Updated: Apr 8
Mental illness can affect a life without ruling it. Speaking as someone living with it and as someone who loves people living with it.
I was born and raised in a culture which imparts meaning to mental illness. In Africa generally, the mentally ill are portrayed as being “mad” and when such beliefs are compounded with common stereotypes, ignorance is perpetrated even further. Associating mental illness with supernatural causes leads family members to try unorthodox treatments or interventions that often do more harm than good.
Globally, the concept of mental illness is highly stigmatised and layered with guilt, shame and "brokenness" both for the individual and the family. Because of this “shame”, it influences the meanings the individual places on their illness. This shows up in how the individual initially seeks help, the type of help sought, the coping styles and social support systems they have, and how much stigma they attach to mental illness.
Societal meanings of illness have real consequences in terms of whether people:
are motivated to seek treatment,
how they cope with their symptoms,
how supportive their families and communities are,
where they seek help (mental health specialist, primary care provider, clergy, and/or traditional healer),
the pathways they take to get services, and
how well they fare in treatment.
The consequences can be grave - extreme distress, disability, and possibly, suicide - when people with severe mental illness do not receive appropriate treatment.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Mental illness is considered the product of a complex interaction among biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors. The role of any one of these major factors can be stronger or weaker depending on the disorder.
As an adult living in the West, it took me many years of distress, overwhelm, misunderstandings, reclusion, allergies, mood swings, appetite changes, insomnia, repression, intense migraines, dissociation, panic attacks before I finally (and skeptically) agreed to do something about it.
For numerous years, I didn't believe mental illness was a real disease because I didn’t see it and neither did my family and friends. I got told by well meaning family members to “get a thick skin”, and “you’re too sensitive” that after hearing such comments for so many years, I believed them true. I believed I was weak, sensitive and completely misunderstood – but that was my fault too.
The first time I saw a therapist, I spent a good part of the 50 minutes convincing her that I was good and apologising for wasting her time. She gave me some good tools but ultimately, I was a product of my upbringing. I had to change the way I viewed mental illness.
I dropped therapy after that initial session but decided to take up some suggestions the therapist had given like regular exercise, good nutrition, 8 hours of sleep, working from home 1 day a week (this was pre the remote working wave), acupuncture and long-distance walking in the wild. And this worked for a while. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. I needed more tools, diagnosis and possibly treatment.
Firstly, I needed to accept that I was living with a mental illness.
Secondly, I started looking for the right clinician for me. This step took over two years to find a suitable therapist who understood my lived experiences and someone I could trust. Thirdly, I had to commit to the journey.
During my own journey, learning, and advocacy work on living with mental illness, I have learnt the following things: -
Mental illness and all the various maladies this encompasses, takes different shapes for everyone. Not everyone's trauma looks the same. Not everyone's depressive state looks the same. For some, it takes the shape of comfort eating or not getting up from bed in the morning or substance abuse or not completing tasks - all avoid engaging with the outside world and self soothing.
Living with mental illness is getting stuck in cycles of thinking - no - believing the worst of yourself and imagining the worst in people and vice versa. It can mean pushing people away because you don't think you are worth their time. It is incredibly difficult to bring your full self to any relationship when you are protecting parts of yourself that have been hurt or are hurting.
Sometimes illness is battling a sandstorm (metaphorically) that keeps turning and changing direction. Any stressful period feels like an existential threat. You think you have a hold on it, but it changes direction. All you can do is give into it. Admittedly, this also feels like you are about to be wiped out, and feelings of despair make sense. But you have to step right inside the sandstorm and walk through it step by step. The goal being to weather the storm.
But in order to weather the storm, one needs to step into it. This means accepting that sometimes you will need more help to get through the day. So, you need to help your brain out by taking medication and/or talking to a therapist(s) in order for the sandstorm not to swallow you whole. Sometimes, you may have to rely on these solutions or more, your entire lifetime – in order to stay alive, to combat suicide or self harm. It is absolutely worth it because when you come out of the storm, you will not be the same person who was swept up.
Taking medication won’t address the life problems you are facing, but it could help you feel good enough to make a clear-headed decision about what to do next. Therapy will give you skills to acknowledge what happened and what is happening. This is less about fixing you and more of empowering you with the skills to cope.
Because the truth about mental illness is that you are going to feel worse before you feel better at different points in time.
No matter what, mental illness doesn't have to rule your life. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to weather the storm. But this is too great a task to be accomplished by yourself alone. No one heals from mental illness alone. Relational traumas have to be healed through others, they cannot be healed by themselves. Psychologist, Dr. Gretchen Schmelzer terms these as traumas that happen inside a relationship and therefore must be healed inside a relationship, whether that relationship is with a therapist or within a group.
In order to further the mental health discord, corporations, governments and health care systems need to address social, environmental, economical and contextual structures that affect individuals with mental illness. Most social systems need to be redesigned because they no longer serve the community as a whole.
Our brains may be where the pain of distress, overwhelm, anxiety occur, but when it comes to reasons for the pain, this is coming from outside the body - social, environmental, economic structures.
Families, friends and even work colleagues becoming knowledgeable about mental illness and actively opposing the stigma attached to it is extremely important in furthering this progress. Looking out for signs of mental distress, and supporting people to get help they need is extremely helpful.
Parents actively helping their kids get treatment and providing the right support structure needed helps avoid loneliness, bullying, anxiety, depression, suffering and self harm.
If someone you love is suffering from a mental illness, there is hope for them but it takes patience, kindness and forgiveness.
My progress isn’t linear. I am still learning how to take care of myself. Some days are great, I wake up on top of the world, and other days, the most I can do for myself is force air into my lungs. And I am learning to accept this too.
Faith Kayiwa Nababi is a Leadership Consultant, Intercultural Coach and Mental Wellness Advocate at Tailormade Consultancy, a global service agency that empowers executives to make the best strategic decisions; create value and purpose for the people they lead; and catalyse conscious change.