By Katy Lannas
It can affect anyone but it is not the same for everyone. It is not a choice or ‘just a phase’. It is not a flaw in character or a laughing matter. It is not something that should be allowed to continue to be shrouded in darkness and secrecy. It is mental health.
Often viewed by the general public as something one ought to be able to ‘snap out of’, mental illness has been increasingly eating away at a number of Zimbabweans over the past years, some past their breaking point. According to the World Health Rankings, in 2014, Zimbabwe had the 12th highest suicide rate in the world, with Zimbabweans becoming accustomed to referring to October as “Suicide Month”.
My struggle with bipolar actually began in high school, but in those days (back in the ‘’90s), it was not as readily diagnosed as it is now. My family doctor here in Harare kept saying there was nothing wrong with me and I must pull myself together. I consequently progressed through the rest of my teenage years and early twenties experiencing highs and lows, but telling myself I didn’t have depression. I did know that my dad had major mood swings and it was always there at the back of my mind that this might be hereditary.
A good school friend had to be hospitalised just after high school following a failed attempt on her life. Visiting her in her hospital room showed me what it was like to be put on medication for this invisible illness and it scared me. I told myself I would be fine and went off to university in South Africa and then Switzerland. I was not fine. The rocky period of 2008 in Zimbabwe was a trigger to set me off on manic phases and I became paranoid and overly hyped on the news coming from the home. Those around me noticed my erratic behaviour and found me difficult to handle. I tried to quell these emotions and turbulence by simply taking rescue remedies, but my moods were now soaring from extreme highs to devastating lows and I was suicidal more than once.
My breaking point was in Switzerland in 2010. I had embarked on an overly ambitious PhD and almost a year in, I had a breakdown. I asked where I could go to get medical help and I was admitted to a hospital. Ultimately, it was decided I should return home as I was not in a fit state to continue studying. My mum accompanied me on my return home where I was immediately admitted to another hospital. Whilst my psychiatrist in Zimbabwe was far more attentive to getting me on the right course of medication and monitored my progress more closely than in Switzerland, I found the nursing staff at the hospital I was in simply could not grasp what depression was. They kept asking me what was wrong with me, and seeing no physical ailment, could not understand why I was in the hospital. This was not helpful and I feel there is a great need for this to be remedied. There is still so much stigma around mental health.
I am doing a lot better now and am finally on medication that seems to keep me on a much more even keel. It has taken eight years to reach this point and it is still a journey. Medication has made me put on a lot of weight and even on it, I still have my bad days. I would love to see the taboo around mental illness tackled and for people to be able to seek help more freely and not feel ashamed. It is important as it could help prevent suicides and build a healthier society all around.
There are now more mental health facilities available in Harare and The Friendship Bench is a great option to help reach those who cannot afford to see a psychiatrist and therapist regularly. Other places where people can go for help are The First Step, Phoenix Lodge, Halfway House. Unquiet Minds, a private Facebook group allows fellow sufferers to offer each other support and encouragement.
Things that have helped me in my journey:
- Seeking medical help and taking my medication;
- Going for therapy or having friends that get you and hear you out without judgement;
- Finding others who also experience depression and sharing with them. I have started a private Facebook group Unquiet Minds;
- Journaling and blogging (a blog helps you tell people how you are feeling without forcing them to read it);
- Keeping mood charts or in touch with how I am feeling;
- Telling myself that my really bad days are chemical imbalances and they too shall pass. Remind yourself there are better days ahead. Not always easy though;
- Listening to feel good music, doing art or craft. Knitting is supposed to be good;
- Doing some form of cardiovascular exercise;
- Mindfulness, spirituality, meditation, grounding and breathing exercises;
- Getting up and getting out of the house;
- Getting enough sleep and having structure to your day;
- Having a pet (they understand you and love you no matter what).
Article by Katy Lannas
Images from Pixabay.