Depression: a silent killer

Warning: this blog post speaks about issues of mental health, depression and suicide

I vividly recall the day my supervisor called me into his office and told me: your friend decided to take her life last night. It never made sense to me. I mean, she was such a bubbly person who was always willing to solve other people’s problems, how is it that I could not tell that she was going through her own problems too. Since then I have taken a keen interest in trying to understand mental health issues and somehow attempt to raise awareness on the topic.

We all go through moments of emotional sadness or low moments. These can be caused by various reasons such as relationship problems, academic issues, work issues, or loss of a last one amongst a few other factors. Personally, when lab experiments do not work out, or experience rejection (a very common occurrence in academia), it does trigger moments of emotional sadness. Fortunately, most of us can bounce back from such emotional lows. Sadly though, there are some people who constantly experience various levels of sadness, which are not necessarily linked to obvious triggers and this is characterized as depression. I have always naively thought that this disease is associated with a person’s character, however, in during my studies in Physiology, I have learnt that the disease is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and can affect anyone. The discussion of the underlying biology of this disease is beyond the scope of this blog.

Due to my keen interest in this topic, I have always been on the lookout for any traits/symptoms of depression from the people surrounding me. This is an attempt to try to be there for such people and potentially refer them to seek help before they find themselves in the tragic situation that my late friend found myself in. While I was scrolling on Instagram stories the other day, I came across a post by a good friend of mine – Nokulunga Gumede, which highlighted some of the misconceptions about depression that the general public has. I messaged her to thank her for sharing the post as it will help me with information on a SAYAS blog post on mental health that I have always planned to write. She responded by letting me know that she had actually suffered from the disease and she would like to share her journey and highlight her experiences and her own journey. I was shocked to find out that she was suffering from the condition and she was on the verge of taking her own life. We decided to have an online discussion where she shared her journey to encourage anyone who might be in the same shoes she found herself in. See our video interview below:

Although the symptoms of depression differ amongst various individuals, they include a constant feeling of sadness, fatigue, difficulty sleeping or too much sleeping, loss of interest in things you previously enjoyed, anxiety, changes in appetite, irritability and most importantly, the urge to commit suicide. Some of these symptoms overlap with other diseases, therefore, if you suspect that you could be suffering from the disease, it is important to see a professional health practitioner who can help in explaining various symptoms. There are various organizations that are there to help. Within Universities, there are support services such as the student counseling unit of the university of Pretoria. Nationally, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group is a readily available platform you can freely use for free assistance with any mental health issues you may be suffering from.

Who to contact when experiencing mental health issues?

Fortunately there are various contacts that are readily available numbers to contact for assistance with mental health issues, see them below.

Suicide crisis helpline (24 hours) – 0800 567 567                              

CIPLA mental health helpline (24 hours) – 080 456 789

CIPLA WhatsApp chat line (9 am – 4 pm) – 076 882 2775                              

Department of Social Development substance abuse helpline (24 hours) – 0800 12 13 14

Stop, take a breath and celebrate your achievements

If you think about it, people are achieving all time the time. They are just not always achieving ‘what they set their minds to’. This is so me! Go on and do this, then that, achieve! Achieve! Achieve! That is all I ever think. How about taking a second to just celebrate what I have already achieved? My greatest weakness is the inability to celebrate. When I obtained my honours degree, acing my mini-dissertation which has inspired my forthcoming journal paper, I could not celebrate. It felt like a very small achievement. I thought to myself, almost everyone has an honours degree these days, probably with a distinction too. I felt I needed to achieve more before I could pop a Champagne cork, pat myself at the back and celebrate.

I went on to register for my Master of Arts shortly after that. Get this, I aced my dissertation with a distinction. I do not want to give the impression that I cruised through the whole process, I would be lying. It was never a smooth ride. I spent sleepless nights in my supervisor’s office and the days in the library. I had moments of self-doubt, and emotional breakdowns. When I finally got my results that I had worked so hard towards, I still felt somewhat unfulfilled. I had the same feeling I got when I obtain my Honours. And I still could not celebrate.

My inability to celebrate has to do with my inability to acknowledge myself as a hard-working, persevering and determined student. Before I even graduated with my MA I got myself a job as a part-time lecturer at a university. Exciting, right? Given the state of the economy in the country currently, I should be celebrating, but oh boy, I am thinking about a permanent post. I keep telling myself that maybe my 5th journal paper, a PhD, NFR rating and a permanent job will be fulfilling and worth a celebration. Chances are when I do get all these, I will have my sights on something more. Perhaps, a professorship and being a head of a division or department at university perhaps.

The truth is I know for a fact I have achieved so much. However, because of the pictures I have created in my mind of what success is, I am unable to celebrate my actual milestone successes. Now I wonder, is that all there is to life? Is this an academic’s whole life? I can literally feel all the other aspects of my life suffering because of my inability to celebrate my successes which fuels the need to do more, cutting off the rest of my life. To do more in just one aspect – professional growth, while all the other aspects are suffering. Our lives are made up of bits and pieces, building blocks and these needs a proper balance.

I hope I do not become unfulfilled and depressed with a PhD, a permanent academic job and NRF rating. Really! I need to stop, take a deep breath, look where I came from and give myself a pat on the shoulders and, yes, a round of applause and perhaps even whisper into my own ears that, I am, as the urban youth would say “GOAT”- Greatest of All Time.