First things first
The stigma surrounding mental illness, unfortunately, still persists – and for too many sufferers it remains a source of intense shame. In light of this, I should make it known that I have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder; a medical condition that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.
As hard as it was to come to grips with this fact, the diagnosis has changed my life. It allowed me an opportunity to seek professional help – and an opportunity to learn more about myself and how the condition affects my emotional well-being.
The warning signs were there
I can trace it back to my teens when, in grade nine, all semblance of colour drained out of my world. I had previously enjoyed schoolwork, sports, socialising and my school’s vibrant drama programme. I wouldn’t have known that I was depressed despite an almost violent sadness, and no one was aware of how I felt. Only one of my many teachers noticed that a once outgoing young boy had methodically isolated himself, and that my academic performance had become the opposite of what it had been.
A lack of recognition and adequate treatment
In short, nothing interested me anymore. The teacher mentioned orchestrated a meeting with the school psychologist, and although we had several sessions together (I really did like her), no medication was ever prescribed. After a while, I simply started to dodge our appointments – despite her best efforts. Indeed, I also stopped going to classes and often locked myself in a bathroom cubicle for long periods of time. My parents were unaware of my recurring depressive episodes, and saw my change in behaviour as a form of defiant rebelliousness; this became the source of much hostility and conflict, which in turn only worsened the condition as my home life deteriorated. By grade ten I had waded into the murky waters of substance abuse and engaged in other risky behaviours. I didn’t care about what would happen to me.
As the condition was never adequately dealt with, the cyclical depressive episodes deepened considerably over time, my self-esteem hitting new lows along with them. When it came to my early twenties, I gave up on two university degree programmes and several years later dropped out of a master’s degree. It was at this point that one of my lecturers made contact with a university councillor who then made contact with a psychiatrist.
A turning point eventually came
Finally, something could perhaps be done. Finding the right combination of medication, however, was a long and difficult process; and, despite their effectiveness, it should be noted that there are no silver bullets.
If only this had happened 12 years earlier, my life might have been very different. Whereas a hospitalisation for an intentional overdose came a few years down the line, I never attempted suicide as a teen. A good friend, however, did successfully take his own life in matric. He shot himself; a definitive and final action that left no room for help. At this point, I’ve known several people who’ve committed suicide, including a cousin.
There is hope, and there’s certainly help out there
Depression is not something to ignore, under any circumstance, and whereas it may not always lead to suicide, it undoubtedly sometimes does. Even when suicide doesn’t take place, the effects of an untreated medical condition could easily reverberate throughout one’s life, leaving a legacy of broken relationships, pervasive underachievement and a multitude of poor life decisions. The tragedy is that depression and bi-polarity are treatable, and that in 70-80%* of cases, the mixture of medication and therapy works wonders in helping a sufferer enjoy a happier and more productive life.
Know the warning signs, and act on them
If you suffer from any of the below symptoms, or know someone who does, please speak up. It could mean the difference between life and death. To learn more, please see the South African Depression and Anxiety Group’s (SADAG) website for educational material on depression, bi-polar disorder and teen suicide prevention.
Symptoms of depression or a bi-polar depressive episode
- Loss of interest in things you like to do
- Sadness that won’t go away
- Irritability and feelings of anger
- Crying a lot / tearfulness
- Spending lots of time alone
- Eating too much or too little
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Having low energy or restless feelings
- Feeling tired a lot
- Feeling tense or worrying a lot (persistent anxiety)
- Missing school (or work), day dreaming a lot, underperforming at school or work.
SADAG helpline (8am – 8pm, 7 days a week): 0800 567 567, or SMS: 31393
*Figure as per SADAG Depressive Disorder literature available here.