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“It’s All In Your Head”: An Observation of Mental Illness, Stigmas and Culture

In this article I will focus on the stigmas around mental illnesses, particularly coming from a Congolese background and immigrating to a Canadian culture and how the stigmas in both countries led me to perceive their existence. I will share my personal experiences, which are in no way reflective of all experiences, as I am not aiming to use my voice as a point if reference for all Congolese culture(s) and people. 

I believe one of the hardest things about mental illnesses is allowing yourself to accept the that you are suffering from one despite the constant stigma around you trying to convince you that they do not exist. There are constant affirmations that they are “all in your head”. In fact, I couldn’t agree more; mental illnesses are all in your head, which is exactly the problem. 

During a quite normal day in my freshman year at Western, I received a very shocking phone call. My sister had been admitted to a psychiatric ward in my hometown due to the fact that the school had discovered letters in which she stated her plan to commit suicide. Despite the fact that such a call should be surprising, in the back of my mind I knew that something of this manner was to be expected. My sister had dealt with her fair share of issues for as long as I can remember. Now that it has been diagnosed, I can state that she suffers from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and trichotillomania.  The steps that had to be taken to lead to that diagnoses was not an easy journey. 

The Democratic Republic of Congo is located in Central Africa. As a country, there is a lot of taboo centered around mental illness, and sentiments such as a complete rejection of its existence are commonly shared. Because, much like many other parts of the world, there is a lack of physical hardship attached to mental illness, it is difficult to take the disorder seriously or to give it much importance. Unfortunately for my sister and my family, we grew up surrounded by these stigmas. From a very young age, my sister had experiences of “extreme feelings” and suffered several episodes of emotional disturbance which she could not properly describe. Instead of identifying this as a problem, we continued to assume that she was only going through phases in her childhood, which she would eventually grow out of. Since, we had taken the initiative to bring her to a doctor in Canada to assess her lack of eating and constant distancing both emotionally and physically from the family. The simple response to this was yet again that she would outgrow it and she was provided with vitamins that were meant to encourage appetite. Never once were the chance of a mental illness admitted into the conversation both by the physician and our family. 

Over the years, it went on the same and much to her grievances, her mental well-being was never taken into serious consideration. The assumption that one will “grow out of it” eventually perpetuated the idea that my sister, despite having reached her preteen years, was still trying to be a kid in some way and therefore “faking it”. Lacking the knowledge of mental illnesses unfortunately led to her emotional downfall. As a result of not being provided with the proper tools to understand herself in relation to the world around her and being tired of the constant battle she had to fight with her mind while being told this battle did not exist, my sister planned her death. 

Suicide and the discussion of suicide is a scary thing, but for the individual or those around them, it can be a very eye-opening experience. In the case of my sister, we were all provided with another chance because her letters were found and she was hospitalized before she had the opportunity to take any action. The sheer fact is that she was not driven to suicide because of her mental illnesses but because of her inability to understand them and the lack of openness in regards to them. To reiterate, the absence of recognition of the illnesses as something that is real and exists drove her to wanting to end her life. 

As of today, no matter where you are in the world, discussions of mental illnesses continue to be taboo. Many people who suffer from mental illnesses today are still subjected to forms of gas-lighting from society. It is necessary to stress the fact that they are real; thousands of people suffer from mental illnesses but are forced to try and ignore their symptoms or find alternative ways to deal with it due to the lack of support or even their own lack of understanding in regard to their disease. It is so important to talk about theses issues, to shed light on the destructive impact of ignorance and disregard on the subject. Once this is done, we can allow for a safe space in which people can discuss, identify and learn about mental illnesses. We need to give much more than just a week of awareness to mental illness and instead normalize it in our day-to-day life; the creation of such a safe space could be a difference between life and death. 

To finish, I’ll leave you with two quotes and a link to one of my sister’s favourite spoken word piece by Sabrina Benaim – “Explaining My Depression to My Mother”:“Don’t tell me to be afraid of the dark, I’m not and that’s my problem.” and “Mom says I am so good at making something out of nothing and then flat out asks me if I am afraid of dying. No!! I am afraid of living.”

Current second year student, majoring in Media Information and Technoculture and minoring in Women's Studies. I spend most of my free time binge watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and wishing I had her life. But, on a more realistic note, I hope to be a civil rights lawyer or be paid to watch as many tv shows as possible. Follow me on twitter: @mcapitalK or instagram: m.stfgrs.jpg
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