At some moment in our lives, something is going to go wrong, something is going to happen not the way you expected or wanted it to go, people will walk out on you, you’ll lose things and people and relationships. It’s life and these things are inevitable. But what makes life beautiful is that you get over them, you bounce back after a while.
But what if you don’t? Or can’t ?
We hear about that scary word “Depression” a lot but most people don’t actually know what it means.
Depression is a mental illness characterized by prolonged feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and sometimes self-harm. If you ask anyone who’s ever been diagnosed with depression, chances are you’ll hear a lot of different descriptions of what depression is and feels like.
Having been diagnosed with mild depression in 2017, I could give a personal description of depression as “Feeling like you’re in a deep dark hole, there’s a ladder in front of you that can help you get out, it’s right beside you, but you can’t reach it. It’s just there, you want to reach it but you just can’t muster up the energy to reach it and propel yourself out of the hole” Seems dark right?
Depression is more common in Nigeria than we think or even know. There are more than a million known diagnoses every year and think about people who haven’t even opened up about it. It’s a wonder why mental health and mental illnesses are still so stigmatized in Nigeria. Maybe because of our religious prejudices, or the fact that we lay more emphasis on physical health while ignoring mental health.
What causes depression?
I wish mental illnesses were as straight forward as physical illnesses. When you have malaria, you get tested and you know that you got it from a mosquito, or when you have diarrhea, you know it’s from eating or drinking something. For mental illnesses, it’s not that easy or straightforward. It’s much more complex, there can be a lot of unrelated things piling up to be a cause of any type of mental illness and what causes depression for might not necessarily be what causes it for B and C and D.
A commonly ignored and even unknown cause of depression, as well as many other mental illnesses, is Chemical Imbalances in the brain. When I first got diagnosed with depression and I got my drug prescription, I was confused, depression affected my mind and my thoughts, what do I need the pills for?
My therapist broke it down by explaining to me that all human beings have neurotransmitters in their bodies. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Now if for any reason it starts to be produced in smaller amounts, it results in Depression. If it starts to be produced in larger amounts, it can lead to Anxiety. So what the pills do is regulate the secretion of Serotonin with the hopes of getting the chemicals balanced again. So yes, people don’t just get sad and decide to not pull themselves out of it, there are actually chemical imbalances in their brains that stop them from being able to. It’s just as real and treatable as physical sickness, if you can’t dismiss a headache, you should never dismiss anything affecting mental health.
Probably one of the most common causes of depression and many mental illnesses is Certain Life Events. Due to life is so unpredictable and unfair, anything can throw anyone off balance at any time. Death, failing an exam, losing a job, a breakup, parents going through a divorce, bullying… I could go on about all the things that could happen to you in life. I was severely bullied growing up because I was bigger than most, the fatphobic comments came early on and I grew up hearing it up until I graduated secondary school and that had a huge negative impact on my self-esteem and self-image.
Though that’s just me, other people may get bullied and not end up depressed or anxious about it later in life, it doesn’t mean one person is stronger than the other because it didn’t affect them as much. It means we are human and we are different and we may not react to things the same way. For some people it could have been bullying, for some the loss of a parent or a friend, for some a relationship ending could make them spiral and land in that deep dark hole that is depression. I know a lot of people are thinking “it’s just a relationship, why would you let it make you depressed?” Do most people forget the emotional attachment that comes with relationships, and I don’t even mean romantic relationships alone, friendships are relationships too. Having an emotional attachment be broken out of the blue can be as devastating as anything you can imagine, and that should not invalidate the feelings and struggles of another person.
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What does depression looks like?
I’d be lying if I told you Depression has a trademark look because it does not. Depression isn’t stamped on the forehead and because of how complex it is, some people can live years and years hiding the fact that they are struggling internally without you even having an idea. There are signs you can watch out for though, just some people do not show those signs and that does not mean they aren’t going through it.
Usually, depression symptoms can be persistent sadness, loss of appetite, lack on interest in what the person is usually interested in, weight gain or weightloss, reclusiveness, flaking out on people, signs of self harm or talks of suicide and lots more.
But some people don’t show these symptoms and that’s why mental health is very important because you may never know what is happening in someone’s head before it’s too late.
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Why don’t depressed people open up about it?
This is probably the most frustrating part. Why don’t they tell you about it? Why do they take so long before they open up? For some it’s already too late and their family and friends end up feeling bad that they weren’t aware of the struggle.
It took me ten years, yes, TEN whole years before I could open up about my mental health and actually seek help for it. Not because I liked feeling like slitting my wrists or I liked crying myself to sleep every night, I had a few reasons. I think I speak for everyone who’s ever gone through this when I say, it is not easy to talk about.
Finding the courage and the right words to open up was probably the hardest part of seeking help for me (even worse than group therapy and the mood swings I got from Prozac). Depression is so complex, sometimes you can’t even string up the right words to use when trying to explain what’s going. It just doesn’t come that easy because sometimes even you don’t know what’s going on in your head. You just feel that overwhelming slam of sadness and despair and you can’t exactly point out what’s wrong or why or what exactly triggered it. So people, speaking about mental illnesses is HARD.
Another fat reason why people don’t really speak up is How stigmatized mental health is. In more open-minded societies, it is still not easy for people to open up, now think of how hard it is in the Nigerian society where people will easily chalk up your struggle to non-existent “village people” or invalidate you using the crappiest statements ever. In Nigeria, mental health and talking about it is so stigmatized, there’s that fear that people won’t understand you or they won’t take you seriously enough. I remember telling someone just a little bit about my depression and all they said was “Stop behaving like those white girls” and really that’s probably one of the worst things you can say to anyone who has come to open up to you. Mental health and mental illnesses are so trivialized in Nigeria, yet we express shock every time we hear someone has jumped off a bridge or downed a pack of pills, then we exclaim “He should have spoken up”.
Nigerians see therapy as such a huge deal, it’s almost like you’re crazy to have to go into therapy for your own health, some even tell you to just pray like an angel would come to you in the middle of the night and give your head a shake so your serotonin levels gets balanced again.
People also don’t open up because they are scared. It’s like being on a wall, you don’t know what’s on the other side, you can only hope that it’s something good and helpful. That’s how it’s like talking about your mental health, it’s either the people you tell understand you and they offer help or they don’t. And there’s that fear that keeps them from speaking up. People are scared of being ridiculed or undermined or just told to “Get over it” or the typical Nigerian; they tell you how they have it worse or how other people have it worse and make you feel entitled to having feelings.
How do I make people open up to me?
The most important thing you have to do is make yourself open to people. Open meaning that they know you will listen and understand. When you create a friendly and understanding atmosphere for people to feel like they can share their problems with you, they will. Creating an environment that makes people comfortable is very important.
You also have to let them know you are trustworthy and you won’t judge. There’s nothing more hurtful and regrettable than being judged for speaking about something as delicate as mental health. So two things, create a warm and friendly environment and let everyone around you know you don’t judge, and everything they tell you is safe with you. No one likes a blabbermouth Also an occasional “Hello” “How are you today?”, a smile and a hug goes a long way even if it seems cliche. Back when I was still in that dark hole of depression, a smile would have gone a long way. It made me feel cared for in a way. Even if they don’t tell you what’s going on at that moment, a smile or a hug will make them feel like you’re open to listening whenever it is they want to talk.
Life is so short and everything we do has an impact, no matter how little or how big. We have to be there for each other, be kind and caring because you never know what’s going through in a person’s mind and head, so be kind with your words and actions.
For anyone going through anything at all, open up. Speak up, it’s hard but it gets easier after that. In the end, you will be happy you opened up in the first place.