Written by: Samantha Tan, Program Coordinator (EAP & Finance) & Research Assistant, SOLS Health.
Author’s note: In October and November, SOLS Health held a World Mental Health story-sharing campaign, inviting people to share their real-life stories of experience and recovery from mental ill health. These personal narratives showed us how the process of recovery, while personal and unique, also holds common themes: the struggles and difficulties, but also prevailing endurance, courage and hope. As a final wrap up to the campaign, we have gathered highlights from these stories, and present them here. Through this, we hope to show that while experiencing mental health struggles can leave an impact, with the right support and opportunities, many people can recover and go on to find a way of leading a satisfying, hopeful and contributing life, beyond the experience.
Living in Malaysia, most of us may have experienced the difficulties of starting a dialogue with someone about mental health. Sometimes it is due to lack of awareness and misconceptions, sometimes, it is due to stigma and preconceived notions about mental health that unfortunately still exists among our community. The World Health Organisation defines mental health as:
“a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” (1)
Based on this definition, mental health is actually something that all of us have, and just like physical health, most of us would have gone through episodes of mental “ill-health” at some point in our lives. Some of us may have had to deal with life-altering and traumatic situations, such as the loss of a loved one, abusive relationships, or being a victim of bullying. Others may have experienced hurt by those we love. Going through these experiences, it could lead to feelings of self-doubt, feeling lost, starting a series of self-blaming thoughts. Here is an excerpt from one of the stories shared:
“... Verbal threats, homophobic comments ... were frequently the topic of many uncomfortable conversations that stressed me out, and made me feel really anxious. There were a lot of conflicting emotions as I was hurting and the person I loved the most in the whole world-my mother inflicted those hurts on me...”
Even if we have not directly experienced such extreme situations, stress is something that is a part and parcel of our lives. In psychological terms, stress is the reaction to something that threatens our physical or mental equilibrium. The cause could stem from any material nature — looming deadlines, being in a dangerous situation, poverty, illness, or a fight with a significant other — the result, stress, is the psychological and physical reaction to the cause.
While a certain level of stress is beneficial as it motivates us to perform, prolonged and unchecked stress is harmful to our health and can lead to the development of chronic health issues , including mental illnesses like depression and anxiety (2). Here’s another excerpt from one of the stories submitted to us:
“I was dealing with ...being homesick, as I had suddenly and unknowingly moved to Malaysia after spending a majority of my time in another country ... although I had friends and an active social life… I still felt a negative emotion stirring inside me… a feeling of alienation and loneliness. I was never alienated and ... rarely alone, so I didn’t know why this feeling was such a prominent existence in my life... combined with the increasing pressure to keep up my social and academic life, I can only assume I’ve developed a case of anxiety and depression ... My diet was all over the place, anxiety attacks happened in the middle of the night and during school, I developed a terrible temper, I was feeling hopeless and down, everything was so overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time…”
It may be hard to recognize the symptoms of depression and anxiety in ourselves, even if we are struggling. Sometimes, we could be in denial, thinking that the feelings will eventually go away. Here’s how one of the individuals who submitted their story to us, shared his experience:
“Being an introvert(ed), shy boy and going to an all boys primary and secondary school ... My mother wouldn't really allow me to go out often ... When I entered college at age of 18… I had (a) panic attack but I didn't know it ... I just felt very anxious, nauseous, hungry but not having the appetite to eat due to anxiety. I found it hard … to calm myself down ... being in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people or eating in public places with people definitely trigger(s) my anxiety... (The) panic attack got worse and ... I felt like I was going insane. I decided to search on Google... (my symptoms) and that's when I discovered social anxiety...”
Some of us may choose to stay silent about our struggles because we find it too difficult to talk about painful emotions and express them in words. Alongside this, we may think that we deserve to feel this way, that we are unworthy of people’s attention and care, no one truly cares, we are a burden, or that others will judge us.
From one of the stories that were submitted, she felt responsible for the hurt, the arguments and suicidal thoughts the people around her were experiencing, that she had self-harmed and planned her suicide. It was difficult for her to voice out to others her struggles.
“... I tend to feel selfish telling others because I wouldn't want them to have to worry about me as well as their own problems...”
Instead of dealing with these unpleasant feelings, some may turn to negative coping mechanisms to gain temporary release or relief. It could be through feeding physical addictions such as smoking, alcohol, drugs (3), sex (4). Other unhelpful coping methods include avoidance, denial (5), suppression, or blaming ourselves for everything that goes wrong.
“... I had created a persona for myself where I would hide all the pain under it. My persona projected a strong and arrogant girl who wouldn't trust or get close to anyone. It was the only way I would feel safe and nobody could hurt me.”
In extreme cases, these feelings could escalate to the point where one might begin to develop thoughts of self-harm, or even worse, suicide. Thoughts may start to develop into thinking that the world may be. Eventually, coming up with a plan.
“...A move to a foreign country and the loneliness that ensued meant that my mental health condition quickly deteriorated ... the feeling ... to end my life became more intense ...I took an overdose of benzodiazepine and went to bed, hopefully for (the) last time.”
If you have ever felt driven to such a point, this message is written for you: your feelings are valid and they are not to be taken lightly. You are not alone; neither should you feel that you have to deal with it alone. If you look for them, there are many people who do care, who want to see you get better, and help you feel whole again. Whether it be professionals who journey with you through your struggles, such as counsellors or therapists, or friends and immediate family members, help and support is always available.
“One day in my psychology class, we were talking about grief. My lecturer noticed my tight fist and uncomfortable smile... One day he pulled me aside, gave me a book called "Shadow Dance", and told me there are people that I can talk to about my feelings. It was like in a far far distance someone turned on a light in my dark and foggy life. After that I was determined to get help. I wanted to enjoy my life and move on from my past. Build healthy relationships and have (a) support system. I didn't want to be alone anymore.”
Apart from seeking support, there are things that you can do to help yourself cope when going through difficulties. For example, exercising in moderation has been proven to be beneficial in alleviating stress.You could also try processing your thoughts and emotions through journaling, engaging in pleasurable activities and/or things you used to enjoy, or taking up a new hobby (7).
Managing mental health is indeed a lifelong journey that requires continuous effort, and it is important to be patient and gentle with yourself. It is a climb. There will be days when we slip and fall, but if we choose to see these setbacks as lessons and opportunities for growth, this perspective will help us get better at picking ourselves up again, and carrying on. Eventually, we would have equipped ourselves with the skills needed to be resilient, building healthier relationships, habits and mindsets to cope.
“... I spent a total of 40 days in the hospital, needing help with learning to love myself again. It was not a pleasant journey but it was a healing process. In group therapies, we listened to each other’s struggles and encouraged each other on. I began to rediscover my love for art in art therapy classes… I still struggle with motivation and daily grind of life, but I have not felt the intense need to end my own life. I still take medications and see a psychiatrist regularly to check in on my condition.”
Here are some messages to you from those who have had their own struggles and are now working on themselves to be better:
“... To anyone struggling with their feelings of self-worth and guilt, or ... recovering from an unhealthy mindset, you won't stop thinking about it, at least for a while. … (It) will stick with you for a long time, especially if you've been through similar situations with abusive partners. It's difficult to just "get over it"..., to unlearn unhelpful thoughts, especially because they're so easy to fall back into. So take it easy and forgive yourself if you feel you're not getting better, forgive yourself if you find that you're spiralling, forgive yourself for taking time. Don't let anyone rush you to "get over it". If you feel like you don't have anyone on your side, know that I always am.”
“... My dreams are to be a Dyslexic Advocate to tell parents to give their children a chance to understand and to guide them correctly and never put them down, to tell those children that they are never alone and that academics are not the only way to success. So people out there, always remember that you are never alone when you feel like you are at your lowest moments. In life, there are always ups and downs and as long as we never give up, there is always an opportunity. Life is never fair but life is never perfect either. So accept your challenges and every failure is just the beginning of a new experience as well as adding on to your strengths. All the best. Last but not least, let me share with you this. I once told myself that money cannot buy me things that I want: a brain transplant (to be a neurotypical person). However, having whatever I do now, it is not too bad too: as many geniuses are dyslexic.”
“... I used to think I am different or people would judge me if they know I have social anxiety but these were all just my false thoughts. There are more people who understand and (are) willing to listen than anyone of us would know. If anyone is having any mental illness, know that it is normal and you're not any different from others. Nothing is scarier than fighting your own thoughts every single day.”
“... The only way to change for the better is to take the action. Put aside the worries, the what-ifs, perception of others, etc. … when it comes to our mental health, we get to put ourselves first. It's okay to take a break, re-shifting your focus ... because you deserve to be the best version of yourself. And if the cycle repeats, remind that you've come out of it once and you can do it again. You are resilient. You are a whole person. And life is always in progress, so, giving up is not a choice. Treat yourself as your favorite buddy. Checking in with yourself first before you do it to others. After all, you can't pour from an empty cup :)”
World Health Organisation. (2018, March 30). Mental health: strengthening our response. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response
National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). 5 things you should know about stress. Retrieved from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml
Hefner, T. & Willoughby, T. (2017). A count of coping strategies: A longitudinal study investigating an alternative method to understanding coping and adjustment. PLOS One, 12(10), e0186057. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5642021/
Kilburn, E. & Whitlock, J. L. (2009). Distraction techniques and alternative coping strategies. The Practical Matters Series, Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. Cornell University. Ithaca, NY.
Wadsworth, M. E. (2015). Development of Maladaptive Coping: A Functional Adaptation to Chronic, Uncontrollable Stress. Child Development Perspectives, 9(2), 96–100. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4442090/
Scott, E. (2019, November 10). Tips on How to Cope With a Crisis or Trauma. Verywell Mind. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellmind.com/cope-with-a-crisis-or-trauma-3144525
Morin, A. (2020, April 3). Healthy Coping Skills for Uncomfortable Emotions: Emotion-Focused and Problem-Focused Strategies. Verywell Mind.Retrieved from: https://www.verywellmind.com/forty-healthy-coping-skills-4586742