Sihle Atkinson is the 25-year-old U-Reporter who suggested the name U-Matter, voted by U-Reporters as the name for U-Report's mental health chatline service, a collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the Caribbean Child Development Centre at the UWI Open Campus. This is her story of overcoming and advice for others.
Hi. My name is Sihle and I struggle with depression.
My mental health journey started when I was in sixth form. It’s not to say that I didn’t struggle before then, but this was when I would say I really started to be more aware of myself and the struggles I faced.
I noticed changes in the way I saw myself, the people around me, the things I liked doing and my drive for life. There was this uncertainty, these doubts, and this general overcast of negativity over many aspects of my life. I can’t say what triggered it. It could have been old experiences, new experiences and sometimes it felt like nothing in particular at all. I just knew that I was having a really hard time.
Depression can happen to anyone
It affected my relationships. My loved ones were really worried about me because I would sometimes just withdraw. They knew “that’s not Sihle”, and they were probably even offended. I sometimes would say things that seemed very critical or mean or unreasonable and it wasn't because I didn’t care about the people I loved, but because I now had this kind of twisted view of how I saw myself and my situation. I would reflect that back on the people I loved. They do say that you can only pour out what’s inside of you, so I guess that was a sign.
When I went to the therapist, I was transferred to a psychiatrist. After speaking with me and with my mom, separately and together, she told me that I had depression.
At the time, I couldn’t process and absorb information in a healthy or reasonable way, so I didn’t really understand what that meant. I was familiar with the term having been a peer counselor for years in my high school. I was usually the person uplifting people who would have these kinds of issues and help them challenge these destructive thoughts and vent, but I was not familiar with this way of describing myself. I think that’s why it’s so important to express our struggles with our mental health, because yes there will be people who know me, and they would say “Sihle? Depressed?”
“Sihle dat always ah uplift people and have di good energy, di good vibes, always ah tell di jokes, ambitious?”
Yes! Yes! Me. I am all those things and I get depressed.
Finding my own ways to cope with depression
I coped in three main ways:
One was music, and just generally things I really liked to do. As I said, I kind of lost interest or passion for certain things but I enjoyed music and other activities in a different way than before. It used to be for entertainment but then it became a thing where I used it to occupy my mind so I wouldn’t get drowned in destructive thoughts. As long as I wasn't doing something to occupy myself, doing some work or watching something, I always had to have music in my ears.
The second thing was a strong support system, especially my mother. She was so compassionate but also so practical and wanted to figure out what was going on with her daughter. She created a space for me to heal, whereas I wanted to escape my feelings and push forward like nothing was wrong. She pulled me out of school and sheltered me. She even communicated with people like my lecturers and helped me to finish the year. She pushed me, but gently. One of the most important things she did was suggest therapy and accompanied me to a therapist.
The third remains my faith in God. For me, if I didn't have this foundational belief that I was worth it, I was somebody, I was known, I was loved, that there is a future for me, I would have felt so much more lost. Faith helped me discern the thoughts that were just simply not true because I would remember that ‘This is what God says about me, this what God says about my future…’ and so I would cling to that. Going forward, faith helped me address stereotypes surrounding mental health by bringing to my attention that struggling is an expectation as a human being, not an anomaly. Many of the great biblical figures we refer to for examples of endurance, kindness, honesty etc. – these great and faithful men and women – also struggled with uncertainty, deep sadness, stress, anxieties, etc., even to the point of begging God for death. But they were not chastised for struggling, they were lovingly encouraged by God.
Know that you are not alone
I want to tell you that you are not alone. There are so many people struggling like you are.
When somebody has a cough or a really bad headache and it’s lasting for too long, other people will be like “yes, yes, gwaan. You nah go a doctor?” So why is it when we have pain in our minds which affects everything else, we’re like “hmm?”
Mental well-being is so, so important. I know not everyone has access to therapy but if you have access to counselling services, I implore you to do that. Don't run away from these feelings – challenge them and be kind to yourself. I like to think of them like warning signs and an opportunity to be like ‘Okay this is going on. Let’s see what’s going on with me.’ Try to find people who you feel safe with to talk about your feelings to just let that out.
Also, I would say try to push yourself to do the things that give you joy and if you don't feel like doing any of those things and you just want to lay down in bed, that’s okay too. It doesn’t make you bad, it doesn't make you a bad person. It doesn't make you lazy. It doesn’t make you weak.
You and your mental health: U-Matter.
I would also say find your purpose, find your drive. For me, I have adopted an outlook that my life is a story. Every story has a protagonist, and every good story has conflict, with an issue to struggle through to reach a resolution. I believe that my purpose here is to serve others through telling my story, through relating to people, through helping people who struggle like me so that people can feel God’s love through my actions. I feel like that’s why I’m here.
So even if I do struggle, I reassure myself that, “Hey, this is more material for the book that is my life”. I just want you to know, if you’re reading and you relate to this, that you matter and you deserve to be your best self and you deserve help and it’s okay.
Please be gentle with yourself and I hope that this has encouraged you in some way or at least made you feel that “Well, I’m not the only one.”
Our mental health matters. U-Matter.
Want to speak to a U-Matter counsellor yourself? Message the word SUPPORT to U-Report at 876-838-4897 on WhatsApp or SMS (no charge for messages for customers on Flow network) or @ureportjamaica on Facebook Messenger.