Mental illness: Let’s talk

By Divya Balakumar

Dear Everyone Reading This,

I have some ‘coming out’ to do—no, not the ceremonious outpourings of a closet homosexual, another type of ‘coming out’.

I don’t want to invalidate the use of the phrase ‘coming out’ by using it in this context, but I love it so I will use it.

I have a mental illness.

Before an avalanche of judgement rushes through your mind, let me clarify a couple of things.

  1. I look pretty normal (I’d say, like a 5, maybe a 6 if I’m having a ‘skinny’ day).
  2. I don’t only wear dark clothes and listen to sad music while pushing my fringe out of my face (no judgement here, I just don’t fit the type).

What I’m trying to say, I think, is that there are no signs that point towards me being a mentally ill person; unless you creepily hid a camera in my house, you would probably not have the slightest clue.

I am depressed, and I have generalised anxiety with hints of social anxiety.

Now, what does this mean, you may be wondering?

Depression, as I understand it, is a prolonged feeling of sadness interspersed with hopelessness, guilt and a whole lot of other negative feelings. Depression for me is waking up and refusing to get out of bed until 3.00 pm, eating cereal for lunch (although, really, who is complaining here?) and not finding the motivation to do anything at all.

Add a pinch of anxiety to that and you have the recipe to the disaster that has been my life for the last two years.

Now I don’t mean to turn this into a rant—some of the support I have received has been tremendous.

For instance, in the university context, the Learning and Teaching unit (LTU) has been amazing and I can’t thank them enough. They helped me come up with an Access Plan to bridge the gap of understanding between my tutors and I; basically, it was the piece of paper I needed to let my teachers know that I had an issue, and these are the areas I might struggle with.

And my tutors and lecturers have been fantastic. They’ve been flexible, they’ve expressed genuine concern and they were always responsive to my needs.

But in the social context, I have struggled, and in part I’m sure I can attribute this to my mild social anxiety.

Let me tell you this: the hardest thing for me has been opening up about my mental illness to friends and family. And I know not everyone knows what to say, but I also know that keeping silent is of no help.

It hasn’t been easy learning to accept my mental health issues, but in time (two years!) I have come to understand myself better and take the time to better manage my situation, and I am proud of the steps that I have taken in the last two years to try and cope.

The stigma is evident in every society, but it is far more apparent in the Asian context, at least in my experience. A few weeks ago, I had a difficult conversation with my dad about my mental illness. He listened, and he told me very honestly he did not know what to do or what to say.

All I said to him was, ‘lend me an ear when I need to talk’.

So here I am, reaching out to you, the masses, to say this: if someone opens up to you about their feelings, listen to them. If you don’t know what to say, try to ask them questions to help you better understand their situation. Not everyone wants or needs a solution to their problem, but we all need to know we can reach out to our nearest and dearest.

If you still don’t know how you can help, be honest about it, but let them know you will always lend an ear and be supportive throughout their journey ahead.

Support services like Lifeline and Beyond Blue are a great starting point, but instead of directing someone to a helpline, perhaps we can also pledge to provide complementary support to the people who need it, by just being there.

So go on, then. Speak up, start the conversation, and slowly, perhaps we can all end the stigma.

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