‘‘I’M depressed again MaMo”, read the text message. “I don’t know what to do, I just can’t seem to be able to find my way out of this deep dark place.”
“What triggered it this time, I asked?”
“I’m not sure, but I believe it’s my finances. I can’t seem to make ends meet and I am failing to provide for the family.”
At that point, I ran out of the “right” things to say. What was I supposed to say? That he should not worry, everything would be alright eventually? But would it? That he must man up and find a way out of it? But is it as easy as just “manning up”?
I get such messages from my friends and family all the time. I have encountered many people who suffer or have suffered from depression. For some it’s episodes of depression that attack them once in a while; for others it’s perpetual.
Someone once described depression to me as being sad all the time. She said, “Normal people have moments of sadness, heartbreak, pain, anger and despair. But they eventually find a reason to smile again. They go through periods of not being happy, but hey, that’s life! I, on the other hand, am forever sad. Try as I might I cannot be happy. Imagine feeling like crying all the time. Everyday of your life. Imagine feeling forever ‘low’ and fighting to find a high but you cannot reach it. Imagine feeling anxious about everything, knowing you have to snap out of it; but you just cannot. Imagine not wanting to be around people, not ever having the energy to get up. Imagine your worst day, be it the day you lost a parent, a child or a loved one. Or the day you lost a job; the day someone broke your heart; imagine your everyday being like that day!”
“But surely you can teach yourself to rise above it”, I insisted. “Now that you know there’s a problem you need to devise mechanisms to help you snap out of it. Refuse to be sad. Force yourself to be happy. Happiness is a decision.”
“Thandi, you used to have a heart problem right? What were the symptoms?”
“Oh well, the worst symptom was just severe tiredness. And at times I found it difficult to breathe. Try as I might I just could not complete a full breath so I would have to take short quick ‘gasps’ of air.”
She looked at me and said, “Imagine if someone had said to you come on girl, just breathe! What if someone had told you, at your worst, to just snap out of the tiredness? Just get up, it is all in your head.” She went on to say, “So what happened to your heart problem?”
“After years of treatment, it’s under control now. It resurfaced recently, in what they called a ‘flare up’ but my doctors insist it is totally manageable.”
“You see now Thandi, depression is an illness. Just like your heart disease, it has to be treated. Even after it is treated successfully, there are chances it might pop up every once in a while and need you to be treated again. It is a condition that needs medical attention. It is not a feeling that I can just discard at will. In just the same way that the body can be attacked by disease, so can the mind. Depression is a mental illness.”
“Wow! Mental illness!” I thought. That is one scary topic. What does it mean? To most people a mentally ill person is crazy. “Uhlanya” (mad person) or “psycho” as we label crazy acting people these days. These are the people who roam around our cities in rags eating from bins. Or the uncles in the rural areas running around naked terrorising villagers. Mental illness is so embarrassing to most people that they hide away their mentally ill relatives from the prying eyes of the community. It is so embarrassing that anyone who is diagnosed with any form of it and is on medication, has to hide that fact from everyone. Leading to them taking medication in hiding or worse still, leaving treatment altogether.
Because our country has not yet understood mental illness, the stigma associated with it is at extreme levels. Once one “loses their mind” they are either sympathised with for having been bewitched by people jealous of them; or they are suspected of having committed an unforgivable crime that God or their victim is now punishing them for. Because of this, only the extreme cases we cannot sweep under the carpet are recognised and sometimes treated.
The World Health Organisation characterises depression as one of the most disabling disorders in the world, affecting roughly one in five women and one in ten men at some point in their lifetime! Unfortunately I do not have Zimbabwe’s statistics but one in three South Africans suffers from depression.
Depression mostly affects feelings, thoughts and behaviour but it can also manifest itself physically. Those unexplained aches and pains, weight loss/gain, tiredness and loss of appetite could actually be signs that one is clinically depressed. We have many cases of people being ill for years and doctors claiming they just cannot find what is wrong, well, it could be depression!
It is sad that Zimbabwe, a country that boasts of high literacy levels, has refused to accept and understand depression. This is particularly of concern to me because the problems faced by the majority of Zimbabweans are the perfect breeding ground for depression. Problems such as unemployment, child headed families, divorce, unpaid salaries, cancers and HIV. In as much as some of its causes are genetic, some medical illnesses, stress, grief and substance abuse have also been known to cause depression. I suspect that the majority of our population already suffers from different severities of depression and are unfortunately going untreated.
The worst thing is the fact that depression is mostly treatable in its earliest stages when symptoms are less severe. It is unfortunate then that most people are never diagnosed, meaning very few are ever treated. We need to rise to a level where we identify the symptoms of mental illness in ourselves and in others before they escalate to uncontrollable proportions.
Remember that grandfather of yours that used to beat you to a pulp; remember your lazy, angry aunt who refuses to get out of her room; what about that workmate that’s always moody and is always missing work; I’m sure we all know someone who has suddenly lost interest in friends, family and activities they used to love doing; keep an eye on them, they could be depressed. Are you forgetful? Do you find it difficult to concentrate? Do you have trouble making decisions? Do you struggle to fall asleep and/or stay awake at night? Do you sleep “too much”? You could be depressed!
Depression is real. It is common. It affects anyone at any age. Because it is a result of chemical imbalances in the brain, it can never just go away! All of us are at risk and I am sure all of us have been or will be affected by it at some point in our lives; either as sufferers or at the hands of sufferers. For that reason alone, it is our personal, social and national duty to accept it and understand depression and other mental illnesses.