Muslim-American Mental Health Advocate Melody Moezzi is Putting Up a Fierce Fight ( Interview by Linea Johnson)

In 2013, I was attending a conference by the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance in Miami to receive their Life Unlimited Award for my work in mental health as an advocate and author. I had been in the advocacy world for about six years, and the book I’d co-written with my mother about my struggle with bipolar and her struggle to help me had been out for a year at that point. In other words, I was feeling pretty confident in my abilities as an advocate at that point, but of course, I knew I still had much to learn. But after years of speaking, I was struggling to find female advocates that were my age and on the circuit in the same way I was. Though I was constantly speaking to large audiences, a part of me felt alone in my advocacy. And then I met Melody Moezzi.

From the first moment I spoke to Melody, I was instantly dazzled by her energy and wit--she was who I wanted to be when I grew up. Later, I heard Melody speak as the keynote, and her grace and humor blew the audience away. For a talk about bipolar and mental illness, I have rarely heard so much laughter.

Perhaps Melody’s greatest appeal is that she’s not afraid to say what she thinks, whether it makes people uncomfortable or not. I left the conference astounded, eager to keep following the career of this incredible woman. In the coming months I watched from across the country as she went on a speaking tour, hula-hooping her way around the country as an advocate, and eventually publishing her second book, a powerful memoir on her bipolar disorder.

In addition to her advocacy, Melody is an acclaimed attorney and activist, and the award-winning author of Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life and War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims--notable not only for its poignant, funny and moving writing, but because it’s also one of the only mental-health memoirs written by a Muslim American. Diagnosed with bipolar at 29 after years of misdiagnosis, Melody now speaks out about how traumatizing our mental health system can be, the criminalization of mental illness, and the importance of trauma-informed and culturally competent care:

When did you know you wanted to advocate for mental health?

Honestly, I never had a choice. I’ve always been an activist. Human rights have always been my thing. Whether it was about ending environmental devastation and the execution of activists in Nigeria, or combating Islamophobia or sexism or ableism or sanism or racism or homophobia or whatever—I see it all as being part of the same single fight against injustice. And personally, I see that fight as a duty and a privilege. That’s the real meaning of “jihad,” by the way. Despite popular misperception, it means “struggle,” not “holy war,” as it’s so commonly and unfortunately mistranslated. [So] as a Muslim, I see all of my activism as a direct expression of jihad; I see all of these struggles as inextricably interconnected. I don’t fight for the rights of people with mental health conditions as much as I fight for the rights of people. As an Iranian-American Muslim feminist living with bipolar disorder, I can either fight for my humanity to be recognized or I can accept second-class citizenship. And no way in hell am I about to accept second-class citizenship!

What is one thing you have learned as an advocate that you think other advocates should know?

Words have power.

What specifically in the mental health world are you most interested in talking about right now?

The criminalization of mental illness. In the U.S., our largest mental health facilities are jails and prisons. I’m incredibly lucky that I’ve never been incarcerated, because I live in a society that has effectively criminalized mental illness. I’ve experienced inhumane treatment, which happens to a lot of us living with psychiatric conditions and disabilities in general, whether it’s in a mental health facility or a school or a prison. In the hospital I was held in isolation, which is basically just a nice way of saying solitary confinement. The U.S. uses isolation more than any other country on the planet—both as treatment and as punishment—despite the fact that study after study proves that solitary confinement is not only ineffective, but actually counterproductive. It can induce symptoms of mental illness in people who don’t already have it. I’m interested in talking about ending the criminalization of mental illness—which, it’s worth noting, is deeply related to the criminalization of blackness and brownness in this country—and as part of that, in ending the use of solitary confinement in all settings.

What’s the hardest part about being an advocate?

Fear and anxiety. I’ve received death threats and rape threats for some of the things I’ve written, and you’d think that’s what I’m most afraid and anxious about, but it’s not. I’m most afraid and anxious about being ineffective, either because I’m too late to speak up or because I don’t speak up loudly enough in the face of injustice. I try really hard to work more from a place of love than anger whenever possible. It’s not easy, but I know from experience that love is the most powerful weapon in any activist’s arsenal. Anger can carry you only so far before it becomes toxic. More than anything, justice requires love.

Have you ever been scared or worried to be part of a cause with so much stigma?

Only every fucking day. But I do it anyway. There’s too much at stake not to.

What advice do you have for others looking to become advocates?

Start at home. You don’t need to travel thousands of miles away to make a difference. You can start in your own community—and that’s where you’ll often be the most effective. Because you know best how your own community works and doesn’t.

Do you have any specific advice for female advocates in particular?

People will chronically underestimate you. Let that be your fuel.

What makes this cause important to you?

The same thing that makes all of my causes important to me: justice. People with disabilities—psychiatric, intellectual or otherwise—are people, and we deserve the same basic human rights as anyone else. We are capable, and it’s worth noting [that] in some cases, [we are] extra capable. Because our minds work differently, we are able to see and approach the world differently, and to me, that’s always been way more of an asset than a liability.