Food for Thought

Don't judge a book by its cover: fighting stigma against mental health

18th to 24th April 2016 – Depression Awareness Week 2016.

Just because awareness week ended yesterday doesn’t mean we stop spreading the word and raising awareness for something that matters. Mental health and having a disability is a concept the majority of the world still refuses to acknowledge. The world believes in the power of the individuals, we have the power to change our future and if it can’t been seen/heard/felt with our senses, it must not be real. Sympathy, concern and anxiety are shown for those suffering from physical discomfort, injury or ailments, but sadly when it comes to mental health issues there is a lack of empathy or understanding.

Only by talking more openly about mental health issues will we hope to, one day, gain better understanding and support from society. Often it’s a painful journey for those suffering from a mental health concern to share their experience. It’s not easy sharing what you’ve been through when it’s not a pleasant recounter. In the name of raising awareness for depression, today I’ll be sharing mine.

My story is not one I often share. Even trying to write this blog post, I’ve spent many hours, days, alternating between procrastinating and staring at a blank screen with a blinking cursor wondering how (and where) to start. I’m not writing this to get sympathy from anyone; this is going to be a shock to a lot of family and friends as I’ve not openly spoken about my experiences apart from a couple of close friends. In truth, I want to share my own experiences to show that it’s a mental health concern or disability is not something you can ‘see’ or pinpoint in someone; it’s a hidden, invisible part of a someone you may, or may not, know.

If you ask any of my friends to describe me, most of them would tell you I’m cheerful, sociable, nice girl who you would never imagine would have so many tattoos and a sarcastic sense of humour. I’ve got a strong and determined mind and a hard worker. I’m very organised, like to keep things tidy and love to immerse myself in books and spend quiet time at home with my fur babies. I’m friendly and sociable, but also shy and a little awkward in social situations with big groups of people. Not one person will tell you I fit the ‘ideal’ of someone with depression.

I can’t tell you the exact moment my depression manifested. I had a childhood filled with self-criticism, an unhealthy view of my body, discipline, tension and animosity. I have happy memories from my childhood, but I’ve also got not so happy ones that I’ve never fully disclosed to anyone. How do you explain to friends at school that your life at home isn’t always as happy and carefree as theirs?

In high school, I never felt like I fit in to any of the social groups: I wasn’t in the Cool Asian, the Smart Asian or the Rebel Asian groups. I was always on the sidelines trying to find my place amongst the various friends I made in school without really fitting in to any one. I was already having a bit of an identity crisis being a Third Culture Kid (see my previous post about TCKs here) and couldn’t identify as being fully Chinese or claim that I was brought up abroad. Being a teenager was hard enough, but not knowing who I was made it more difficult.

I felt like I was losing control of my life when I was well into my first year of undergraduate studies. I did A Level Psychology for 2 years and was one of my favourite subjects, the one I understood best compared to others, and made it my undergraduate major. While I applied to Universities in the UK to make a new life for myself, none of the ones that accepted me had the same high standards and reputation as the University of Hong Kong and, at my parents’ advice, I stayed while all my friends took different paths and either took a gap year to gain some work experience or went abroad for their own studies. While the student population at the time was made up of 10% international students, it was like finding a needle in a haystack when there were over 250 students in my course alone. I never truly made any friends that I felt like I could talk about music or TV shows with, all my classmates were local Chinese students that liked local Chinese music and TV shows while I wanted to talk about bands like Linkin Park and Green Day, or shows like Boston Public and Supernatural. Friends visiting during Christmas and summer holidays felt like a little reprieve, but soon enough they had to return to their own studies overseas. By the end of my first year, I truly felt alienated; I had all these thoughts I wanted to share but nobody to share it with.

During the first semester of my second year, I was starting to contemplate seeing the University counsellor when a clinical psychologist professor changed things for me. In his lectures, he taught us about the different theories and techniques adopted by therapists in counselling sessions and I was drawn to the teachings of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). I like to be able to justify things to myself, to come to a rational conclusion about matters and soon I was able to adopt some of those teachings to help me overcome my insecurities and be happier with myself as a person.

I wish I could tell you that was the end of my depressive stage, but leaving Hong Kong and moving to Edinburgh only took me out of a society which was fast paced, luxury good-obsessed and materialistic. The pressure to continue earning more and more money became one of the factors that made me lose sight of myself. Being happy with myself and living in a different city didn’t stop me from feeling helpless, or that I have no control because of my depression. Sometimes new experiences throw us for a loop and we can’t control events that happen in our lives. It’s not a matter of being strong and tough; it’s being overwhelmed by too much and not being able to cope with the mountains on your shoulders. We all go through stages of grief when we experience loss, but imagine what that can be like when you can’t control when the emotional rollercoaster happens.

Each person will share with you a different story of what depression is like for them (see here for a brief introduction into this topic at the #OneThink photography exhibition). For me, it’s like being caught in a tornado of my thoughts. A multitude of questions plague my mind that I have no answers for. When I feel like I’ve managed to resolve one question, another one rises from the well of doubt. It’s like I’m in a self-contained bubble that nobody can reach me. I’m lost in my own thoughts and my emotions are numb. I don’t have the energy to socialise and tend to decline invitations to social events and will respond at the right times in a conversation, but don’t really have anything to contribute to the discussion. More often than not, I find myself lost in my own thoughts, curled up in my safe place of comfort (my bed) hidden under the covers holding tightly onto my favourite teddy, while my inner demons raise further doubt and feelings of loneliness and unworthiness in my head.

I can already see the question forming in some people’s minds: if this is what I truly go through when I’m depressed, how have I managed to keep it hidden for so long? Like everyone else, it’s not something we like to share. It’s a weakness I don’t like to admit to others so more often than not, I put my thoughts to the sidelines and get on with things in life, like studying or going to work. On the one hand, the distraction of keeping your hands (and mind) occupied with other matters, but on the other sometimes your mind wanders while you’re staring at your computer screen and your colleagues are none the wiser of the mini panic attack taking place when your anxiety starts to get a bit overwhelming. While nothing extreme, I have managed to remember to use breathing techniques to control these mini attacks and it’s never become anything serious thankfully to raise suspicion.

Some feel that they’re not complete without finding a significant other to share their lives with. I can honestly say that while I was happy living the single life when I met the OH and we’re in a good place now 6 years down the line and 6 months married, learning to be in a relationship and sharing my life with another person initially triggered my depression. It was a learning curve that I had to adjust to.

Finding another person to share your life with didn’t help me cope with my depression. I still occasionally suffer through episodes, but with the help, support and encouragement from friends and the OH, finding hobbies that keep me occupied, relieves feelings of stress and anger that also make me happy is what’s been helpful. There are days when I will still refuse invitations to see friends and will stay at home curled up with the kitties, reading a book in my own company, but now I try and work through my thoughts and keep up with my routine of going to work and classes even if my mind is telling me it’s not worth the effort.

Never feel that you need someone else to make you whole. Living with a mental health concern or disability does not make you; it’s just a part of who you really are. Having a mental health concern is nothing to be ashamed of, we’re stronger in our solidarity and by raising awareness we realise we’re not alone in our suffering.

If you’d like to learn more about depression, search #WhatYouDontSee on social media or visit here, here and here.


2 thoughts on “Don't judge a book by its cover: fighting stigma against mental health

  1. Thank you so much for sharing, Michelle! I can imagine how hard it was to write these lines! I never really talked about my depression and anxiety attacks openly. So even though you always tell yourself that your not the only one who got these problem, it helps to read storys like yours! It’s good that you got breathing techniques to calm yourself. I wish that I can find something to help me during these times. Thanks again!


    1. I’m glad it’s help you feel less alone 🙂 it’s still something we don’t openly talk about, but I really think if we all can support each other through our difficult times, no matter where we are in the world, we’ll be able to eventually come to peace with our inner demons and be able to develop techniques that work for each of us


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