Sometimes, the only way to help someone with mental illness is to listen
“MARAMI PANG MAS malala ang pinagdaraan ngayon kaysa sa ‘yo (There are others who are suffering more than you).”
This line is one of the worst things you can say to someone who’s suffering from mental illness. The others being: “Are you really going to kill yourself? Because if not, then stop telling people about it. It’s irresponsible and insensitive.” Or: “Don’t tell me you want to kill yourself. That’s emotional blackmail.” Then there’s “You’re being weak and selfish.”
This was shared by Faith Ocampo (not her real name) when this writer decided to have a heart-to-heart interview with her. I’ve known Faith since college, and like most people who’ve encountered individuals with mental illness, I wouldn’t have known that for years, Faith was battling a personal demon (still is).
Discovering Faith’s condition for the first time, I approached this interview with caution, for fear that something I would say could actually trigger something in her. I sheepishly asked: How do you want people to approach you?
“This is hard to answer,” she said. “People could be doing their best to reach out to you but it wouldn’t matter. Once you’re inside the darkness (when depression hits on certain days), you don’t see anything, you don’t remember anything, you don’t care about anything. You forget the efforts family and friends make to help you through it and all it takes is just one call. You don’t remember the many times they showed their love and concern.”
The interview was an eye-opener. As part of the general public, we know so little of how to deal with people suffering from mental issues. We believe (or were programmed to believe) that mental illness—often manifested by sadness or depression—is simply an emotional state that one can overcome like a sudden mood swing or reaction. It’s not. Far from it.
In this Focus Feature, we hear it first-hand from someone who has dealt with the ‘darkness’ and hope her experience could shed some light of what could already be happening to someone we know:
When were you diagnosed with major depressive disorder?
I was diagnosed April 2016, but it took more than a year before someone actually told me that what I’m experiencing is an illness and not just a fleeting mood swing. My mom died early 2015, my depression started a few months after that.
Did you have ‘symptoms’ that you yourself noticed?
Yes. In May 2015, I started crying every single day. Like full-blown snot-fests where I felt my chest being torn open and my heart being stabbed. I was in physical pain. I know it was part of my grief at the time. I decided to move in with friends, thinking I would not be crying all the time if I was with friends all the time. The crying actually intensified after I moved.
In July 2015, these petered out to twice weekly crying sessions. But then I began to get really angry over anything. For the first time in years, I got mad at my flatmates for every perceived slight. I wished death on almost everybody, even on friends’ parents who I felt didn’t deserve to continue living, not when my mom was dead—and I said it to my friends’ faces.
Simultaneously (and what everyone saw as a marked change in me), I stopped doing things that I did regularly and which brought me joy before my mom died: football, drums, music, dressing up, clubbing, putting on makeup, dating and meeting all friends except my guy best friend, whom I would see once or twice a month.
What prompted you to seek medical help?
My best friend, who was living in Australia, threatened to cut off communication with me after I suffered a relapse in February 2016 in the form of a public breakdown. She said I have tried for almost a year to deal with it on my own but the cycle of breakdowns continued. I agreed to see a psychiatrist just one time to give whatever has been happening to me a label.
Can you describe what a day is like dealing with your situation?
It depends. Before I was diagnosed, I spent the day crying. I couldn’t stop. I would pray the rosary while crying, asking God to make the pain go away. This means I’d end up sleeping the day away because of the migraine brought about by too much crying.
After the diagnosis in March 2016, the first medicine given to me turned me into a zombie. I would start falling asleep while standing in an escalator on the way to work. I couldn’t fight the sleepiness, which led colleagues to whisper about my “partying the night before”. I couldn’t even raise my head to defend myself. I would fall asleep in public lounges. My work output suffered because I was sleeping all the time.
In April, I had to come clean to my boss and tell him about my depression and medication.
In June, the psychiatrist changed my meds to Prozac. It worked wonderfully until it didn’t anymore. Whereas before, I asked my psychotherapist to “make the pain go away” and to “make the crying stop”, this time I yelled at him to “make me feel something”. I couldn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel happy, sad, angry, or afraid. I felt nothing. Not for anything, not for anyone. I couldn’t make myself cry. I watched a lot of heavy dramas, grind movies and horror stuff every day to see if I would feel. Nothing.
You don’t eat. Every time you come near an open window at a high-rise, you want to jump. (My flatmates locked my room window with metal wires to prevent me from opening them.) You do active research on depression and suicide, hoping one of the 13 books on your bed would help you help yourself. The thought of death and dying never leaves your mind. Not even on days when you feel really happy and grateful to be alive.
Was there a sort of trigger for your suicide ideation?
None. I could be having the most beautiful day and then unconsciously think, “Why, this is such a great day to die.” It makes you pause, then you think what’s the “happiest way to kill yourself.”
I felt first truly suicidal in early 2016. Nothing bad happened. I was simply lying in bed when the thought struck—and stuck. I had to call a friend and ask to meet because I truly felt like I was going to do “something” if I stayed at home. I met my friend but didn’t tell her why I was there. Everything was normal.
The first time I went up the 12th floor and contemplated jumping in September 2016, I just woke up feeling there’s no more reason to live. The night before, I just told my flatmates that I was ready to make better decisions regarding my life and career, and they had just told me that they will always be there to support me.
The only time I tried to hurt myself after a “trigger”—a fight with my best friend over the phone—was in January 2017. I felt this empty darkness within me and once more, felt nothing. I went to the kitchen to get a big knife and sat down on the kitchen floor with the knife sticking onto the skin of my chest. I would repeatedly push it in further, testing how much physical pain I could take. In my head, I was urging myself when the pain became too much: “Just push it in hard and fast and the pain will stop.”
When I drew blood, I slowly put the knife back in the drawer, slowly stood up, walked back to the living room couch and sat there until night time, which is when my flatmate found me in the dark.
What did you discover about mental health when you we’re diagnosed with it?
That even the strongest, smartest, most productive, most loved, most spiritually faithful person can suffer from mental illness.
That it is a serious health condition that must be given more attention in terms of removing the stigma (like AIDS) and treatment. (Getting medically treated for mental health illness is a game of trial and error with doctors, and they acknowledge it.)
That there are many more people like you, including real people in your own social circle, who are dealing with the exact same illness—and that you can help support each other on your way to “better”. If I had known this much earlier in the game, I would have had help much earlier as well instead of spending almost a year thinking you are alone and that you can deal with it alone.
Also that you will get to “better”. You may not totally be cleared of your illness; you may have to live your whole life dealing with it. But you can get to “better”. There will be many times you will relapse even to a worse state, but you will get to “better”.
And lastly, that you have to be kind to others like you and those who may end up like you, but more importantly (and this is essential to your wellness), you must learn to practice kindness to yourself all the time. It will take you months and years to rebuild yourself, your confidence, your mental stability. But it will only take less than a minute to bring it all down again when you start to belittle yourself and all your efforts.
What do you think people should know about mental health?
That sadness is not depression. That mental health illness is a condition—not a character flaw—that must be treated accordingly. That they who believe themselves to be stronger than you are not immune to it. That a person may not be totally cured of the illness but that they can live with it and that with family and friends’ understanding, love and support, these people will still be able to live a normal, productive life.
How can people help others dealing with mental health?
First, by proactively helping them remove the stigma of mental health illness. They may do this by publicly showing support to those who decide to “come out”. It also helps when more truly successful, highly regarded personalities (celebrities, politicians, business titans) share their own struggles with mental health illness and the positive impact it had on their lives. It doesn’t matter if they had overcome it or are still living with it. What matters is that the public discover that these people they love, respect and emulate so much is a testament that mental illness affects everyone.
Help remove the stigma and it will all so much be easier for those living with it to share their experiences with the world. See, I am not sharing my name because I am now actively job hunting and I’m genuinely afraid it would affect my chances of getting a great job if Filipinos find out I am a depressive diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Yes, I emphasize Filipinos in that sentence because the stigma and ignorance (not miseducation because there is no education) in the Philippines regarding this topic is much worse than in places I’ve been to such as Singapore and Australia.
Why are you still fabulous?
Because I am still here. After everything, I made it to today. I personally would give myself actual deadlines posted as reminders on my calendar. And I am still here. Looking for a job. Making plans. Caring about me.
How can you help?
Faith shares what her psychiatrist told her bestfriend on things she can do to make dealing with mental health issues easier:
· Take her out as much as you can. If she flakes, make the effort to fetch her at home to make sure she goes out.
· Listen to her when she wants to talk about her depression. Don’t give advice (it might have the opposite effect that you intended). Share your insight about her condition and situation, but always ask, “Is this what you’re going through?” Don’t make assumptions about it and then confidently declare that what you think is what’s right.
· Share stories of people you know who has gone through the same thing. It helps a lot to hear and discover that someone you both know has or had a mental condition. Better yet, introduce or get her in touch with those people.
· Continue to share your life with your depressive friend. A depressive feels and believes she is alone; leaving her to deal with her depression and that alone 24/7 can make anyone spiral further into the darkness. Let her know that even while she deals with her depression, she can still be part of her friends’ lives and help you out with your own problems.
· Stop yourself from passing judgment or making offhand comments about suicidal people or depressives as “baliw,” “sira-ulo,” “mahina,” “tanga/ bobo,” “selfish,” “dagdag-problema,” etc.
· Rally for financial awareness and sexual education, mental health awareness should be part of the education curriculum of junior and high school students.