By Omoruyi Giwa-Osagie
I have spent a lot of time thinking and trying to decide how to contribute to advancing mental health awareness in Nigeria. I have decided that the best way to start is to talk about my experience with mental health. To put my story out, and talk about my experiences, in the hopes that it will shine a bit of light on mental health issues, and hopefully inspire people who are facing similar problems to reach out and seek help. Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are routinely dismissed as being a figment of the imagination and often people say “things could be worse” or “pray it away”. In Nigeria, they are often seen as “a white person’s illness”, or associated with demons. A worrying reaction to medically recognised conditions. These conditions can affect anyone at anytime, and it is important to realise this.
Deciding to seek help was one of the toughest things I have ever had to do. Firstly, it involves admitting to yourself that there is something wrong. I have always been an outgoing, friendly and generally extroverted person. I am the kind of person who normally appears to have things under control, a very social person usually with a smile on my face. Therefore, this made it harder for me to accept that something was wrong, and subsequently reached out for help.
Additionally, I come from a society with very traditional views of masculinity. The kind sometimes referred to, not inaccurately, as ‘toxic masculinity’. Where I am from, you are expected to show strength and never any weaknesses; much less talk about those weaknesses. It is almost as though not acknowledging these weaknesses will make them disappear. I remember once seeing “drink about it, smoke about it, but don’t talk about it”, and I feel that this is an accurate representation of the society I come from and the kind of masculinity expected from men.
My upbringing in this society made it incredibly hard and challenging to accept that I had an issue. About two years ago, I had begun to feel less like myself. I began to feel down, had a lack of interest in doing most things, and failed to see the point in a lot of things I was doing and had previously enjoyed doing. This led to me spending most of those days in bed and sleeping through them; I had lost motivation to do things and would often only leave my house in the evening to buy food, if at all. This went on for a few weeks, until my close friend’s 21st birthday. This brought a lot of my other friends, from far and wide, back together and coincided with an upturn in my mood. However, once my friends left, my sullen mood returned again. I have had periods where I wasn’t as happy, but these tended to be short moods rather than prolonged periods as this one proved to be. This led me to the conclusion that I was homesick, and the feeling of having my friends around me helped alleviate the problem.
Making matters worse was the fact that I had never been much of a talker about my deeper feelings. I was used to bottling things up, and hardly ever speaking to people about what was truly going on deep down and how I was really feeling. I would occasionally have conversations of emotional depth with two or three friends; however these were often after we had all had a few drinks. Effectively meaning I was unable to fully process and speak on more than surface level emotions consciously. The bottling up eventually caught up with me.
I have an affinity for reading, and at this time had been reading articles online, especially long reads. This led to me reading an article on GQ (I am unable to find the link to the article) detailing how one of their contributors had greatly benefitted from therapy, and just generally speaking to someone. He spoke about how comforting it was to speak to someone who was completely neutral. Someone trained to probe into and identify problem areas, and how this led to an improvement in his general mood. He spoke of the fact that even after he felt he had ‘recovered’, he still felt it was healthiest for him to attend. This article, along with gentle encouragement from my best friend, helped me decide to give therapy a try.
After researching clinics and the benefits of seeking therapy, I decided to see a psychologist rather than a psychiatrist; a psychologist tends to treat using different forms of therapy, whilst a psychiatrist generally prescribes medicines along with therapy. Thus, I felt a psychologist would be most beneficial to me. Telling my parents I wanted to see a psychologist was no easy task. No parent ever wants to hear there is something wrong with their child, and most especially something as misunderstood as a mental illness. I eventually garnered some courage to do so, and painted it as I was going to speak to someone; I had a lot on my mind and felt like speaking to someone would be the best thing for me. They were understandably worried, but patient and understanding enough to encourage me.
My first few therapy sessions were strange. Having usually been someone who bottled things up, this opportunity to safely let things out felt unusual to me at first. Bottling up things didn’t deal with them, and I would sometimes overreact to situations, often more as a result of pent-up emotions, than an appropriate reaction to the situation. Luckily, the therapist was skilled enough to make sure I was comfortable, and I didn’t have to explore too much too quickly. I was eased in with fairly simple, albeit probing, questions, which were designed to encourage me to open up. I had told him that I wasn’t sure exactly what was wrong, but that I wasn’t feeling completely myself. This afforded him the opportunity to take a detailed dive into deeper aspects of my life.
We started at the beginning, going as far back as I can remember and then advancing through the years. Going through this step by step, and being encouraged to think deeply about things I had failed to process before, afforded me the opportunity to process things I had not before. Things I had bottled up, and was now finally releasing, was hugely beneficial. It felt like a weight had been lifted off me. By advancing chronologically, I came across memories and emotions I had experienced which I had suppressed and tried to forget about, emotions I had run from and not faced head on. I was now able to confront them and deal with them in order to better understand them, and myself.
I was introduced to new techniques of ensuring I dealt with the full range of my emotions when things happened. I was encouraged to talk about things as they happened, and not bottle them up. I was encouraged to pay more attention to my mental health.
My sessions eventually came to an end and I left having felt my mood vastly improve over time. I decided to have a few more sessions about six months ago, before my final exams. I realised that I am someone who constantly puts pressure on myself, and this pressure can sometimes lead to anxiety. I spoke to someone different this time as I had an idea of what was wrong, and what kind of help I was seeking.
I had four sessions of therapy, and these involved learning new techniques to cope with anxiety and times when I was feeling under more pressure than usual. I was introduced to mindfulness, and the amazing app Headspace. I was also introduced to breathing techniques and ways to better deal with my anxieties. The last session remains the best session I have had to date. We reviewed the progress and self-growth that had occurred throughout my journey. Realising this, I left my session that day feeling overjoyed. In the desire to get ahead right now, I had failed to stop and look back and appreciate how far I have come, and seeing and feeling the positive effects of this progress felt amazing.
Deciding to get therapy was difficult. It was not easy to admit to myself that something was wrong. It was not easy to admit to my friends that I felt like something was wrong. I had to overcome obstacles to getting help, such as a friend trying to convince me that I was fine and I had no idea what a ‘real’ mental illness felt like. A common misunderstanding as problems has different effects on different people. I also had people who said I should talk to them, whilst I understand that they did have my best interests at heart, they however approached the issue in the wrong way. It wasn’t so much as I did not want to talk to them but more, I did not know how to do so properly.
I had to learn that asking for help is okay. I had to learn that knowing I have weaknesses, and seeking help for those weaknesses does not make me weak. I had to learn that talking about, and embracing, emotions and feelings does not make me weak. I had to learn that mental health is just as, if not more, important than physical health.
Mental health in general is not given the prominence and importance it demands. Mental health can affect anyone, and it is estimated that approximately 48 million people in Nigeria suffer from depression, with a large percentage of this going undiagnosed. This has also led to an increasing suicide rate, especially amongst young people. Thus, it is important to catch these things signs early and seek the help we all need sometimes. It can be as easy as talking to someone about why they seem different and have had a downturn in their mood. It can be as simple as reminding your friends that you are there for them should they need you (and actually being there).
I chose the title ‘Mental Health and Me’, because of the role mental health has played in my life, and plays in other people’s lives, even if it is often ignored. I was lucky enough to catch it early, and decide to seek help before I went down the rabbit hole. Catching it early allowed me to deal with it easier than I would have, had it gotten worse. I implore you to recognise the importance of mental health in your life too, and should you need, seek help. Talk to someone if you have a persistent mood change. Accepting that you have a mental illness does not make you weak, or less of a man or woman; conversely it may save your life, like it did mine.