HERstory (Women & MHA): Major Depressive Disorder
A 24-year-old Capetonian shares her story about coming out with major depressive disorder to her family and the effects of the stigmatisation about mental illness.
At the age of 11, the young girl was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, a result of an unhealthy school and home environment. She did not have a name for what she was feeling.
As it is for most children, there is not a word big enough to describe the eerie quiet settled comfortably in the hollow of their bones.
“I was tired all the time. I wasn’t focusing at school. I felt numb like I couldn’t feel any emotion.
“I didn’t even know what it was until my parents noticed a change and immediately took me to a child psychologist,” she says.
The psychologist noted the girl’s symptoms: fatigue, excess sleepiness, loss of interest and apathy.
The therapeutic relationship did not last long. After four sessions and building familial pressure, the girl learned how to rely on herself for support.
“The rest of my family didn’t believe in depression or therapy. From 11 to 16, I just learned how to hide it because I couldn’t deal with the comments from my family,” she says.
With age came the realisation that shame had no room in a body that had struggled, survived and triumphed years of mental illness. So began the process of asking for help.
“Speaking to people I was close to really helped. Just having someone there to listen really helped me, as well as hearing people talk about mental illness like it’s not something to ashamed of,” says the now 24-year-old.
Making the radical choice to affirm what she was going through was a reclamation of who she was, as a young woman who did not have to be defined by and reduced to a mental illness.
“I do wish that I had continued with regular therapy. I feel like it would’ve led me to where I am today a lot earlier.”
Today she is fortunate to seldom experience a depressive episode. While she says she has off days – everyone does! – where all she wants to do is sleep, she maintains that it is “okay”.
“Over the years I’ve built coping mechanisms to help myself. I’ll call a friend or do something I enjoy, like go for a run just to keep my mood up,” she told To EmpowHER.
Her experience with mental illness motivated her to study psychology. The Unisa student is currently completing an honours degree in psychology and hopes to specialise in clinical.
“I think through my research trying to find ways to cope with my depression when I was younger, I learnt a lot about how psychology can help your life. I’ve learnt a lot about myself through studying my course,” she says.
She says she may be able to relate to and understand patients because she has an idea of what it feels like to suffer from mental illness, especially the negative effects such as stigmatisation – a major contributing factor that hindered her ability to access professional help.
“I believe my experiences have greatly contributed to my empathetic quality which is a key quality in the field of psychology,” she says.
Drawing from this, her research focuses on the stigmatisation of mental illness.
“Stigmatisation prevents individuals from acknowledging the issue, which prevents them from seeking help and ultimately, makes their condition worse. It can also make an individual feel extremely isolated.
“Often stigmatisation is linked to religion and culture, in particular brown cultures. From what I’ve discovered, this can be extremely detrimental to individual wellbeing because individuals are made to believe their mental illness is due to their lack of faith and God punishing them.”
The religio-cultural lens through which mental illness is viewed and understood, and the persistence to ignore the problem, does not diminish or remove the illness. Wishing something were true does not make it so, and wishing something away has rarely been proven to work.
As she explains, “depression is like an annoying family member that you can’t seem to shake off”.
“You can’t ignore the person because you’re related to them and are forced to see them at family functions, but you can form ways to deal with them.”
For those who fear what others will think or say about having a mental illness, she has a word of advice:
“You aren’t alone, it’s okay, things will be okay.”