Stories and podcasts WBW Stories You are not alone: Mental health in Africa Beyond dictionary meanings and the general theories we’ve all been through, mental health to me is the basic foundation of our entire being. It is what forms us, our thoughts and mind, which eventually builds our character and who we are in general. My question is, how can something this solid be so deeply under-emphasised? I am a young lady who was born in a continent where stigma against mental illness is rife. As soon as the word ‘mental health’ is mentioned – and especially if you use the term to describe yourself – it’s not uncommon to see the person next to you take a step back; to look at you differently. Like something inside of you is broken. Stigma against mental illness creates fear, suspicion and broken relationships. People take it upon themselves to decide that you are not ‘mentally fit’ enough to be associated with, regardless of how they may have perceived you just moments earlier. And if it’s a different scenario, one where you are merely bringing up the issue of mental health to check if they are doing okay, the usual reaction is defensiveness. They might conclude that you are trying to bring them down or are merely being condescending. This creates a ‘damned if you do/damned if you don’t’ situation where it is, seemingly, never okay to talk about mental health. I would like to share my own perspective of what mental health is really about and how it should be perceived. Mental health should be an open and honest subject for discussion, one without the conclusion that anyone experiencing mental health issues is immediately dismissed as insane or unfit to be related with. Life is not an easy journey for anybody. We all face our trials and tribulations. To live is to grow, to learn and to struggle at times. As a result, many of us cannot always remain mentally stable when life throws challenges at us. If the challenges are significant enough, it is only natural to experience some form of break down, even without realising anything was wrong in the first place. We go through life everyday trying to do whatever it takes to live, we endure daily frustrations and try to handle every negative feeling that comes our way like the ‘pros’ we are expected to be. As ‘strong’ men and women, societal pressures tell us that we don’t have a choice but to be the unbreakable and unshakable force, while we bottle things up. What we don’t realise is we are metamorphosing into this totally different state of mind. One that’s anything but healthy. When we repress negative thoughts and feelings, we are telling our minds that it’s okay to be in an unsuitable place: A very dark and unstable one. And before we know it, we stop noticing that we are not supposed to linger in this unhealthy headspace, and it begins to feel like it doesn’t matter. We stop laughing and we get used to it. We stop feeling happy only to tell ourselves “Who cares, anyway?”. We suppress our own feelings of what is fair to carry on our shoulders, as long as we keep pushing forward and hanging on… Even if it is only by a thin thread. We all know the stereotypes of a nervous breakdown. That one day, someone just ‘snaps’ and does something outrageous, or embarrassing, or dangerous. We fear this kind of pressure because it seems to come out of nowhere. And maybe we are trying to tell ourselves that this only happens to other people, trying not to acknowledge that we come closer to crossing this line ourselves each passing day. At any point, we could ‘lose it!’ for whatever reason or none at all - our brain is just done pushing! But it doesn’t have to get to this point. We don’t have to ignore our mental health until it explodes out of us. The problem of ignoring our mental health in Africa has led to an unbelievable amount of suicide and danger – not just for people who suffer from mental illness, but those around them as well. People kill themselves every day, murder their spouses, abuse their children or live a life constituting a nuisance in the community, all because we choose to believe we are fine as long as we wake up and run no temperature. This is how powerful your mental health is! Whatever it is you are going through, someone’s been through it before, yet oftentimes we consider our problems unique and deeply private. We are ashamed to ask for help. We are ashamed to admit vulnerability. We are ashamed at our own aggression, misery or the burden we place on our families who worry about us. But we are not alone. Are you in an abusive relationship? Does life seem like it’s passing you by without notice? Is there something you want so badly but you can’t motivate yourself to chase it? Does it seem like nothing you do matters? That everything you say or do is ‘wrong’? Has everyone around you chosen to lock you out? Do you feel depressed and have no idea what might even be the reason? Is someone around you going through something distressing and you are tired of taking responsibility for them? Whatever it is: someone’s been there. You won’t be the first or last. With the right support and resources, you can get through it! Find your happy place. Don’t lose your calm. Talk to someone. Cry if you have to. Do whatever it takes. Take a break. And if nothing at all, take a breath. It’s okay to consider your own wellbeing. It’s fine if you have to take a step back. You are allowed to choose yourself. So many people wear the brightest smiles and laugh the loudest, yet they are breaking inside. And they shouldn’t have to. Please, let’s check on those around us. Let’s actually listen when they want to talk and take off our “judgmental coats” while doing so. Please remember to check on someone today. About the author.