Don’t tell me to be strong – help me

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 The emergence of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has introduced us to new terms and behavioral practices, namely:  social distancingself-isolation, and the verb to self-isolate as well as lockdown, shelter-in-place, and ubiquitous quarantine.

We are constantly bombarded, and rightly so, to self-quarantine to break the spread of the highly infectious novel Coronavirus. As families spend more time together, there is bound to be a higher incidence of domestic violence and abuse. There is data to support this fact. However, there is another silent enemy likely to plague thousands if not millions as the lockdown continues–higher incidents of depressed mental health and the correlation to uptake in suicide.

The death of the gifted 15-year-old schoolgirl from Stockton, California, Jo’Vianni Smith, is a result of self-isolation due to the lockdown. Her death should create awareness about mental health and suicide epidemic. We must be on the lookout for the signs of self-harm even among the seemingly strong ones among our friends and loved ones.

Experiences of mental health from African context

Growing up, parents, grandparents, and teachers tell little boys, “Boys don’t cry.” As a man, he is expected to exude confidence and invincibility even when he’s sad or depressed. Out of pride, a man must learn to swallow his feelings. This instruction is well and good, but what happened to being truthful to one’s self, allowing self-disclosure? Even though we were told not to cry, my mates and I still cried when the occasion demanded it. 

One of my teachers told us about a banking official in his mid-40s or so, who became a kleptomaniac overnight after his mother suddenly passed away. The promising, young banker would often kill his neighbors’ fowls, leave them in the open, and walk through the neighborhood. Sometimes, he took things of no significant value, just to steal something. In typical Ghanaian fashion, the neighbors, relatives, and close friends said a “spirit” might have cast a spell on him. 

His thefts continued until someone suggested that he see a clinical psychotherapist. In the first session, it became clear that his condition was due to the pent-up emotions the man felt as a result of losing his mother. He was so close to his mother that when she suddenly passed away, it hit him hard. As a man, he was not supposed to cry; he must show strength so others could lean on him. Because he couldn’t grieve properly or process his pain and loss, he resorted to theft.

So, when the therapist asked him during the first session, if he had lost a very dear one, the young man could only nod yes. When the therapist asked him to talk about how he grieved, he burst into tears. He cried as if he had just learned his mother had died. His tears of grief released the emotions locked up within him. It was the beginning of his healing and recovery.

Mental health knows no discrimination

Too often, we think about mental health in the context of mentally deranged people wandering our streets or those confined to a psychiatric facility. But mental health is more than that–it affects every person regardless of age, income, gender, or profession. Many of us go through emotional imbalances that manifest as bouts of anxiety, depression, and despair.

All of these conditions are considered mental health issues. Every person suffers from an imbalance of one form of mental health or another sometime in his/her life. It may differ in intensity or degree; regardless, we need to address the situation, and the earlier, the better.

Mental health issues know no boundaries and claim victims of all ages from the sexually and physically abused child to emotionally and physically abused adults. Every person suffers in one way or another. If their symptoms go untreated, they, in turn may inflict pain on another or turn their anguish against themselves.

They may withdraw and become reclusive or rage against a spouse, child, or friend. In treating the abuse victim, we must always remember the innocent ones who suffer the consequences and perpetuate the cycle. 

What we can do

Today, behaviors like posting revenge porn, bullying, identity theft, or putting undue pressure on someone for your personal gain may change how a victim thinks about him or herself. The victim’s thoughts, if not addressed, can become so oppressive that it can lead them to commit suicide. Suicide does not discriminate; it claims the lives of the rich or poor, literate or illiterate, celebrities or everyday people, and royals or commoners.

Instead of telling someone to be strong, we should do a few things. First, we should tell them to speak to a friend, confessor, or therapist. Second, we should tell them to shed light on the raging force of their fears and empower themselves to join hands and forces, for no one is exempt. We should get help, and the sooner, the better. 

Princes William and Harry of the United Kingdom talk openly about their mental health issues after their mother, Princess Diana, died tragically. Their willingness to share their struggles and anxieties sets a positive example and should encourage us to grieve openly and to talk about our emotional struggles as well.

Their example teaches us that we must liberate ourselves from the chains of outdated mindsets. And so, a third thing we can do is that we must embrace all of our emotions; they are part of us and what makes us human. We must expend these energies, or they can have grave repercussions. Fourth, we must work together to remove the stigma shrouding the topic of mental health. It cannot be a taboo subject any longer. 

Again, we must be conscious of the signs of mental issues in our loved ones. We must show keen interest in the things they aren’t telling us – the subtle, imperceptible changes in behavior and moods in them. Sometimes our most stalwart friends suffer and we never know about their pain. They need us to step up and ask them how they are doing more frequently than our weaker friends.

Too often, we hear from family and friends after losing a loved one to suicide, “We didn’t see this coming,” or, “She was so full of life and joy.” This is exactly what happened to Alexandra Wilshaw, 21, who was a promising mathematician who hanged herself. Her mother, Carol Fowkes, said, “We never knew that there was anything wrong. She used to be perfectly fine when we spoke to her over FaceTime.” [Daily Mail, October 9, 2019]. Too often, everything seems fine until something goes woefully wrong.

I used to kid myself that I am strong, and I prided myself on being this way. My work requires me to work with people. I always try to be available for those in my life. I also try to be there for anyone who isn’t fortunate enough to have a friend.

Recently, events in my life pushed me to the tipping point. I have gotten emotional, wanted to cry, and gotten to the point where I thought the best option was if I were no more. I was at my wit’s end—at a tipping point, and yet, I kept on going forward and attending to others as if everything was okay. 

In the eyes of the world, all was okay, but I was breaking down. I could hardly move. The world around me was oblivious to my inner battle, and the struggle that was raging within me. In my work, a man of 50 or so came to see me. After talking with him and lifting his spirits, he said, “You are my inspiration.

I wonder how you can exude so much confidence and be so happy all the time.” The irony of it is that on that day—in that moment—I was experiencing one of the worst days in my life. I asked myself: doesn’t anybody realize that I am breaking down before their very eyes?

What helped me was the support of friends and family who called to offer their love and prayers. Their support was immense and significant. If I hadn’t reached out to them, I would not know how much they cared about me including all my weaknesses, frailties, and demons. By revealing what I was going through, I showed I wasn’t afraid to share the real me with all my shamefulness and vulnerabilities. 

We must not be afraid to talk about our vulnerable selves.

We must not be afraid to tell another that we are going through a tough and challenging time. We must not shy away from seeking help. The most stalwart person is not the one who bottles up everything. Being self-reliant in this fight is not an option.

We need the support, guidance, and encouragement of others to win the battle. Because this battle is an inner one, those around us may not know what is going on until we share it with them. So, don’t be shy, go on and tell your story. 

Because of my experiences, I urge parents to be vigilant in monitoring their children’s behaviour. Encourage them to talk about their feelings and listen, really listen to what they are saying. I recommend that parents be prepared and look for the warning signs that something is wrong.

Read Gemma Mullin’s article, “PARENTAL WARNING: The 14 signs your child is self-harming and at risk of suicidal thoughts,” to learn what to look for in your children. The signs outlined in her piece seem obvious, but are they really? Take a few moments, help your children, friends, and colleagues through their difficult times. You never know when you might need help too.

Are your strong friends okay?

By Dominic Obour, M.A. in Public Relations, Iona College, New York
Email: oboursavio@gmail.com