Several months ago, I stood in the Emmanuel College basement waiting for my 3:15 pm appointment. I watched patiently for the doors of the Muslim chaplaincy office to open for my scheduled 45-minute counselling session, my second one this month. I had visited the chaplaincy before and I was pretty sure Ustadh Amjad Tarsin — the Muslim Chaplain at the time — was tired of seeing me and dealing with my tantrums.
However, as soon as the clock struck 15 minutes past the hour, Amjad familiar face, graced with the same bright smile as always, popped out from behind the door and called for me to come in.
I immediately felt safer than I had just minutes ago when I was standing alone with my thoughts.
My second year had been rough, just like it is for every other life sciences kid who takes HMB265 — Human Biology and BCH210 — Biochemistry at the same time. But, this year, the feeling of inadequacy was particularly inescapable. Circumstances in my personal life, coupled with the crippling pressure of surviving the academic year, were taking a toll on me like never before.
It felt like there was no foreseeable light at the end of my tunnel and, for the first time in my life, I began questioning the value of my very existence.
Gone were the days when my biggest worry was finding the right hijab to match my outfit for the day. Now, I found myself lying in bed every night thinking about what would happen if I didn’t wake up the next morning. It was an emotional shift I wasn’t ready to acknowledge and, in an effort to minimize the amount of space I was taking up, I began to shut myself out from the people that really cared about me. I was rapidly losing touch with my friends, family, and, most importantly, my faith.
My mental health also began impacting my involvement in the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), which was — and still is — arguably the biggest part of my life besides academics. I have been an active member, volunteer, and director for the past year and a half, but my relationship with the community had become strained as I have moved further away from a place of mental and spiritual stability. I wasn’t allowing myself to be vulnerable to anyone or anything, and that included my faith.
I contacted the Muslim chaplaincy as a last-ditch effort to pull myself out of the emotional black hole that was my life. I scheduled my first ever counselling session with Amjad, who I had only met once or twice before at a few MSA events.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and at one point I regretted not going to the Health & Wellness Centre just like everyone else. Little did I know that the chaplaincy would soon become integral to my mental health and religious life on campus.
After countless meetings with Amjad, which usually started with me in tears and ended with me leaving a little more hopeful every time, I began to see myself turn back into the person I was before. It sounds cliché, but it felt like the sun had come out after months of endless rain — even though it was mid-February and the sun was actually nowhere to be seen.
Amjad and the chaplaincy had done for me what I could never have expected a regular counsellor to do, and that was taking into account my faith and religious background as factors that were conducive to my mental and spiritual health. For the first time, I felt like I was being heard and presented with solutions that I could actually use to take care of myself.
My mental health has always been deeply rooted in my faith and sense of community. I experienced some of my biggest downfalls in life when my faith was weak or when I had lost touch with those around me.
I am lucky that I get to serve my community through the work I do in the MSA, but in reality, the MSA has done a lot more for me than I have done for it.
I came across the Muslim chaplaincy through the MSA and had the opportunity to meet people like our past chaplain, Amjad, and our current chaplain, Imam Yasin Dwyer, who have both changed my life for the better.
It is essential for organizations like these to receive adequate support from the university and its constituents in order to provide their much-needed on-campus services and programming.
The MSA and Muslim chaplaincy continue to play a huge role in my life, and I am sure I speak for many when I say that they both strive to provide a safe space for students who are trying to navigate their faith and mental health in this large, secular, and often overwhelming campus.
Muntaka Ahmed is a third-year Health and Disease and Immunology student at St. Michael’s College. Muntaka is the Vice-President, Finance of the Muslim Students’ Association.