January 5, 2018

Not too long ago, I bumped into someone who had been based overseas for the past few years, and it caught me by surprise to see him in Singapore. Although we didn’t have time to catch up, we exchanged quick pleasantries before parting ways.

Soon after, I received an unexpected text from him: “I need to thank you actually. You might have saved my life, earlier this summer.”

I found out when we met a few days later that he had been going through a tough time in New York, and chancing upon one of my Instagram posts on depression, sparked him to do something about it.

In my posts, I talked about a foreword that I had written for a publication where I outlined my own experience with depression. It was the first time I had shared about my diagnosis so publicly, which took years to admit to myself—that what I was going through was beyond my understanding and that I wasn’t simply ‘weak’ for not being able to get better.

Since then, I have met people from all walks of life who have experienced different mental health conditions, whether in themselves, their loved ones or as professionals working in the mental health industry. It is much easier to talk openly with them, and have conversations that are both thought-provoking and insightful. The recurring question, however, is how we can have the kind of engagement that allows for multiple perspectives in our society. From a larger standpoint, the fear of being stigmatised still exists.

Why is it so hard to acknowledge and talk about mental health?

While many associate mental health with terms such as “depressed”, “OCD”, “schizo”, or even the all-encompassing “siao”, do most of us know what these words really mean? And the kind of lifestyles and conditions they attempt to describe?

Imagine telling your boss or colleague that your greatest achievement today was getting out of bed. Or to your circle of friends that you can’t meet them for the sixth time running because crowds give you panic attacks and that you have run out of energy reserves to be around people, after getting through the day. For some, life means you can only get out of house after 6 pm, or after washing your hands for 4 hours straight. When it comes to gatherings, there are only so many times you can take a raincheck before becoming the flaky friend who is unreliable, and probably not a whole bucketload of fun.

Unlike physical conditions, mental issues are inherently inaccessible to those who do not experience it, as most of what goes on isn’t visible. It is also individualistic, which means the same condition can transpire in completely different forms for different people. The resultant impact on their lives usually seems completely illogical and incomprehensible to the outsider.

The stigma is real, especially in a society that places so much emphasis on visible measures of a person’s worth. So being depressed is something one sweeps under the carpet in light of more pressing basic needs like their career, family, and mortgages. Talking about it seems indulgent when one should be grateful and productive.

Many do not realise how much effort it takes to just function “normally”—“being okay” is a cognitive process. It is not impossible. Yet the simplest everyday tasks like getting out of bed, looking presentable, and being sociable can be incredibly challenging. Walking 10 minutes without stopping, as strange as it sounds, can feel like running a full marathon because our physical well-being is so intricately linked to our mental state.

During the years when I was in the throes of anhedonia, I experienced an utter disconnect between body and mind, as well as logic and will. On the outside, it seemed that I operated well as a member of society: a university graduate who had a job and people who accepted and loved me. I lacked nothing, and it did not make any sense to myself why getting through each day was such a sheer exercise of self-coercion. There was no way I would tell someone else and be a burden, when all I needed was to “get over myself”.

But staying silent isn’t the way out, and it’s important that more people come forward to talk about mental health because there are no real statistics or clear solutions. Everyone’s battlefield and minefields are so individualistic that a generic diagnosis can, in fact, be harmful. The complex mix of biological, physical, psychological, mental, and emotional is not an easy one to understand.

The only way we can try to understand these complex conditions is to have more open conversations.

Unlike physical conditions, mental issues are harder to measure or treat because they are not simply “illnesses” that one cures and moves on from, or “diseases” that are bad. For some of us, it may be a chronic part of one’s being like a nagging backache, acne or having flat feet.

But here’s the thing: If we can start to see them in a more normalised manner, it allows us to take greater ownership of our mental and physical health—an ownership that is both kinder and more disciplined. It allows for more conversations—ones that are honest, open, with no judgement and only the desire to try to understand these experiences together. For many who are struggling with their own minds and bodies, diagnosed or not, it is so important to simply be able to feel safe being themselves and know that they are not alone. And there are many too, who want to be there for their loved ones going through mental health conditions but do not know how to.

I have to admit that I still do not find it easy to talk about this side of me. In my head, I am not “depressed”, even though I have been diagnosed. It took me years to be more patient with myself and acknowledge that it’s an ongoing journey which requires continuous fine-tuning. The first step, however, was to reach out and accept that I can be myself with others.

The little attempts that I have taken to share my story, as scary as they are, have had profound effects in unexpected ways. Friends and strangers have come forward with hesitant questions about their own experiences. Most, if not all, have never felt like they could talk about what they were going through with anyone, because of the fear that they might not make sense of their own experience. These encounters remind me that there is value in talking and sharing; pushing me to open up and confront my fears.

All of us face struggles with internal voices that are so often hidden behind a smile or laugh. When we remember that what goes on in the minds of others are invisible to us, empathy and real talk can happen. Trying to make sense of our mental health shouldn’t be a lonely journey. While society may not always be accepting or understanding, there is beauty and value in all kinds of experiences.

I am glad to have gone through what I did. I may have lost time, but I’ve gained new friendships and a deeper understanding of the human psyche. Talking about my condition openly has never been easy, but the value that comes from the resultant conversations is worth the effort and struggle.

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Xiangyun Lim was a changemaker in the second phase of 50 for Fifty with the Singapore Association of Mental Health (SAMH) as her chosen charity. She would love to hear from anyone who would like to share their stories, or simply have questions to ask. Find her on Instagram at @tweedlingdum.