*Trigger warning: content pertains to sensitive topics of suicide and mental health including depression and anxiety
It’s no surprise that we are seeing a rapid rise in the levels of mental health issues amongst our generation. With all the unrealistic work and school related pressures that expect us to perform at high levels of productivity, toppled with all the socio-economic and psychological effects ensuing from the pandora. Lastly, not to mention how Insta has most of us in a chokehold trying to attain the idealistic 'soft life' luxury lifestyles. The pressure to appear as if we have it all together, all the time, is exasperating, to say the least.
Many people who struggle with mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety, do not seek help. But why? Well for starters, sometimes it is difficult to even identify that this is something more than passing sadness. Other times we may not be aware of available treatment options or we may not have access to treatment in our area. Additionally, many of us may have limited or no support from friends or we fear what they might say or think of us.
The Warning Signs
The symptoms for depression and anxiety vary depending on the person. Often times anxiety and depression are not mutually exclusive. As in to say, the existence of one along with the other is not uncommon. The types of depression and anxiety also tend to vary widely depending on age, gender or just from situation to situation. For example, where some may be experiencing postpartum depression after giving birth, another person may be experiencing depression triggered by living with a chronic illness. The cause of mental health issues is thought to be a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors.
Despite varying symptoms of depression, there are some prevalent signs. The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom listed some of the following symptoms as being common:
- continuous low mood or sadness
- feeling hopeless and helpless
- having low self-esteem
- feeling tearful
- feeling guilt-ridden
- feeling irritable and intolerant of others
- having no motivation or interest in things
- finding it difficult to make decisions
- not getting any enjoyment out of life
- feeling anxious or worried
- having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming yourself
Prioritising mental health in communities
I’m sure you’ve heard of the phrase “it’s okay to not be okay” but is it? Do we curate safe spaces within our communities, friendships, and workplaces? The stigmatisation behind mental illness seems to still be quite prevalent within our communities and stems from a lack of understanding. This is often contributed to by misleading media representation. Research has shown that although many people acknowledge mental illness and the need to treat them, there is still a negative perception behind those illnesses.
How can we create safe spaces for people struggling with mental illnesses to feel comfortable enough to open up?
Here are some useful suggestions:
- Educating yourself on mental health issues so that you can respond to misconceptions and negativity by sharing factual information and experiences
- Talking openly about mental health amongst friends, family and on social media
- Become conscious of derogatory language, remind people that using words like “psycho”, “crazy” or “emo” can be quite harmful
- Take mental illness as seriously as physical illness and normalising treatment just as you would for any other health care treatment
Being there for someone who is struggling with Depression and Anxiety
Chat about it
If you notice that someone may be dealing with a mental health issue, and you want to help, there are ways to do so. The first way is to simply start the conversation. It can be something as simple as saying, “Hey I’ve noticed you have not been yourself lately, do you want to talk about it?”. Remember to keep in mind that they may just want someone to listen to them rather than ‘fix’ their problems. It is more helpful to ask “how can I help you?” rather than deciding what you think is best for them.
Establish your boundaries
Take care of you. As the saying goes ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’. If your mental health is not in good shape then you can’t really be there for those you love. If you find that they are building some type of co-dependency towards you that consists of constant venting, this is doing you both more harm than good so set your clear boundaries. I know it is difficult to do that, believe me, especially if you care deeply about them but if you feel all your energy is being drained when supporting someone, you’ll have very little energy left for yourself. Recognising that it is not your responsibility to ensure everyone's needs are met is self care.
Encourage them to stay consistent
If they decide to take part in some type of therapy, encourage them to stay consistent with it. When trying to reach your physical health goals, it requires consistency and discipline to see results. This also applies to our mental health. In order to see real changes in our mental well being we must be patient and not get discouraged after only a few sessions of therapy.
A lot of people tend to give up on psychotherapy when they do not see life changing results in the first session but it does not work that way. It is also important to bare in mind that one may not always gel well with the first therapist they see. Sometimes, there may be cultural, racial and gender barriers between the patient and therapist that may make it challenging to really get the most out of the sessions.
How does talk therapy work?
Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, is one of the most common forms of therapy. If you decide that this is the right course of action for you, then here is a little briefing of how it usually works. Firstly, the therapist needs to gain a comprehensive understanding of your history and background, so they can decide on the best course of treatment which can take a few sessions.
Questions at this stage tend to be around the following:
- family history of mental health conditions
- past traumas
- early childhood life
- how the patient is coping with their issues in daily life
- what they hope to achieve through talk therapy
Once they have this information, the therapist will proceed with treatment. It should be an open-ended dialogue about any issues or concerns you may be facing. Remember, they can only help you as far as you let them. Withholding important information limits how much you can truly benefit from the session. Believe me, it is not easy to admit a lot of things out loud to a complete stranger who looks like they can read your mind, but this is one of the most pivoting parts of the whole process.
There is no limit to the number of talk therapy sessions a person might attend to gain a deeper understanding of their condition, habits, or challenges. A therapist may recommend regular sessions until they and yourself have come up with an action plan for treatment or until the person has made lifestyle improvements. Just a heads up, most of the ‘work’ happens outside of the therapy sessions.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
An increasingly popular form of talk therapy is CBT. Don’t be intimidated by the terminology, the main gist of it is empathises working towards changing your thought patterns which influence your feelings and thus influence your behavioural patterns. CBT is based on the concept that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle.
CBT aims to help you deal with overwhelming problems in a more positive way by breaking them down into smaller parts. You're shown how to change these negative patterns to improve the way you feel. Unlike some other talking treatments, CBT deals with your current problems, rather than focusing on issues from your past.
As much as short term fixes such as breathing techniques and taking walks can be helpful for milder levels of anxiety and depression, it may be worth exploring more long term solutions that may lead to more sustainable results. Here are some useful suggestions to help you cope with any anxiety.
Identifying your triggers:
This can be done on your own or with a therapist. Sometimes they can be obvious. For example, in my life, a lot of my anxiety has been academically induced and realising this helped me to anticipate when an anxiety attack might be on its way. Periods such as exam season and end of term were times I would ensure to pay extra attention to my mental health.
Sometimes it may be due to a particular person, the situation, the environment and so on. It may take some time to figure out, and this may take some extra support, through therapy or with friends. When you’re emotionally triggered, you’re experiencing a trauma response just as you would with the ‘fight or flight response’.
To work through this, practise observing these sensations and breathing through them rather than reacting to them. For example, staying conscious and pausing before reacting. Release that energy from your body through breath work, a quick walk or even an ugly cry.
Ensuring you have a routine that consists of some quiet time to meditate or pray
While this takes some practice to do successfully, mindful meditation, when done regularly, can eventually help you train your brain to dismiss anxious thoughts when they arise. Similarly, if you have a particular faith, taking time to pray can have the same benefits as meditation. Prayer can help keep you grounded, calm and gives you a chance to draw your attention to things you can be grateful for.
Ensuring holistic balance between your mind, body and soul
Holistic health is an approach to life that considers multidimensional aspects of wellness. It encourages individuals to recognise the whole person: physical, mental, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual.
Making sure you are eating a balanced diet and even taking supplements is definitely a good long-term strategy. Research shows certain supplements or nutrients can help anxiety reduction such as lemon balm, green tea and omega-3 fatty acids. However it may take up to 3 months of consistently eating healthy before you notice boosts in your overall health.
Exercising regularly, even just once a week and getting enough sleep also plays a crucial role in helping to better your mental well-being. Essentially, finding, maintaining and prioritising balance in all aspects within your daily life is the goal.
Finally, it is important to be proactive with your mental health and take the necessary steps, where possible, to work through any mental health issues you may be dealing with. There is strength in vulnerability and there is absolutely nothing wrong realising you may need professional help or even medication to help you cope with mental health disorders. Furthermore, it is essential that we eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness and offer safe spaces for everyone around us to receive the right help for them. Below are some social media accounts and a podcast playlist that have great insight on helping you get the best help. We have also included a list of contact details for counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists available in Malawi.
@ria_amazonia - lifestyle coach with an MA in psychology
@the.holistic.pyschologist - PhD in Psychology with a published book that focuses on holistic health and self healing, titled "How to do the Work" which is also a great resource for self-healing.
@myeasytherapy - PhD in Psychology with content that focuses on mental health for women
@millenial.therapist - Psychotherapist targeted at helping young millennials
@dr.thema - Minister and psychologist. You can also find her on Twitter, a personal favourite of mine for her wisdom and insight on self-actualisation.
@nedratawab - relationships and boundaries expert