food. Also if we are going to be cooking a lot to share that with the different families who are in need or just within our communities and dropping it off.

I know in my home country of Iraq it’s a custom where people would cook and give out plates of food to their neighbors and family, whether they are in need or not. Perhaps we can now cultivate this tradition here – to really get the food out to those people who are in need. It’s really important to connect with the community heads to see who is in charge to help coordinate these types of actions and how we can get the resources out to the people who are most in need. I think we can definitely reframe and reflect on redirecting our energies during Ramadan to helping others and in turn when we do that, we feel good about what we’re doing so this can go a long way when we do this in an organized manner within our community.

We can also look at how we can create this feeling at home as well. Something in my own household growing up, we would as a family recite duas after each iftar and it was such a beautiful thing – now it’s ingrained in us and I find this a really beautiful ritual to continue.

There are also so many other things, of course, that different centers are doing whether it’s virtual lectures or modules online, so we can definitely be in tune and connect with that during Ramadan. I’m working with a lot of people in community organizations as well developing programs for the month of Ramadan for people to engage in spiritually and intellectually, so there is a lot happening. It will definitely be different this year but it doesn’t mean we can’t engage in different ways.

TMV: Finally, as we all try to navigate this new reality, how can we ensure those around us are also staying mentally healthy? Any advice on how to help each other out while being physically isolated from each other? 

Berak: We definitely should be aware and be looking out for our friends and family within the home, but also be aware outside by calling and connecting and asking people if they need help. If you’re going grocery shopping you can get things for them, especially for the elderly, that’s one way in terms of physical needs.

But mentally, too, it’s so important to stay in touch – with “hi, how are you?”, “salamu alaykum”, “is there anything I can get for you?” – get into the conversation, and observe people inside your home with their behavior whether it’s the eating or sleeping habits. I know that’s all off track right now, so just observing these things if it’s more so in an unhealthy, toxic way. It’s really important to be aware of this and if there’s an issue of domestic violence at home.

There’s a concern right now in the rise of domestic violence happening because a lot of people who would be away from that – whether it was being out of the home or at work/school – are now forced to be with their partners or family members who are inflicting this abuse. So it’s really important to reach out and get the support. There is a lot on social media in terms of messaging where they have code wording to help people so they can do a check-up on them or even call the police if necessary. It’s really important to be aware of these things and this is a topic that needs to be more discussed at length.

In overall terms of how to help each other while being physically isolated from each other, we can still speak to our neighbors while observing physical distancing, we can still give food to each other – this is something that my daughter and I are doing with our neighbors whenever we bake our favorite treats we send them over to our neighbors and they absolutely love that. Sharing love is not hard, we just have to reframe and redirect how we’ve done it before in innovative ways. Now is the time to think about different ways of reaching out to loved ones and be creative in terms of how we take care of ourselves and how we help take care of other people whether its spiritually, mentally, or physically.

We have seen so much goodness come out of this pandemic, seeing a beautiful side of humanity who loves and cares. Restaurants that have been shut down have been turning their businesses around in terms of using it for good and sharing their food – you’ve seen this in Australia, in the UK, and we’ve seen it here in Canada as well so alhamdulillah. We’ve also seen the ugly side of humanity – the good have gotten better and the bad have gotten worse and that’s okay, because there’s always that balance. Inshallah this brings out more of the goodness of humanity.

TMV: Thank you as always!

To listen to Berak’s separate podcast with TMV’s Chief Editor Salim Kassam for a more in-depth look at the wider implications of COVID-19 and mental health, click below!



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