Uncategorized

Black Mental Health Matters:

Two black women surrounded by space and stars

For a moment in time, we have stopped talking about COVID-19, and focused on humanity, and the current discourse is about how none of us should be silent about racism. There is a call for us all to be anti-racist. As people of colour, if you do not speak up, you are agreeing with racism. As white people, you are colluding with racists by not speaking up.

I am a believer in justice and standing up for the disenfranchised, because I know what it is like to not have your voice heard. Without systemic justice, though, nothing will be fixed. Within a system that is just, individuals all have access to all opportunities. And no one is discriminated against for individual characteristics such as race or gender or socioeconomic status. Or, mental health.

Historically, mental health has been developed by white males, and still today, the majority of the field is still white, so where does that leave the unique challenges of suffering with a mental illness as a person of colour. A lot of research has gone into the diagnosis of mental illness and the development of the diagnostic tools. And these are reviewed to ensure that our definitions are relevant to the context within which we live. However, we are still using diagnostic tools, which are predominantly developed with a Euro-centric, Western understanding of human behaviour.

As an example, there is still an underdiagnosis of girls with ADHD because the symptoms were initially based on boys, and hyperactivity may look different for a girl, which is why many women are only diagnosed with ADHD in mid to late adulthood. The same goes for Autism. And because women are socialized differently in society, women on the Autism spectrum, are able to hide their symptoms, because there is a societal expectation to fit in, and behave in a certain way to be regarded as a woman in this society.

There is also an underrepresentation of men with mental illness, because there is still the stigma of mental illness being an indication of weakness. Men are not readily willing to admit that they are suffering, and also willing to seek help, for fear of not “manning up”, or appearing weak. Boys are taught that they are not to ask for help, or cry.

What about the cultural meaning of “hearing voices”, such as when the ancestors are speaking? Or when you are called to be a sangoma? There are a number of beliefs within the African, South American or Asian cultures, which can be explained away as a symptom of a mental illness. So how do we differentiate between cultural understanding and mental illness symptoms?

Aside from the stigma of mental illness, there is the stigma of seeking help for mental illness, and seeing a psychologist for a “white” disease. As a person of colour your family might not understand or agree with you struggling with a mental illness, and you might be judged, or ostracized for seeking help for a mental illness. And being that many causes of mental illness relate to family dynamics and triggers as a result of lack of family support, this presents quite the predicament.

And finally, access to mental health practitioners. The majority of psychologists are white, and the majority of therapy is conducted in English, and Afrikaans. When searching for a psychologist, you may want to see someone who fits the same demographic as you do, or speaks the same language as you. How difficult must it be to undergo therapy to uncover deep-seated emotional and identity issues in a second, or third, language?

 Also, the socioeconomic barrier for people of colour in having access to the mental healthcare professionals that they may need. A number of studies have been conducted on the inequality of healthcare systems, and mental health care is a privileged form of care, which further creates a barrier between the races and socioeconomic classes. Healthcare systems in South Africa have been shown to be unequally distributed within the country.

It’s also important to consider the fact that certain behaviours are prevalent amongst the impoverished, and when impacted by mental illness, they are not subtyped as being afflicted by mental illness, but are viewed as criminals or deviants. Because of unconscious bias in regards to race, there are certain characteristics attributed to certain races, like violence, which have the potential to result in misdiagnoses, or underdiagnosis. As an example, being lazy is attributed to being black, but one of the key symptoms in ADHD or depression is reduced productivity. This will be missed as a diagnosis, if it is assumed that the person is inherently lazy.

When considering mental wellness within the context of race (or gender, or sexuality), we need to acknowledge further layers of challenge, and stigma associated as a result. And ultimately the fact that anyone with mental illness, regardless of demographic wants to be heard and cared for, and understood.

Sources:

Counselling Psychology in South Africa by Jason Bantjies, Ashraf Kagee, and Charles Young

HPSCA Report of the Working Group on Promulgation of Regulations

Synergi Collaborative Centre briefing paper on priorities to address ethnic inequalities in severe mental illness

mental wellness · Uncategorized

Mental health in the time of Corona

The global pandemic has us all a little fearful, and paranoid, and stressed and anxious. And as someone for whom this is a daily experience, I thought I would share some ideas for maintaining mental health during these very uncertain times. Partly from my own experience, and partly from the advice from my psychologist:

  1. Routine routine routine

It may sound boring, but one of the best things that has worked for me, has been maintaining a routine, albeit very different from my pre-global pandemic life. During these uncertain times, there is not much that we can control, but how we structure our days is something we can (relatively) control. Having that structure lessens my anxiety because I know what is coming. There is a lot to be said for having a plan. And look, it doesn’t always look the same, but if we have this plan, and try and stick to it, it gives us one less bit of uncertainty in our lives. And a small semblance of peace.

2. Yoga/Meditation/Mindfulness

Our minds are overwhelmed with work, the Corona statistics, home schooling, staying fit and healthy, but also wanting to eat everything in sight (which is rarely a carrot stick), concerns about the health of our family, the general paranoia of not being able to touch anything before you’ve washed your hands and sterilized.

Spending some mindful time doing yoga or meditation will do wonders for your mental health. The key objectives of the yoga or meditation is to spend some time focusing on your body, and allowing thoughts in and then letting them go. These types of mindfulness activities, allow us to clear our heads, by making us focus on our breathing and body position. An easy meditation you can do for a few minutes a day, is body scanning: start at your head, feel its position in space, tense and release your face/jaw, and then continue to tense and release as you move down your body, from your shoulders, arms, chest, abs, legs, to your feet.

Spending time focused on something other than the thoughts running through your head will give you a space to think more clearly, and help with that feeling of overwhelm. Meditation has been scientifically proven to calm anxiety, so I definitely recommend spending some time out of your head.

3. Self Care

Ok, so right now, we’re able to go to meetings in our pajamas and slippers and no one would know. My advice here is to get dressed for work. And yes, for most of the week you will wear your apocalypse gear (stretchy pants /workout gear/ day pajamas), but try at least 2 days in the week to dress up for work, do your hair and make-up, wear shoes you can go outside in. Getting up and getting dressed is sometimes one of the easiest ways to alleviate anxious feelings. Look good, even if you aren’t feeling great. It helps, in a weird way, but it does.

Include some selfcare activities into your day. Selfcare isn’t always big activities like sitting in your bath, with a face mask, reading a magazine, with a glass of bubbly. It can be something as small as rolling your shoulders a few times at your desk to relax your body if you are feeling tense. Spend a few seconds deep breathing to calm down. Looking at a photo of your family. Micro selfcare is about anything, no matter how small, that is going to aid your feelings of anxiety or uncertainty.

4. Exercise

So before the global pandemic, I had fitness goals, which have subsequently been put on pause. But nonetheless, exercise gives me energy. And in the moments when I’ve felt awful, lethargic, and demotivated,  doing some form of exercise gives me those endorphins and energy to get me through the day. It doesn’t have to be a lot, I am currently doing about 15 minutes of basic functional fitness, using my body weight and things I have around the house, like chairs, and my children’s board books.

You don’t need to come out of this global pandemic fit enough to complete an Ironman, but doing a few minutes of exercise a day, will definitely help with the stress, anxiety, paranoia, loneliness, and general overwhelem.

5. Limit social media and news coverage

Social media is like a lifeline to the outside world, and if we stop, what are we going to do with our time? And if we stop scrolling, where are we going to see all those Corona memes? All true. But being on social media, and reading the worldwide corona stats daily will function to make you more paranoid, and feeling less than you are. Seeing all these super moms out there with perfect home school routines, and time to make their own playdough and paint, and making nutritious meals and snacks for their children, while your child ate cereal and a chicken nugget for supper while watching his 100th episode of Paw Patrol, is bound to make you feel like a failure. Not something you need right now. Also, try and limit your intake of news on Corona. We need to know what is happening in the world right now, but try to not go down a Corona media black hole, it’s just not healthy. Another tip, is to read/watch serious news in the mornings/early afternoon, going to sleep with those hard hitting news stories, can cause undue stress, and impact your sleep.

But stay on social media, we need those memes. Humour is so valuable in a time of crisis. So keep reading and sharing, but try and limit the time you spend there, to protect your mental health.

6. Video calls

Video calls is an awesome way to keep your distance, while staying connected. I’ve been able to stay in touch with my family and friends, and my kids are able to show them their toys and art that they’ve made. My kids have used Zoom for classes with their teachers, and parties with their friends.

Also, I happened to celebrate my birthday a few weeks ago, and we took to Zoom to party. We shared drinks, danced to music, it was one of the best birthdays I’ve had. I don’t know when last I’d laughed like that, since social distancing. It helped me to feel close to family and friends… healthily.

When you’re feeling lonely, video call a friend or family member or five. That’s one of the most difficult things we are going to experience during a pandemic that requires us to stay away from people. And we humans are social beings. Even us introverts. We all need our people time. So reach out when you need to.

7. Calming hobbies (reading, writing, knitting etc)

For me, one of my favourite things to do is to sit with a good book, or spend some time writing creatively. These type of activities have come in handy while I’m staying home. A few suggestions are reading, colouring in, knitting, painting, playing with playdough, sewing, drawing etc. Activites that will allow you to sit quietly for an hour or two. These type of activities are also mindful activities that enable you do move outside of your mind, and focus on doing something practical.

Another suggestion here, is to dance. It may not be a calm activity, but who feels stressed after having a dance party in your lounge? (knowing that you can literally dance like no one is watching). So move that coffee table out of the way, put on your favourite tunes, and dance it out.

8. Writing – even if you don’t normally

Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, it is really helpful to journal right now. We are all overwhelmed by what is happening around us, stress about the “new normal”, fear for ourselves and our families, having to fill multiple roles, and feeling lonely and distant from our friends and families. And it is so useful to get those thoughts down on paper. If you are lying awake at night, get out that journal and write down the thoughts that are keeping you awake. It may start out as a grocery list, but then evolve, like “buy tomatoes. Replace remote batteries. Why does my life suck right now? Is it because my dad never showed me enough affection?”

Hey, who knows, maybe you’ll find a hidden talent you didn’t know you had.

9. Sleep and wake times and meals

One thing that has become so easy is eating all day, but then also staying up all night because we’re binge watching Netflix, and then we wake up late. My advice here is to try and maintain the same bed time and wake up time. It won’t necessarily be the same as before, but it will relate to that routine you have set up for yourself. It sounds simple, but once again, something that you can control during a time when there is so much that is out of our control.

Closely linked to this is sticking to meal times. And yes, we are snacking an inordinate amount, but we need to ensure that we have our regular meals. If this is out of control     , it can negatively impact your mental health. One thing I try and focus on, as a sufferer of anxiety, is to limit my coffee and sugar intake, and to ensure that I have regular meal times and snack times.

10. Time outside (Vitamin D)

Finally, spend some time outside, in the sun. We need to make sure that we get our vitamin D. Maybe have your lunch outside, or when you are journaling, do that outside in the sun. Also, something simple that you can do for your general physical health that will aid your mental health.

There is not much that we can control right now, so try focusing on what you can control.

Stay Safe. Stay Home.

mental wellness

In the feels

When my good friend passed away last year, something struck me, related to my mental health journey. Whenever any of my colleagues, and family have approached me to express their condolences, and support, my response was, “I feel sad, because I miss her, but I’m glad she is no longer suffering.”

And that is what I realized the day after she passed. I’d been feeling sad. And I’ve been able to acknowledge that. And as I was walking into the office on that Monday, I was thinking about it. People will often say, “I feel so depressed…” but what you’re actually feeling is sadness. And while yes, I was going through a depressive episode at the same time, but, regarding my friend’s passing, I felt sad. And I was able to differentiate between the two emotions.

And while that may seem so minor, for someone who struggles to express emotion because for her entire life she was told that nice girls don’t get angry, and good girls don’t feel bad emotions, it’s a massive step to tease out sadness from depression. To be able to say that yes, I am depressed, but what depression feels like is a weight on my body, resulting in me not being able to get out of bed, or wash my hair, or eat. Whereas sadness, is a feeling of sorrow, of wanting to be around my friend, or wishing to hear her jokes, or spend time dancing with her, or looking at old photos, and realizing we will never have another photo together, nor share a birthday together again. It’s a feeling of longing.

Yes, this is a small win, but if this is you, give yourself a pat on the back. A lot of us have grown up being told things like,  “Do not throw a temper tantrum” (when you did not have enough words to express your anger as a toddler), or “Oh come on, it’s just high school, it will be over soon” (when something made you sad as a teenager). And of course, “Nice girls don’t get angry” and “You would be much prettier if you smiled”. Let’s not forget, “Man up” and “Boys don’t cry”.

We’ve been taught, especially as women, that we always need to be happy, and that nice girls don’t get angry, so we never learn how to express anger in an appropriate way. And boys are taught that you need to man up, and that the best way to resolve a conflict is to fight it out, so they never learn the appropriate way to express anger either.  And the same goes for other emotions. “Boys don’t cry”, but also, women shouldn’t be “too emotional”. How do I know what too emotional is? If I never learnt what the correct amount of emotion to express is?

And then as adults, we don’t even understand what is going on in our bodies when we feel emotion. And we have to re-learn how emotions feel, and how to express them, and the words for the different emotions, and also, how emotions feel in our bodies.

Last year, I learnt about expressing different emotions, and how to differentiate them from thoughts. So I may be mentally exhausted from working too hard, so it feels like tired, but instead of taking a nap, maybe I need to watch a silly show on TV to rest my brain. Or, know that I think that you your actions are unfair, but the emotion I am feeling is rejection.

The next step that I’m currently learning, is how my emotions feel in my body. We feel anger long before it erupts in shouting, for example. I have acknowledged that my anxiety is in my gut, and in the tension in my jaw and in my shoulders. But what I am learning is to pick up on the building of the anxiety before it’s a full-blown panic attack and then I have to take a lot more drastic measures to return to normal functioning, rather than picking it up while it’s still manageable. And maybe all I need to do is roll my shoulders or breathe deeply three times.

Another example, is knowing that when your partner starts making a statement that is a trigger for you  and before he’s completed the sentence, your stomach is already in knots, and reading that feeling in your body, and being able to say to yourself that you are feeling anger, and frustration. So that instead of responding in anger, you respond by expressing the emotion that you are feeling, and stating that you cannot respond to the content of what he is saying, until you have a moment to calm down and think rationally again.

What’s also important to know, is that we don’t just experience emotions in our heads. Emotions are felt throughout our bodies, and we can pick up the signs in our bodies first sometimes. A small tingling in your fingertips, to suggest that you don’t feel comfortable somewhere. Before it becomes panic in your mind, and a sinking sensation in your gut, before you are in full-blown fight or flight mode. So start paying attention to your body, it’s more intone than you think. And it alerts you to your emotional state before you recognize the emotion.

It’s so important to be able to express emotions, and that means being able to name them, and to know the difference between sadness, and anger. And to know that expressing emotion is not bad, if done correctly. What we’ve convoluted, as a society, is expressing emotion with how that emotion is expressed. And that is where the problem lies.   

Photo Credit: The Mighty

It’s acknowledging that your partner, for example, is allowed to be angry with you for something you said or did, but not allowing them to degrade you, or violate you because of their anger. And then for you to depersonalize the anger, by saying to yourself that they are angry with something you did as it upsets them, and it has nothing to do with who you are as a person. It’s feeling anger yourself, but not allowing the anger to forever colour your feelings towards another person.

All feelings are ok. It’s what we do with them that matters.

Useful Resources:

The emotions wheel (useful for identifying emotions):

https://themighty.com/2018/11/i-feel-nothing-wheel-of-emotions/

mental wellness

The symptoms of mental illness that no one talks about

My illness is invisible, not imaginary

Even though it’s 2020, mental illness is still very misunderstood. Everyone who has low self esteem or feels nervous, has anxiety. Everyone who feels sad sometimes has depression. Everyone who is obsessed with having a neat desk is OCD. And everyone who cannot focus has ADHD. And not all thin women are anorexic.

But to actually suffer with mental illness is not as romantic as movies would have you believe. Every day is hard. Because every day, you are trying to function like a “normal” human being. And people assume that everyone with a mental illness has to look the same way. And that incredibly confident CEO could never suffer with bipolar, right? Although this is not a post about the difficulties of being on the mental illness spectrum. This is about those symptoms that we don’t talk about.

Laziness. Well, actually, perceived laziness. Sometimes people who suffer with mental illness struggle to complete tasks. And while you are motivated to complete tasks, you actually physically cannot for a number of reasons. Fear of failure. Perfectionism. Lack of motivation. Inability to concentrate. Sure, not all laziness is as a result of mental illness, but we need to start digging a little deeper when someone seems to be lazy and unproductive. It isn’t always as a result of lack of effort or desire.

Unemployment. Even though many companies will have mental health and wellness policies these days, and mental illness is starting to have its time in the sun, like wearing green on mental health day in October, when someone is actually suffering, and it’s affecting their work, it’s chalked up to poor performance. Especially in big corporate companies, poor performance is very rarely connected to mental illness. And a lot of the time, if we can give people the support and time to heal from mental illness, as we do with physical illness, we’ll improve productivity in our organisations.

Divorce/Singleness. Mental illness affects relationships. For many years, I suffered with undiagnosed anxiety, and a lot of disagreements between my husband and I were fueled by my negative outlook. I’d always been an optimistic person, and here was one of the closest people to me, telling me that he couldn’t handle my negativity. Now that we know about my anxiety and how it manifests, we are able to manage symptoms, and he is better able to understand me. But for many people, who suffer with mental illness, they struggle to maintain relationships, with romantic partners, but also friendships. We spend a lot of time in a vicious cycle of wanting to be social, but not having the energy to be social as a result of spending all day fighting mental illness to be perceived as a normal/likeable/successful individual.

Unidentified physical illness. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have experienced random physical conditions like carpel tunnel, bowel and bladder issues, and other conditions. And most of these are directly related to their mental illness. Now, don’t get me wrong. Not all physical illness are manifestations of mental illness, and even if they are as a result of physical illness, they are serious, and need to be treated as such. But what needs to be done is treat the mental illness and not just ignore it, because, if we do, the physical illness will continue. Also, some physical conditions are caused by the excess of cortisol in our systems as a result of anxiety for example. We need to start viewing  the body holistically. The brain is an organ just like the heart or lungs or liver. And it can get sick just like those other organs.

Lack of confidence. I mention this separately, because a lot of people experience the symptoms of a mental illness, but with people who do not understand, they attribute these symptoms to be part of that person’s character. So we get labelled as aloof, or lazy, negative, aggressive. And if the person feels that this is not true to their character, there is the potential to feel unconfident and insecure in who you are. And if people don’t like you because of symptoms like your negativity, or perceived self-absorption, it can leave you wondering, what is so wrong with me? And then lack of confidence in abilities, because you can never do anything right because of unproductivity as a result of depression for example. Or not doing well at school or work, and wondering what it is about you that is making you so incapable of success, when it could possibly be ADHD that is affecting your work, as an example.

Failure. It goes without saying considering all the above, that people who suffer with mental illness suffer a lot from failure. Perceived failure sometimes as a result of impossible standards. Actual failure as a result of lack of productivity, or poor motivation, absenteeism, missed dealines etc. And that is the challenge, to separate the symptoms from character, and understanding yourself, to know where your symptoms are making you fall short, and what you can manage, and what you can change.

Ultimately, mental illness is an invisible illness, no one knows how much you’re suffering from the outside. They cannot read your thoughts, nor can they see the related emotional stress, or the physical tax mental illness takes on your body. But also, it is not clear how this invisible illness, which a lot of people don’t really understand, and cannot conceive of how it impacts your life, has these other impacts on your life, causing that vicious cycle of having mental illness, struggling, having it impact your life negatively, and thereby creating difficult life experiences which would impact anyone’s emotional stability, let alone someone who is already suffering.

Mental illness is complex. And while having a diagnosis can be liberating, operating in a world that doesn’t understand you and what that diagnosis means is difficult. And then the result of this lack of understanding is these “invisible symptoms” that do not appear on the DSM.

I am very open about my illnesses, and symptoms, and how they impact my life. And my husband has now gained more understanding so he has a better grasp of how my anxiety impacts both me, and our relationship. I have also joined a group at work to support sufferers and carers of mental illness, and my main objective of joining this group is to spread the awareness and understanding of mental illness, and how it impacts the working life of employees. The only way to counter these invisible symptoms that I’ve mentioned here is through knowledge, if you ask me. To have knowledge of ourselves, and our mental illness, but then also for non-sufferers, or carers to have the information to develop their understanding.

mental wellness

Depression: When you feel nothing [interview]

Depression def.: a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act. Depression causes feelings of severe despondency and dejection.

Q: How would you define Depression? (in layman’s terms)

A: My definition of depression would be a constant state of hopelessness, where you want to do things,  but you just can’t. You want to get up and be productive, but can’t. You want to be surrounded by people but can’t. Because you don’t want to be a burden, but you can’t help being a burden.

Q: What are the symptoms? (as you know or experience them)

A: Some symptoms I think are answers to questions, like how many days have you not been getting enough sleep? How much energy do you have? Does your work inspire you? Do your friends find you talking really slowly, or really fast? How often do you feel hopeless? Have there been any changes in feelings, appetite, or sex drive.

 Q: How does it feel to have Depression?

A: For me it’s, you really want to do stuff, but you feel that you can’t. It’s not that you don’t have the will power. Some days you just can’t get out of bed. You want to and you shout to yourself in your head to not be lazy, but your body just won’t get out of bed.

There is a disconnect between what you want to do, and what your body tells you that you can do. What you want to do, what you should do, and what you end up doing. You may look at a list of things you want to do, and you try to do some of them, but you just can’t. You just don’t have the motivation, or the physicality to actually do the things. And then that perpetuates the feeling hopelessness and worthlessness because of not doing things, and that you are not good at anything, and it all just gets worse.

And I don’t know why, and it’s not something I want, but I just create a situation where I have things that I want to do, but I just don’t.

For me, I don’t know about it being about being sad. People may view depression as not outgoing or engaging with friends. It’s not sad, it’s a purple haze, and it’s just not good. You could get a call from someone who you really love taking to, but then not want to talk to them so you don’t answer the phone, or you do speak to them, and you just don’t enjoy it, even though you normally enjoy talking to them.

It’s like having an overwhelming sense of misery. It can be sad, but we generally have reasons to be sad. But there isn’t always a reason for feeling depressed. It’s a constant state of being hopeless, overwhelmed, and a disconnect between what you want to do, and what you do do. It’s about knowing that this isn’t normal for me.

I think that it’s important to be honest with yourself and those around you, and put your hand up and say, “I’m not feeling great”.

Q: What are the treatment options for Depression?

A: I think there is obviously the quite clinical way, through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), to reflect with someone else. CBT enables you to be guided through exactly what are the symptoms you are experiencing, and then breaking them down into tasks to address them. To be actioning against the symptoms, which could help alleviate the symptoms. This method is whereby you have an impartial person work through the changes with you. Once you work through it with someone it can be challenging, but I think when you really unpack every step, it has a meaningful impact. It can really benefit you.

Every concern and problem are really overwhelming, but when you pick out simple things to resolve the big and vague emotions you may be feeling, you can focus on these, and then work through them methodically.

Less clinical, is surrounding yourself with friends and family. Make sure you have other people you can confide in. Sometimes, all you need is to share how you are feeling with someone, and you don’t have to be in a formalized therapy situation.

If you have a chemical deficit, or if CBT doesn’t address the core issues, you will need to use medication. For example, if your body is not producing serotonin, SSRIs, might absolutely be something that your body needs. Even with medication though, you need to make sure you’re eating well, drinking well, and exercising, otherwise, you’re not giving yourself a fighting chance.

It’s like with any illness, the medication alone will not resolve the problem, if you do not adjust your lifestyle too. If you had heart disease, you would be on medication, but you’d also need to adjust your eating and drinking habits, to remain healthy. Healing mental illness is the same.

So don’t live in darkness, not eat, or move. Make sure you have a nice place to live and a nice way to live. With good people who support you.

Image source: lifetomake.com

Q: Do you have to take medication if you have Depression?

A: You don’t have to. You might not have to. But you might have to. And someone that’s a trained professional who understands the cause, might say that you need meds. You need to be open to the idea. It’s not a sign of weakness. If you had a vitamin deficiency your doctor would definitely recommend vitamins. No one judges that. If you look at your brain, and if it’s not producing properly, then you’ll need to go the medication route.

We need to accept that your brain is an organ just like the rest of your body. If you had a thyroid problem, it’s a medical issue. Your brain needs attention, just like the rest of your body.

If medication is needed, embrace it, if not then don’t worry about it. Work with a professional. It might be meds that are required, but it might be only therapy that you need.

If you do need meds, don’t just take it, and that’s it, you need to adjust your lifestyle too and make sure you’re in a supportive environment. You may need a combination of therapy and medication. You definitely need other support mechanisms.

And know that you might go through multiple regimes of medication. You might have to go through many brands and dosages. It might take months before your body produces what it needs to work. It might not work at all. It might be a year before you start feeling better. You might even be diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression.

I still want to emphasise that, above all, it’s normal. And it’s not fine, but normal, and you’ll need to explore which options work for you. Not everyone needs medication, but if you do need medication, embrace it, and keep trying.

It can be an agonizing, long journey, but make sure you’re on the journey.

Q: Is it genetic?

A: For me, I think it’s a combination of your environment, genetic factors, or it could just be an accident.

If I look at my family, it’s most likely genetic. A number of my close family members suffer with some form of mental illness. So if I had to look at it surgically, at my family tree pattern, I would say, yes it’s genetic, but some families have no challenges at all, and a person in that family could still have depression.

A lot of mental illnesses, are a product of environment, like anxiety. Our society is changing, and it has been shown that 25% of girls before the age of 14 have an anxiety disorder. And while young people today are more open about mental illness, this is still not a stat we have seen before. It’s because of the social pressures on social media. We’re in a hyperattentive world. Where the number of followers you have, and the number of likes on a post are important, and it’s resulting in a world focused on instant gratification through visuals, and having the perfect social media life. The success metric in our personal lives is around exposure. We are forced into a mould, to be a certain type of person. And none of it is 100% true. So definitely the environment we live in.

But also, it is as a result of the challenges we experience in our lives. Instances of mental illness, like depression, also occur in relation to the number of wars, colonization etc a society experiences, all problems forced on people by others. PTSD has been known about for thousands of years, in that, during the Crusades, soldiers would still hear clashing of metal long after leaving the environment they were fighting in. This shows that mental health has been documented for thousands of years, in written records. It’s always been a problem, but we’ve never looked at in the right way. Younger people are talking about mental health more these days, we are starting to see more mental health memes. The world is starting to have a more casual relationship with mental health. Children as young as 14 years are talking about it. Sometimes younger.

Overall, mental illness is both genetic, and environmental.

For example, you might get cancer even if you don’t smoke or drink. It could be that it is genetic, but we cannot be sure what the exact cause is.

The brain is complex. Don’t try and put it in a box.

Q: Anything else you would like to add

A: I heard my cousin’s kid of 7 years, tell her mom, “it’s not good for my mental health” and I just think that she has had exposure at such a young age to have the language to express that her mental health is important. Overexposure of stress is not good, and young children are acknowledging this.

We are on the cusp in history where the generation before us denied mental health, and our generation is starting to talk about mental health, and being open about it, and I’m sure the next generation will have normalized it.

Young kids are talking about stress and mental health. We are starting to talk about it in legislative, medical, social society. We are changing the landscape in the ways in which we talk about mental health.

What is important is empowering the frontline, those who are the first people who are going to be managing the symptoms of a mental illness. For them to be able to recognize it as mental illness, and then treat it as such. We need to empower them in the knowledge of the right action to take.

We’re starting to see a lot more openness around mental health, even in societies where it was previously a taboo.

It doesn’t matter who you are, your age, or upbringing –  anyone can suffer unique mental health challenges. From all walks of life. It’s not a failure. There are treatments, and there are things you can do to improve your life.

If you want to, you can change the world. We are ready. We’ve never been more ready. It’s a really beautiful time to talk about mental health.

Just talk. If you’re not having a good day, say so. Just talk.

If you’ve had a bad weekend, don’t lie. Don’t think of a different things to say, to make up a story of a good weekend. Just say how it really is. You’ll negatively impact yourself if you are not honest about your mental health.

Talk about it. Write a blog. Whatever it might be. You’re going to change someone’s’ life. And they’ll change your life. There’s a ripple effect of mental healing.

Be the young girl saying that she doesn’t want to do homework because she’s stressed

Or the 80 year old who is admitting that she is not doing well mentally.

Or members of the LGBQTIA community, and all the mental health issues they struggle with.

Women  are more likely than men to get depressed – One of the reasons is due to the different challenges women experience. But also because men don’t seek mental help.

People in the developing world, where there is no access to treatment. People are exposed to mental health issues but what they see is violence or they are violent. But because they are not treating the illness, there is a vicious cycle of violence and illness and homelessness. In the developed world they have access, and no one knows they have mental health issues.

Look at it as what it is. It’s who we are and what we are and how we talk will create the perception of what mental illness and mental wellness is.

We’ll see the mindset change that we want to see. In 30 years we’ll live in a beautiful world. But until then we have to talk.

Resources available to you, if you are struggling with Depression:

SADAG: http://www.sadag.org/

mental wellness

Schizophrenia: When you’re not sure what is real [interview]

Schizophrenia def.: A long-term mental illness of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behaviour, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation.

… and other misconceptions

Q: How would you define Schizophrenia? (in layman’s terms)

A: Schizophrenia is a complex mental illness. The person suffering from it has a distortion of reality and hallucinations to the point that they can talk to themselves.

Q: What are the symptoms? (as you know or experience them) Is it like having multiple personalities?

A: People suffering from Schizophrenia don’t have multiple personalities, they just have a different reality. They build their own world and they cannot differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t.

In many cases they suffer from hallucinations and hear voices. They might even have full conversations with the “people” talking to them or swap from “someone” taking to them and then answering. This is the reason why it might appear as though they have multiple personalities, which isn’t the case. Having said that, due to all that’s going on in their head, they might become very absent and while you think you are having a conversation with them, their mind is somewhere else.

Q: How does it feel to have Schizophrenia? Or to be the carer (family) of someone who has Schizophrenia?

A: I remember it being very challenging and confusing. When I was younger, I couldn’t fully understand what was happening and would sometimes wrongly push the person to “just get better” or “do something to change it”. With the years, I have learnt that it cannot be cured and that the people suffering from it are actually in a lot of despair, which is the reason why in many cases they end up committing suicide to end the suffering.

Q: Are there treatment options for Schizophrenia?

A: There is unfortunately no cure, but medication and therapy are two ways in which to minimize the symptoms.

Q: Do you have to take medication if you have Schizophrenia?

A: Schizophrenia tends to be for life and yes, medication is needed. Unfortunately, the process to find the right mediation isn’t an easy one and patients have to go through trial and error until the right one and dosage are found. This process is challenging as the person might see their symptoms worsening for a bit of time.

Q: Are you able to keep a job if you have Schizophrenia?

A: I guess it depends on the level of the illness. In many instances the distortion of the reality or hallucinations are such that keeping a normal job isn’t possible. It will also depend on whether the person suffering from it is going though a bad period.

Q: Is it genetic?

A: To date there is no clarity as to why Schizophrenia happens. It’s known that there is a genetic component to it but that isn’t the only one. Environmental and altered brain chemistry play a big role too.

Q: Anything else you would like to add

A: As humans, we tend to be scared of the unfamiliar, therefore, it’s incredibly important that people talk about mental illness openly. There is nothing to be embarrassed about and only when people talk about it, will the topic be normalised.

mental wellness

Anxiety: when you feel everything [interview]

Anxiety def.: A chronic condition characterized by an excessive and persistent sense of apprehension, with physical symptoms

Q: How would you define Anxiety? (in layman’s terms)

A: Anxiety is constantly fearing the worst, and worrying about everything. Having anxiety is like being fearful of everything, from people, to dying and everything inbetween. It’s being nervous all the time, and not knowing why, just fearing and feeling stressed about every situation you go into. It’s black and white thinking, catastrophizing, being negative, feeling irritable, impatient. It’s the need to be busy all the time, to constantly be making lists, and always feeling like a failure. It’s feeling insecure, doubt, feeling like you’re never enough. It’s feeling overwhelmed, but scared to ask for help. And it also manifests physically so there are a number of physical symptoms, like problems with your gut, sweating, headaches, carpal tunnel. And yes, a lot of people may feel nervous about speaking in front of a group of people, or going to a party alone, or fearing losing their loved ones, but it’s when these concerns start affecting your life in a negative way, and become so overwhelming and overarching, that you are no longer living your life optimally, that you need to seek help. Also, there are different types of anxiety. I have Generalised Anxiety disorder, with a propensity towards social anxiety. But you could suffer with panic attacks, have a phobia, only have social anxiety. There’s also adjustment anxiety (which is what happens with major life changes).

Q: What are the symptoms? (as you know or experience them)

A: Anxiety can manifest with thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and physically. For me, I experience feelings of self-doubt, I get overwhelmed quite easily. I struggle to build relationships with people because I fear that they are going to abandon me so a lot of the time I don’t put effort into relationships, or I push people away. I suffer with insomnia. I fear both the future and the past. I beat myself up for things that I said 5 years ago, or even, 5 minutes ago. Everything I say and do is wrong. I am terrible at decision-making because I’m fearful of the outcome of every decision I make. I procrastinate because I’m scared of doing things the wrong way. I get easily distracted by stimuli, and then struggle to concentrate. I suffer with headaches, and problems with my gut, and excessive sweating. I say inappropriate things to people that make me nervous, or people in authority, or I say nothing at all, and then beat myself up about it. I have very negative thought patterns, always expecting the worst. I never want to admit that I am happy, because I am fearful that the feeling will be taken away. Depending on the type of anxiety, it manifests in different ways, and then it would have different symptoms. Some people experience mostly physical symptoms, like tight chest, difficulty breathing.

Q: How does it feel to have Anxiety?

A: Having anxiety for me, feels like I have too many train tracks running in my mind at any given time, and it never stops. A friend gave me the analogy of having 1000 internet tabs open, and they are all flashing at the same time. A million thoughts constantly running through my head, fears, things I should say, things I said, things I need to do, analyzing my environment, things I should be doing, things I should be saying, everything that I am, everything that I’m not. Having anxiety is like always having that feeling of nervousness before an interview, or speaking to a big crowd of people. And it’s like being afraid all the time. And like always being busy. Always having things to do. All the time. It’s like being on, always. There is no rest, no off switch, because then I convince myself I’ve forgotten something. I always feel like I’ve failed. I’m fearful of trying new things and then I feel like a failure because I’m not living my best life. It’s like always being in fight or flight mode.

Q: What are the treatment options for Anxiety?

A: For me, I’m in talk therapy, and I use medication to treat my anxiety. I know people who use mindfulness and meditation to treat their anxiety. Depending on the type of anxiety disorder, CBT (behavioural therapy) can work. My personal opinion is that it’s important to find the root cause of the anxiety. Mine is quite complex, so I’ve been in therapy for a number of years, and we’re still uncovering things. For some people a few sessions of CBT helps them develop practical steps to manage their anxiety.

Q: Do you have to take medication if you have Anxiety?

A: Not everyone requires medication. For me, the medication helps slow down the train tracks so that I can find a space to breathe, and concentrate on one thought process at a time. The decision on whether or not to use medication should be made with your therapist/psychiatrist though. Everyone is different. And some people are able to combat their anxiety with only talk therapy or CBT, or mindfulness techniques. Some of us might have to be on medication for most of our lives.

Q: Is it genetic?

A: From what I’ve read, and the psycho-education that I’ve done with my therapist, you do have a predisposition to get anxiety. If you suffer childhood trauma, the chances of getting anxiety are pretty high, even if your parents don’t suffer. There is also a theory I’ve been reading a lot about, on generational trauma, and just like many illnesses pass down through the generations, so does trauma, in the wiring of our brains, and our neurochemicals. But what I love about this theory is that they are proving that yes, trauma is transferred from one generation to the next, but so is healing. So even if you have a predisposition, or you are suffering from generational trauma, you can be the one to start passing down generational healing.

Q: Anything else you would like to add

A: Living with anxiety is hard. It’s like feeling everything all of the time. But it’s not a life sentence. You can get help, and with treatment, you can be healed. It is possible to recover. It’s not immediate, but healing is possible. I feel like I’m proof of that. I am definitely not the same person I was a year ago. And I definitely feel like I’m passing down generational healing in my family.

mental wellness

The Sum of all Parts

So one thing that I’ve learnt in the past two years that I’ve spent on my healing journey, is the importance of holistic treatment. I used to be scared of medication because I was fearful of it fundamentally changing who I am. I believed in talk therapy, because I felt that my problems weren’t that big. I didn’t realise how seriously my anxiety was impacting my marriage because I didn’t realise how ingrained it was with who I am. And also, I thought things like moms groups were lame, and also I don’t like interacting with “moms”, where all we have in common is the fact that we are moms. And worst of all, I thought clinics were like a scene out of “Girl, Interrupted”, and when you talk about your stay in one, you should always whisper the word “clinic”, out of shame.

And then, these humans found their way into my life. And my head. And they have all shaped my journey to recovery in important and valuable ways.

DISCLAIMER: I realise that I am quite privileged in that I have access to all these healthcare professionals, but if you can get holistic treatment, it is so important and helpful to your overall journey. But what is most important is getting the help you need.

The woman who saved my life

My Therapist. About two years ago, my son was born with two holes in his heart, and then I was retrenched, and lucky enough to find another job, but still I felt like I needed support. I happened upon a Facebook ad for a moms group, and when that fell apart, I contacted the facilitator to see if she would see me individually. She unfortunately couldn’t see me until December, and I felt like I needed to see someone before then. So she suggested a colleague of hers, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I remember sitting down in that first session and saying to my therapist, that I’m here for what she called “champagne problems” on her blog. Those things that make us feel bad, but aren’t quite clinical. We started with me sharing what led me to therapy: a complicated pregnancy, a son with a heart condition, a retrenchment. In our next session we went through my history: family structure, childhood, issues I deal with.

We had an immediate rapport, we were able to joke, while talking about serious things. We have a shared love of books and words. And she understood me. For the first time I felt like someone was seeing me. I felt validated.

We are still working through my stuff, because it turned out that it wasn’t just “champagne problems”, and the fact that I thought that they were speaks to all the stuff that I have to work through.

The woman who saved my mind

After seeing my therapist for a few months, she suggested that I see a psychiatrist for medication to help with my anxiety. I was a bit nervous to go the medication route, I really believed that all I needed was talk therapy. I didn’t want to mess with my brain chemicals. What if the person I’ve always been changes?

The truth about medication, from my experience, is that it lifts the fog of depression, and slows down those train tracks of anxiety for example. It gives me the space to actually work through all the stuff from talk therapy. It helps me to have a better handle on my day-to-day functioning.

My psychiatrist is great, and she is particularly skilled with managing women’s issues. Also, when I started with her, I was still breastfeeding, so she prescribed medication that I could take while breastfeeding.

I’ve been through a couple of brands, and a mix of dosages, but I think we’ve found something that suits me for the time being. Every time we up my dosage or change brands, I have to try it out for a month and then go back to her to check in if it’s working. If it’s not, then I need to try something else. I’ve had some bad medication experiences, but in the end, I’m supportive of the medication route, if it’s necessary.

It doesn’t change who you fundamentally are. And also, being that I’m in this process would it so bad if the person I’ve always been changes?

The woman who saved my marriage

Having two kids really changes a marriage. Having two under two is like a wrecking ball to a marriage. And our marriage was already under strain due to my husband working shifts. From my side, I felt depleted, and distant from my husband. I felt like he took me for granted and completely disrespected me.

We had been in marriage counselling in our first year of marriage, and she had helped us navigate our marriage, and the changes it brought to our lives. I didn’t want to go back to her because I felt like she favoured my husband, and with my whole self-renewal process that I was undergoing, I couldn’t be in a room where I didn’t feel as heard as he was.

So we tried out someone else. We saw him for 3 months. And while he was well-revered, with many years of experience, I felt like he didn’t change anything in our marriage. I also felt as though he preferred my husband to me.

And that is when my therapist suggested the psychologist that my husband and I are currently seeing. She is helping us communicate properly. She’s teaching us about communication styles, and how our emotions work at a neurological level. We’ve learnt what is hampering our communication with each other. And she gives us homework to make sure that we practice what we discuss, and that this process is dynamic and not held in the room with her only.

The women who help me re-parent myself

Parenting is not easy, no matter if you have one kid or many. Girls or boys. Babies or adult children. Parenting is hard. And confusing. And you never feel like you’re doing anything right. One day your kid is eating carrots. The next day she hates them. Parenting is hard.

My therapist introduced me to “Mindful Mamas”, which is a group facilitated by a therapist, and through which we are guided through healing stories. We are also taught about the Conscious Parenting movement, which we can then try and apply in our lives.

The main tenets which I have gauged from this process is to treat my children like tiny humans, with their own thoughts and emotions. Discipline is no longer about getting them to do what I believe is right, but rather guiding them through life.

I have learned to review my own agenda, and what it is that I want out of the situation, and how it is perceived by them, and what they want out of a situation. All kids want to do is enjoy life, and play. And this is valuable for anyone. I have learnt so much from them about mindfulness. Yes, we need to get done and go to work and school.  But is it really going to harm us if we sit for a few minutes to build a lego house? And in reality, it’s not. In fact, it heals us more than it harms us.

I still struggle through parenting, but, as a conscious parent in training, I feel like I’m building valuable connections with my children, and validating them, by seeing them for where they are. And hopefully through all of this, I am building a secure attachment, and building confident children, with a healthy sense of self.

Special Acknowledgements

Friendamily

My friends. Who are always by my side. The people who will stand up for me when the world is against me. But will also stand up against me to steer me in the right direction.  

Cuckoos

I recently spent a few weeks in a psychiatric clinic. And I met a group of awesome people. We spent many nights giggling and talking. For the first time a group of people just got me, and could support me in ways I have never been supported before. They held me together when I was falling apart. And they are part of my journey to recovery.

Liefie

(actually that’s his nickname for me) I’ve mentioned him before. And about how our marriage was falling apart. But he has truly been so supportive. When things were really bad, and he was scared out of his mind, he was able to give me the space to heal. And then opened himself up to learning about me and my struggles, and what I need from my partner. He finally read all those blog posts I shared with him.

Wildlings

My kids. They are lively and energetic. And mothering is draining sometimes (most times). But when I walk in that door, and they run towards me shouting “Mommy!” all is forgotten. And on the bad days, all I need is a hug from them, to get perspective. And to remember two of the reasons I’m living for.

So there it is, your support can come from the strangest of places. And if you are in a dark place, you may not realise that you have anyone at all. A lot of the time, despite having all of these people in my life, I feel really lonely, and like I have no one. But that is part of my journey. Learning to lean on those around me for support, and about boundaries and who to trust.

But if there is no one that you do find comfort in, I hope you find comfort in this blog, to know that there is this quirky chick, with some issues, who wants to be there for you.

Resources:

http://thebeautifulmind.co.za/ OR https://www.facebook.com/clinicalpsychologistfairuzgaibie/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1950822965156283/