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Struggles with depression worth more than a hashtag

Image: 123RF/lculig

The recent death of hip-hop star Jabulani Tsambo, AKA HHP, has thrust the issue of depression into the spotlight, and rightfully so.

Unsurprisingly, we have had a similar outpouring of grief, and feigned concern for mental health issues as when top cardiologist Bongani Mayosi took his own life in July, after battling depression.

Keyboard activists even coined a hashtag, #DepressionIsReal. The problem with this overwhelming expression of sympathy, and subsequent social media conversations, is that it's all short-lived. It has also laid bare the misconceptions, myths and half-truths about depression.

Since the outcry has subsided, it's time we have a real, unfiltered and raw account of what it means to have depression.

I am a person living with major depression since 1996. At the time of my diagnosis in 1996, I was at the pinnacle of my "political career" as a student leader. On paper, I was on top of the world. Despite this "success" I was losing it. I had sustained feelings of great unease, agitation, anger, and feelings of being unappreciated.

As far as I was concerned, I was under siege from unknown enemies. I couldn't concentrate on my studies. I had blue days - let me say weeks, or rather years. I had headaches that wouldn't go away, sleepless nights, strange dreams and nightmares.

I couldn't figure out exactly what was eating away at my soul.

After many episodes of losing my cool, I started psychotherapy.

After psychometric tests and individual sessions, a psychologist wrote: ". He presents all symptoms of depression, lack of interest in things he normally enjoyed, lost weight, and has problems sleeping."

Many things can trigger debilitating depression. Some of the more common factors, as my psychologist told me, are family history and a traumatic death of a loved one. Some people might have a predisposition to the disease as a result of trauma and other unpleasant major life changes.

My depression is genetic. It runs in my family. My sister was diagnosed last year. My brother refuses to take psychiatric medication despite having had three episodes of psychosis. During one of these episodes he attacked a random woman and left her for dead. At his trial, he said he didn't know the woman, but had seen a lion. He was sent for psychiatric evaluation and was declared unfit to stand trial but refuses to take medication.

My son was forced to withdraw from university two years ago after he started self-harming. He has since been taken off medication and is functioning normally. He is a candidate attorney.

In 2002, after sustained headaches, my physician put me on my first antidepressants for six months. I thought he was crazy. Three years later, I suffered a nervous or mental breakdown, and I was institutionalised for the first time. I spent a week in the loony bin. After my release, I was referred to a psychologist for psychotherapy, which I did every Saturday for two years. Since then I have been committed to psychiatric hospitals at least three times. Oh yes, I also attempted suicide once in 1998.

For the past 12 years now I am living on a combination of antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications and mood stabilisers. I see my psychiatrist twice a year for a check-up.

While battling depression, I completed my studies, started a family and have had an illustrious career in the communications industry. So it's not true that people living with depression are crazy, weird and drama queens or kings. Depression at most is a mood disorder, not a brain disorder. We don't do well if people feel pity for us. We are not our medical conditions. We are normal people.

Don't judge. Listen to us now before another suicide strikes.

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