What’s the state of your mental health?
And what are signs of an unhealthy mind? Gardy Chacha speaks to four professionals who took up the challenge to discover their own state of mental health
Have you ever woken up to news that a friend, a brother, a sister, a distant relative, or perhaps just a random person has committed suicide?
Suicide, Dr Margaret Kagwe observes, is the end to mental health illness that has been railing a person for months – or even years. “Someone whose mind is unwell is hard to make out even in a one-on-one encounter,” Dr Kagwe, a psychologist, says.
The mind is where our thoughts get formed and deformed, measured, interpreted and acted upon. An unhealthy mind, Dr Kagwe says, eventually leads to an irrational decision like suicide: or a host of many other tragedies.
Last week, this writer attended a one of a kind graduation: one where doctors, lawyers, engineers, fashion designers – individuals well established in their careers and in life – were conferred.
After a 10-week experience - known as Mental Health Champions (MHC) Training - that involved evaluation of one’s own mental health status and understanding of the human mind, 27 graduands (mostly women) were celebrated for having the courage to face their own mental health struggles.
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According to Dr Kagwe, every human being needs a regular mental health check-up. “As long as you are alive, you go through stuff. We all experience disappointment, failure, loss, tragedy, incapacity, disability and many other forms of trauma. These experiences – which one can argue are part of life – leave scars on our mental health. There is a reason why everyone behaves the way they do. And the reason – if you conducted a post-mortem – is hidden in past experiences.”
Four women who took up the challenge to discover their own state of mental health share their stories.
‘I encounter death on a regularly basis’ - Dr Munini Kioko, a medical Doctor
In the past, I wouldn’t have said I had mental health issues. That changed this year after self-awareness kicked in as a result of going through the Mental Health Champions training.
I am a medical doctor by profession. I treat people for a living. In my career interacting with death is part of the deal.
But still, despite our training, losing patients affects us. Doctors are not machines: we are human. We get affected when we see patients die. While we are trained to expect the possibility of losing a patient, it is not something we want to encounter.
Since I began my practice in 2007 I have seen many patients lose their lives. However, five years ago, we lost a child who was turning one. The little girl had been brought into Emergency: a victim of a fall from a height.
As her care providers, we did the best to save her life. She succumbed enroute to a higher level of care -- an ICU facility. It would have been her first birthday that day. It was heart-breaking. Yet, I still had to go and break the news to her parents.
The girl’s death shook me in a manner that I had not anticipated. It engulfed me with grief that transformed into a mental burden that weighed me down.
There have been other instances that have left me shaken. For instance, last year, I lost three friends: two through an accident and one through suicide.
Joining MHC for me was an attempt at finding out more about my mental health. Going through the programme has made me understand that even though I am a doctor, I am not the provider of life. It is not upon me who lives and who doesn’t. All I have to do is give the best medical care available.
Mental illness, I have come to learn, is here among us with various presentations. I would urge everyone to reduce the stigma and help fight for mental health together.
‘I had a sudden and sharp change in mood’ - Nyaruai Gitonga, a brand manager
One day, in 2018, I woke up and did not feel like interacting with anyone. Not even my family – the people I love the most. I did not want to go out to mingle with people so I switched off my phone and locked myself in my bedroom. I wanted to be by myself.
Day one came and went and so did day two. Then weeks followed. For four months, I did not leave my bedroom. I did not leave home. I never went out into the sun.
Outwardly, I was calm. Maybe a little gloomy but nonetheless nothing looked out of the ordinary. But deep inside I was in turmoil.
I had a constant barrage of negative thoughts. Life lost all meaning and I wanted to commit suicide. It was a very dark place to be.
At some point I confided in my sister. She talked me out of it. And for a moment I started feeling sane again. I left the bedroom and ventured into the living room. But I did not leave the house. Probably because the darkness continued lingering around.
A good one year had gone by when my sister took me to see a professional. I was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder.
The funny thing is I had a very good childhood. My parents provided for us. I lacked nothing of value to make me spiral out of control. However, I remember fantasizing about dying as young as in my adolescence. In my mind, I had always toyed around with suicide. But I never made anything of it. For me, it was normal to think about these things.
The mental health training has made me realise that something was not quite OK with that. I have healed over the last few years and I am at a good place now. I have periodic manic episodes but they are few and far in-between, and much less pronounced.
For my own sanity, I make a point of talking to my therapist every now and then to avert the possibility of sinking back to that dark place.
‘I was abused by a close relative while growing up’ - Noreen Ngami, an organisational Development Consultant
I became a mental health advocate not because I wanted to but because, for the first time, I faced up to my hurtful past.
Around October last year, I was suffering from severe burnout. Together with some friends, we decided to seek professional help.
In the process, I met a counsellor who really challenged me to look deeper inward and ask myself who am I and why do I do things the way I do them: why do I work the way I work.
I am still on that journey of self-discovery. But, the much I have found out has been illuminating to say the least.
Growing up, my home was a target of robbery many times. This, I came to learn recently, is the reason why I find it hard to trust people.
I travelled to South Africa for my Bachelor of Commerce undergraduate degree. When I came back in 2011 there were hardly any jobs, against my expectations. Emotionally, I sank so low that I contemplated suicide. Lacking a job made me want to kill myself. See why I love overworking now?
As an adolescent, I was groped and fondled by a close male relative. I did not even know that what they were doing was wrong. What this did to me is that I lost some sense of self-worth. As a result, in my relationships, I find myself giving in easily to emotional and physical abuse.
What am I saying? The last few months, I have journeyed around my existence and I have made discoveries that have helped me become self-aware.
Because of this self-awareness, I am able to express myself better in relationships. It has brought some sense of freedom because the mental baggage has been decoded.
What started with a bad episode of burnout has led to the unravelling of who Noreen is and the scars I carry from my past.
Today, I am very deliberate about the health of my mind. I make it a point to call and talk to my therapist every few weeks just in case I am going through bad stress.
‘I kept falling in love with the wrong people’ - Annie Wanjiku, fashion designer
My mental health issues went on for a long time without me knowing.
In public – and to people who know me – I am on top of my game. I am thriving. I am happy. I have my life figured out.
That is not true. The last few months I have faced the ugly truth. Mentally, I have not been well. I have been in pain and I have carried bitterness and resentment.
I was raised by a single mother and a stepfather. One of my sworn accomplishments was to never fall prey to early pregnancy. My two older sisters got pregnant in the same fashion. I didn’t want the same fate. But, I got pregnant right after Form Four.
Naively I had gone into a relationship with a boy. Without sex, he said, he would leave. He was my second love: the first left precisely because of that.
A year after giving birth, he eventually left. Of course I was heartbroken. I had to find work to fend for my daughter. And then afterwards I made more mistakes going into bad relationships.
There was one where we stayed together for 8 to 9 years. We were practically married – finances and all. It ended; leaving me devastated financially and emotionally.
In 2012, a boss who strongly disliked me made me resign. Afterwards I started a business which subsequently failed.
I have never quite trusted anyone to talk to about the turmoil going on inside. We are raised to man up or to woman up. No one wants to hear that you are depressed or anything to that effect.
I learnt to mask it all: I was always successful at putting up a front as someone who truly has it figured out.
For me, particularly, I did not even want to acknowledge the problem. I wanted to convince even myself that all was well.
I was wrong. Going through MHC has brought out the skeletons. Confronting your inner self is difficult. But I am glad I did: I am now mentally at a better place.
A critical lesson I have learnt is that no one and nothing outside yourself can give you happiness: not a human being, not money and not anything otherworldly.
You have to make the choice to be happy and to prioritise your needs so that you can be healthy enough to be in a relationship with other people.