#LafiyaListens: Mentally Ill Whilst African
Many cultures around the world are still exploring mental health, what it means and how to treat/respond to mental illnesses, for countless years (and even currently) it has been stigmatised, demonised or just ignored. What does this mean for sufferers? Living in an environment that simply refuses to support or see what empathise can further worsen symptoms and isolate victims. A recent post by Nunya Gemegah caught our eye about this topic (view post here) so we reached out to her and she kindly agreed to be interviewed about her experiences living with her parents and culture towards the mental health problems she faced.
How old were you when you first started developing mental health problems and did your parents notice anything?
Looking back, I've suffered with extreme anxiety as a child, but in regards to noticing destructive behaviours and a desire to self-harm and actively end my life... those symptoms of depression heightened around the age of 14/15… my parents noticed I was acting differently, sleeping a lot more than usual or being incapable of sleep... spikes in my mood… my mum even found a diary entry when I was in year 8 about me wanting to kill myself - but I got in trouble for it. The things they noticed, they perceived as usual, bratty, teenage behaviour.
When you tried to discuss your mental health problems with your parents, how did they react?
At the time they thought I was being melodramatic, I’d been bullied pretty much my entire schooling life as well as tensions within my home so as far as they were concerned, I just needed to tough it out. I knew when I was attempting to open up to my parents that it was more serious than that, At that point I’d made 2 suicide attempts , been in hospital because of an eating disorder (which they swept under the rug) I didn't have a name for what I was going through so I just told them I needed to see a doctor , My mother was furious and asked if i wanted to go to a psych-ward to see people who were really suffering... and it was that day that I revealed to her that my behaviour had been triggered by the sudden resurfacing of memories, of me being molested as a child and not knowing how to deal with these thoughts.... the reactions following that revelation weren't ideal, but it fastened the pace of me receiving a diagnosis & treatment but it also resulted in the fracture in our relationship that persists today.
How did their reaction affect you? Did it worsen your mental health status? Was there any built resentment or tension?
Honestly, their reaction didn't affect me then, though I was terrified and hurt in some ways because I’d started cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) while sitting my GCSE's and moving on to college, as well as dealing with the realisation of my past molestation, there was only so much I could process. But there were so many tears and apologies that I felt like i was finally coming to terms with what happened to me, and finally I didn't have to go through it alone.
I'd been, and in someways still am very reliant on my parent's approval and support, so as time went on and my mental health deteriorated dramatically, my mother's support increased where as my dad tried to be there for me but in the same regard he completely shuts down any idea of me being depressed or having PTSD. He doesn't see the bigger picture. Where as my mum sees the bigger picture, she can piece together the ways in which my past has made an imprint on the person I am today and my fears and my moods. But when it comes to the ways my mental health affects my day to day life... there's a lapse.
Recently, I've moved back home because of the state of my mental health and there's a lot of hiding I've been doing. This is mainly because i feel more invisible in their presence, yet they lash out at me about random things because they’re extremely hurt by my selective absence. They cant seem to call a spade a spade and acknowledge the place their actions and attitudes hold in my inability to recover, how their comments and even body language trigger me , has definitely birthed a resentment in me that wears me out and tears me down.
And I'm fearful for what may be the result of my harboured feelings.... but i also know my environment isn't one with a firm enough foundation to voice this, without doing further damage to myself.
At your worst, did your parents make any attempts to understand. If so, how?
It’s tricky, when I'd been living on my own there had been a greater concern about me, about my safety and what I was going through. They'd drive up to my city with food, my dad even baked. Once I made the decision to stop working for 2 years they supported me financially. But since moving home, the concern is different, it’s quite 'goal' and performance orientated. Like since they've seen me smile more, or go to work and counselling I must be OK now. But when I try to explain that though I've Improved, I'm still unwell.. I'm met with hostility.
What could they have done to aid your mental health?
I've gone over this a million times in my head and come up with nothing, maybe this is part of the reason I'm so distant form them now because when they ask me what they should have done I honestly don’t know..
As for right now, I would love for them, especially my dad to say it out loud. When he heard news of me wanting to take time out of university to focus on my recovery, he asked me why it’s been such a struggle "without talking about your mental health" he said. I get them to watch documentaries, read things, I explain the ins and outs of my mind but there's nothing I do or say that helps them reach this moment of clarity... and I'm tired of brainstorming.
Why do you think that your problems are hard for your parents (and others with similar backgrounds) to understand?
My counsellor often tries to remind me that cultural differences make it harder for people to understand these things. My entire degree is based on the ways that linguistic, cultural, economic and even spiritual differences make it harder for people to relate , at length we discuss the ways that these discrepancies generate nonphysical violence because of dismissal birthed by ignorance. I've been to lectures and seminars and workshops, I've made efforts to gain some sort of understanding, as to why two African parents may struggle with mental health as a whole and equip myself with the tools to aid them in meeting me half way - but due to my parents career paths and family history, I can only put this rift in understanding as a form of denial
How do you coexist with and move on from their attitudes towards your mental health?
I barely do. I work a lot and align my days so that when I am at home I’m in my room.
As I type this, and the other posts I've written about my family ties and the impact it’s had on my mental health I'm chocked with guilt. Because despite all of this I know my parents love me. I know they'd go above and beyond to make my dreams come true ... except the one that keeps me up at night and separates us further and further apart.
A note for those who may be experiencing the same thing;
I mentioned that I've made a lot of effort to get into the minds of my parents and look at their environment and past experiences as a whole, to maybe bridge a gap of understanding .. I don't regret doing that. Although, right now, as I venture on that quest, it has brought up feelings of despair. One thing it has done is help me realise that I need to take that same urgency and resourcefulness into building myself. On your journey to recovery you can do your best to understand why people struggle with understanding you but that shouldn't take away from your own experience.
You do not have to make anybody feel comfortable with the pain that you're going through. I'm not encouraging disrespect but I'm just asking you to put yourself first. If you want to understand them, understand them for yourself.
It's unfair but the truth is your family/culture may not offer the support that you desperately need and deserve but it’s out there.
******* End of Interview *******
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