I don’t often think about my experiences growing up with mental health problems.
Looking back now, it’s not hard to see the changes then and now.
I was 16 when I first started taking antidepressants. I had had a nervous breakdown, the doctor said, after I collapsed, and couldn’t stand without passing out for weeks, right before my GCSE. And for years I lived in this daze, detached from the world around me.
I had been depressed since I was a child. At 5 years old I was pondering my existence, feeling lonely while amongst my large extended family, struggling to socialise in school where I was bullied and experiencing disassociation (which continued) and made me feel like I wasn’t a part of the world I was born into. I often dreamed of my consciousness existing on another plane far away from this earth.
We didn’t talk about things in my family. When my uncle tried to kill himself, no one talked about it then. Or now.
That wasn’t the only barrier to getting help. In Trinidad and Tobago, the stigma around having mental health problems was great (it still is). People with mental health problems were called ‘mad’ and the only mental health hospital in the country was commonly called ‘the mad house.’ Having a mental health problem was often attributed to ‘demons’ or spiritual issues, rather than to chemical imbalances in the brain, trauma or hereditary predisposition to illnesses.
I kept my pain to myself and suffered in silence.
I don’t live in the Caribbean anymore, but I have seen this stigma and reluctance to talk about mental health problems in America and Europe too.
Thankfully some things have changed since then, though there is still a lot of work to do.
I’ve lived in London for almost a decade and in my twenties, while the world was still coming to terms with accepting that mental health is just as important as physical health, I benefitted from technological advancements, research and changing approaches to treatment.Across cultural, physical and social boundaries, through computer screens, we found hope and empathy. Click To Tweet
The emergence of online platforms, forums and social media enabled me to connect with other people around the world, who were struggling too and not able to talk about it, or be believed by their families and doctors who were treating them.
Across cultural, physical and social boundaries, through computer screens, we found hope and empathy.
It was through one such forum owned by the now defunct charity Depression Alliance (which later merged with Mind) I made friends who supported me without judgement. Some of these people were the ones checking on me when I’d gone silent, lifting my spirits when I was distressed, and raised the alarm when I collapsed after my first serious suicide attempt.
They touched my life in ways I cannot explain.
Yes I know, on the flip side the rising popularity of social media has also created an avalanche of problems like cyber-bullying, the dangerous illusion that some lives are glossier than they are, the habit of unhelpful comparisons, and of course, sometimes, a proclivity to cause more loneliness rather than connections. It’s a potentially tempting addiction which pulls some of us away from what really matters— the present. Never mind enjoying your holiday, or companionship, spend hours taking the perfect selfie to share on social media.
I too, have found social media unhelpful at times, triggering my anxiety, and sometimes adding to the feeling that I am inadequate. But it’s also helped me connect with people in a meaningful way; it brings useful information, research, and support to our fingertips. It helps to challenge stigma.
When I am confronted by suicidal thoughts I can text or email or phone the Samaritans and speak with someone which has always been helpful.
The ease with which I can share stories with others is the greatest benefit.
In moments when I need an intervention, sometimes a moving tweet or message from someone on social media can remind me that I am not alone; That there is help. And there is love.
People have gone from silence to sharing the most intimate stories of their survival. Their stories are mine and mine are theirs.
Despite its pitfalls, this digital era has helped to galvanise movements of people like me, who have suffered for long in the darkness. I battle with mental health problems, but despite the stigma and whatever challenges remain, I have never felt stronger or more hopeful. And it is because now I know I am not alone.
Gentle hugs x
What does this year’s World Mental Health Day theme mean for you? how has your experience varied with the changing times?
Cover photo by Sydney Sims
Slider image byBud Helisson