Is prayer a better way to deal with depression than treatment from a mental health professional?

Published: February 19, 2016

Faijul Hussian, 21 years old at a sufi shrine outskirts Lahore. PHOTO: Diego Ibarra Sánchez

I’d like you to take a moment to imagine two people. Both follow the same religious scripture, with equal regularity yet one interprets the passages as peaceful instructions on life, while the other sees them as commands to violently confront anyone who disagrees with certain worldviews.

The disparity is drastic. They read the same words, yet the comprehension is as different as a chalk or cheese.

When we speak of the religious extremism that plagues the world and its driving factors we rightly mention political unrest, education, socioeconomic backgrounds, violent text, the mullah culture, and more, but what we fail to talk about is mental health.

How do two people of similar backgrounds with similar personalities respond to these factors so differently? And why is a small, yet significant percentage of the human population more susceptible than the vast majority?

Does a mentally healthy person suddenly murder the man he was supposed to be guarding, as did Mumtaz Qadri when he shot Salman Taseer over religious grievances?

Were the students who studied at one of Karachi’s top universities and took part in terrorist activities, including the murder of activist Sabeen Mahmud, mentally sound?

Is the father who takes his family from a perfectly safe environment in a Western nation to murder, rape, and behead others for ISIS in Syria okay in the head?

When mass shooters are usually analysed in American media, they are labelled as mentally ill lone wolves. This much is true. An examination of their backgrounds usually reveals a history of red flags. But why is the mental state of religious extremists not considered a factor?

I am not saying the tube light doesn’t flash randomly in the darkness, acting as a beacon for the crazy moths, but why is it more intoxicating for some?

What I find curious is our belief that religion is a cure for mental health issues.

On the Facebook page ‘Question Updates’, someone with depression, anxiety, suicidal (or likely secretly homicidal thoughts), usually posts a query a week, asking how to resolve such deeply troubling feelings in an effective manner.

The answers from the masses usually include, “read the Holy Quran,” or “pray to Allah,” or “perform Salah”. Many even go as far as to badmouth mental health professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, and humanistic counsellors, with claims that religious scripture is the only answer.

I have nothing against reading religious text as a means of earning inner peace. But although religion can complement modern medicine, it can’t replace it.

Why is it that Pakistanis will always recommend consulting a doctor when it comes to visible ailments, but will scoff at the idea of a mental health professional when the malady concerns the mind or soul?

No one tells you to ignore the doctor and go pray if you have a cold, sore throat, flu, or viral infection, but when it comes to depression, the answers are suddenly found only in religious scripture.

If scripture was such a cure for mental health, then members of the Talibanal QaedaISIS, and Boko Haram, would be the well-adjusted folk on this planet.

Let’s put it another way.

Do we want a paranoid schizophrenic seeking answers from scripture or a mental health professional?

Writing a blog for Dawn, Doctor Arif Mahmood says,

“The most shamefully neglected health field in Pakistan, mental illness afflicts 10 – 16 per cent of the population; with a large majority of those affected being women.

According to the WHO, only 400 psychiatrists and five psychiatric hospitals exist within the entire country for a population exceeding 180 million. This roughly translates to an alarming psychiatrist-to-person ratio of 1 to half a million people.”

Let’s start taking mental health as seriously in this country as we do other hurts. Just because the wounds can’t be seen doesn’t mean the injuries don’t exist. If you are willing to see a doctor for that pain on your leg, then why not talk to a counsellor for the pain in your heart? It could be the best decision you ever made.

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Noman Ansari

Noman Ansari

The author is the editor-in-chief of IGN Pakistan, and has been reviewing films and writing opinion pieces for The Express Tribune as well as Dawn for five years. He tweets as @Pugnate (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Supriya Arcot

    … depends on the level of your desperation / agony .Recommend

  • Muhammed Usama Aziz

    I was half way reading the article and suddenly i though only Noman can write an article.. Looks like there are no more writers left with ET and every second article is written by himRecommend

  • ovais

    Noman stop being a preacher … there is nothing different b/w you and a maulvi. everyone has right to recommend someone to seek help from Allah. personally prayers has helped . believing in God helps alleviate many problems cause then you know the one with the absolute power is looking at you and He knows your problems. Let muslims have their beliefs . let us believe in Allahs help. and this post is about depression and inner peace which namaz does help. if it was about other medical issues, then one needs to go to a doctor and supplement it with prayers. No one asked not to go to doctor anyways they just recomended the person to supplement it by namaz and rememberance of Allah .Cause surely only Allah has the power to help us.Recommend

  • ovais

    And ET you would always love to take a jibe on islam , lasaaniat and sectarianism . thankyou for posting all these blogs when you could be posting some on corruption and incompetence.Recommend

  • abc

    I just read the topic, it immediately comes in mind “Another absurd piece like a previous one”. But i was wholly wrong, this is so well knitted both in thought and article. My personal experience is with my friend, whose father and mother both died in the same year. She was almost rejected by everyone. Ultimately, she attempted suicide. Thanks to Allah she is all right now. Being the closest to her, I always advised her to be patient, pray to Allah and take some substantial stand. She was such a religious person. But the depression is such a killing thing which almost paralyses a person even to think about solutions All the phrases like one should have a self-control, enough will power to bear the difficulties et cetera are should be followed. But you may lose someone out of these ambitious thoughts.Recommend

  • Parvez

    A good financial adviser will tell you never to keep all your eggs in one basket. So the same logic should hold good with a metal health patient….he should go to a medical professional and if he also says his prayers asking for Gods help, I see nothing wrong in that and if his grand mother says to break a raw egg on his head for three days……why not.Recommend

  • Subhan Ahmad

    It is sad that we look down upon our own people. “Mullah culture”, what is this?
    “Perfectly” safe western environment, really? I just read a tribune news where an ex-prayer leader was murdered.
    I really wish to have an intellectual debate with the respected writers of tribune. Unfortunately we do not get to have their emails.Recommend

  • hassan

    it works going to the consular, but believe me sometime prayers also give some relief, but at the end, its only the person him/her self who can get out of it….Recommend

  • Ahmad

    Dua for depression.

    Getting physical treatment is sunnah.Recommend

  • Keyboard Soldier

    Your alqueda, taliban argument proves that a highly religious person has higher tendency to go nuts.

    Reduced religiosity in any society has an overall sobering impact on the masses.

    The more pakistan dives deeper into wahhabism/deobandi ideology, the darker and sadder its people would become.Recommend

  • asma akhter

    A really good article. The worst thing regarding mental health issues in Pakistan is that if you talk about going to a psychiatrist or discuss your psychological issues with someone, you will be made fun of & called “mad” etc- That’s just so in humane !!!Recommend

  • Alamdar Raza

    Fine… We need medicine and medical care to survive all that… Those are termed waseelas, u don’t get anything by doing nothing… But there is not even 1 thing whose cure is not mentioned about in the Holy Quran… It’s just harder to be clean and tidy and pick up the Book and start reading it… Y do that when u can lie in bed and browse the Web about it, right ? Recommend

  • Arsha

    So what’s the cure for cancer as per Quran?Recommend

  • SAM

    And also shiaism,I think you missed this point.Recommend

  • tayyaba

    Actually we just need to understand the roots of being a Muslim . If you do act upon the teachings of Islam and offer your obligatory prayers and yes recite Quran and do zikar , you will definitely be staying much far away from these illnesses like depression and anxiety. This is just so simple and staright.Recommend

  • Linux Novice

    It actually depends upon the person. Religion is a type of psychiatric assistance to those who can’t stand on their own feet and take ownership of one’s own actions.Recommend

  • Linux Novice

    Sorry, I don’t give concessions, every one has to face the results of their actions.Recommend

  • Zahoorul Haq

    I have been living in the west for more than 25 years as a doctor and I can tell you the number of people with depression and suicide is significantly higher than in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia for example. Therefore your argument is absolutely wrong. I agree that if you are ill with depression, you must seek help from the experts but there is no doubt that having a faith gives you much more strength to fight negative thoughts. Unfortunately the so called “liberal” people in Pakistan are allergic to the religion and put every blame on the religion.Recommend

  • Arman Zain

    Noman !
    Being a scientist, I can argue depression rates in western society, latest literature on mediation and mental health, and Namaz and mediation.

    Please, understand religion from it’s script not its followers and then you will be able to really know why Namaz is so helpful in depression? Yes, it is not cure of Schizophrenia but for day to day stress it is huge remedy. Try it sometime!


  • Noman Ansari

    I believe ET publishes 35 blogs a week. I believe I write 2 of those 35. So uhh… read them.Recommend

  • Noman Ansari

    Sure, but a good financial adviser will ask you to put your money in sound investments before praying for their outcome.Recommend

  • Zain Ul Abadin

    Noman Ansari, i dont think that you have enough insight about the problem you are discussing, you, just like an average guy with good English wants to solve big problems by just writing an article about it with mainstream solution and joining the “club” of civilized people, but still. you don’t understand much about it. i can write a whole paragraph about it, but i would rather like to give an example, there is a plant with big leaves, and there is its root, if the root is strong, the leaves are going to withstand all the winds, they will be shaken by storms. but they will stand until its root is strong. but if the root is weakened, you try give it its nutrition from an outside source and keep the leaves from going dead. it takes it for some time, it goes dull again. the process goes on and on. till leaves cant stand the unnatural shit youve been giving it from outside. because it is not designed that way. so. there is only one way to strengthen its root again. its a slow process. but its the only REAL one. it is by the path of spirituality, your connection with Allah, and your understanding about your religion. which gives you your real purpose. which is the only cure of depression. and for your article. you have written some crap which doesn’t make sense. like saying namaz is bad in depression. its not. it actually gets your brain to work better.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Noman, I think that’s what I said (…..he should go to a medical professional ) …… I would not suggest that a person with a mental disorder rush off to the village shaman, to get cured……..but it would be remiss to discount the power of prayer.Recommend

  • Ali

    It is so saddening seeing people like you who have no idea what “mullah culture” is.
    And yes, western environments are MUCH SAFER compared to muslim countries.Recommend

  • Ali

    ET doesnt take “jibes” at Islam. Fundamentalist whiners like yourself think everything is blasphemyRecommend

  • maz3tt

    The more you get in the religion the more happy you become. it’s not your words against mine. search on google how people find peace and purpose.Recommend

  • salman

    “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel”
    I think that one hadith settles the argument :)Recommend

  • SamSal

    Maybe because he writes well and on point?
    So what if ET has only 1 writer – if the content makes sense, then read it. If not, move on. Not like anybody’s life depends on ET!Recommend

  • SamSal

    All those advocating finding cure in Quran and hadis… What should a non-muslim do?Recommend

  • IndianDude

    …Being a scientist, I can argue depression rates in western society, latest literature on mediation…

    Dear scientist, what is mediation?Recommend

  • asad

    The writer is gone nuts, it is one thing to seek professional healthcare and other to be spiritually healthy, unfortunately, medicine cannot help provide inner peace at all.
    Otherwise, we would all be on drugs for any sort of pleasure or happiness just like the West do.
    As for the Talibans view of Quran is concerned, again you have tried to incorporate a silly idea in a backward society to be attributed to all Muslims, just leave it for another article, would you ?Recommend

  • Arman Zain

    Thanks for figuring out the typo. My bad !!!Recommend

  • Rukhshan Meer

    Surely agree with you.Recommend

  • Rukhshan Meer

    Dear Noman I’m surely disagree with you, first of all salah is not just a physical activity but mental activity as well. Ask a psychologist and he will say spending good time with friends everyday is better than medication and believe me the time you spend offering salah is more happier and peaceful than being with friends.Recommend

  • Umaid Ali

    110% agreed With you Doctor Sahab.Recommend

  • A.J

    I don’t reed the whole thing except f.b post and ur opinion.
    two things I want to add for ur clarification
    1- religious things has it’s power if you believe , it’s only abt ur believe. if person doesn’t know abt any thing it doesn’t mean it’d not exist. Meta physics, quantum physics researches facilitate the power of these things. plus you can search Dr Emoto research on water, its abt how words can effect on water molecules and human beings has 90% of water consumption in their bodies so ‘words effect more then u can imagine’ ( dua, and Qur’anic ayat are also words, and it’s from Allah so now it’s been validate.) plus Allah said in Qur’aan translation: you can find peace only when you recall/remember Allah (Dilon ka sokoon Khuda ki yad me hai bss). plus when person feels he belongs to sm one he feels better. soul , aura … so many things connect to one pole. hope ypu get the ans. :)
    2- therapy is needed if it’s really a depression plus medicine. otherwise if person talk to some one who can understand him/her then it will help the ‘phase’ and he will cope with it. mostly people don’t understand and they alter terms> sadness into depression.Recommend