When I read Chimamanda Adichie’s article on her mental health struggles published on the Guardian UK (before it was pulled down) in 2015, I recall wondering what it felt like, having mental health issues. I am not sure why the piece affected me so much at the time, but I recall pondering over the myriad of questions that crossed my mind. Was the idea of anyone struggling with `mental health issues even a genuine concept? If it was genuine, is there a chance I was experiencing it, but did not know? What if the mental health awareness “wokeness” budding around the world at the time was just one of those trends that would eventually phase out.
I recall that Adichie, in the article, narrated her struggle with depression; in a way that was different from my conception of what it was. I mean, I had always made statements like “ I feel depressed right now” or “this is so depressing” so many times, it seemed like a random adjective or just a synonym for the word “sad”. How do you get depressed so much that you lose control of your thoughts or mind; and it possibly affects you physically or alters your behavior; yet you appear as normal to everybody around you?
Growing up in the Eastern part of Nigeria, the only time anyone was attributed to having mental health issues was when they suffered severe psychiatric disorders and exhibited violent behavior; the type you see in Nollywood movies where the person dramatically rips their clothes apart; runs around stark naked, or eats food from dumpsters. No one ever paid attention to the subtle forms of mental instability, like anxiety or depression.
Thinking about it now that though, it was always there, unlabeled. I recall the mindboggling story of a lady who lived on our street. After she had her 6th daughter, she stopped eating; refused to breastfeed the baby, and would sometimes be seen wandering on the street. Eventually, she strangled the baby, cut open the caesarian stitch from her surgery; and pulled out her intestines until she died. It was rumored that she killed herself because she was angry that she could not birth a son for her husband after 6 attempts; but it probably was acute post-partum depression.
Mental illness is prevalent in Nigeria. We all have experienced or are experiencing one form of mental health issue or the other. The lack of education about it is the main problem. And with the stigma of self-disclosure, it’s no shocker that people hardly have discussions about being in a relationship with someone with a mental illness.
The truth is, we don’t need to pretend like everything is normal, because it’s not. We don’t need to act like everything is okay, because it’s not. Our conversations in the workplace, with our friends and family; and on social media need to shift to be more real, open and vulnerable. That’s the power of a simple conversation. With so many people suffering from depression and no one-size-fits-all treatment; we simply cannot afford to not talk about mental health.
Normalizing mental health could be as simple as a person talking about their our own mental health; or difficult emotions really openly and honestly. Maybe curate their social media posts less and instead make them more realistic; showing when they’re stressed, tired, angry, sad, or any other number of emotions. It could also be a boss or person in a position of leadership creating a culture where vulnerability is acceptable; by talking about feelings and life stressors. Even more, normalizing things like going to therapy appointments; even by using that as an example for a completely valid reason to be out of the office for a bit.
If we can achieve this, then we can finally normalize what it means to struggle with our mental health. And when we normalize problems that people are having individually in secret; we lower the threshold for them to be able to talk about them.