It all started in high school. Fiona Imbolo, now 21, was always moody and sad, and she didn’t know why.
Sometimes she would shut off the world, not wanting to talk to anyone. Complete withdrawal was her second nature. She was sad and had no reason for it.
Fiona, who had to take a break from school to recuperate, shares what many other young people her age go through: depression.
To cope with her situation, she twice tried to self-inflict pain by cutting herself with razor blades on her thigh. Last year, she attempted suicide when she couldn’t take it anymore.
“I was alone at my parent’s house and I Googled how one might end her life, and I decided to cut my wrist. I even bought anesthesia so it would be an easy process,” she says.
Her parents did not notice her slide to self-destruction, until she wound up in hospital. “My dad was really angry. He did not come on the first day. I only saw him on the day I was discharged. He could not understand why I had done what I did,” she says.
“He has never talked about it but I don’t blame him. The older generation did not have anyone to teach them [about mental health]. All they know is you take children to school, they get a job and get married.”
Fiona was admitted for eight days, twice undergoing a surgical procedure, electroconvulsive therapy. After being discharged, some of her family members scolded her, while friends shunned her.
“I’ve never cried that hard in my life. I didn’t want to wake up. It’s an indescribable feeling that I can’t even explain,” she says.
Now a student at JKUAT, Fiona says the only person she is comfortable discussing the issue with is her best friend Nikita because they are both learning how to deal with depression.
“When you come out [of a spell of depression], people see you differently. They pity you, walk on eggshells and cannot talk to you like they used. I don’t want that, I want it to be normal like before,” Fiona says.
Read: My battle with depression: Trio’s mental illness diaries
Were it not for Nikita, Fiona believes she would not be alive today.
“When things become overwhelming, you feel like people don’t support you and you are not really important to anyone. You ask yourself, why struggle through it? There is no reason to struggle with life, so you might as well just end it,” she says.
“When you are depressed you can have suicidal thoughts. Sometimes you don’t find value in things. And when you have suicidal thoughts you have to push them away plenty of times, so you have to keep on finding reasons to fight and stay alive, and when you don’t find one, you succumb.”
Fiona says for most youth, depression comes when they try to compare their lives with others’ and cave in to external pressure.
“When you see people living a lavish lifestyle and you feel like you will never be at that point, it can cause depression. That is what most young people do,” she says.
Fiona says the younger generation knows issues surrounding mental health and it is only them who can change the narrative. She also advises young people to be more open to talking to their parents
“I am still battling and trying to figure out how to live with depression. People should accept it’s a problem, it is an illness and like most people, you need to find help. You should not feel like you have to go through things alone,” Fiona says.
She has started a campaign on sensitising people, especially the older generation, about mental health. Fiona has also collaborated with Befrienders Kenya, an organisation that deals with people going through depression and suicidal thoughts.
SECOND-HIGHEST YOUTH KILLER
A World Health Organisation report released in 2017 indicated that someone dies every 40 seconds globally due to suicide, and that most victims are youths between ages 15-29.
The report noted that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among the youth. It also showed that approximately more than 300 million people are affected by depression globally, and the condition is linked to the suicides of close to 800,000 people each year. Many more attempt suicide.
Suicide is associated with mental disorders, such as depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and alcohol and other substance abuse.
Other risk factors include access to firearms, physical or sexual abuse, unemployment, strained relationships, imprisonment, chronic physical illness, financial difficulties, loneliness and exposure to the suicidal behaviour of others.
The most common methods of suicide globally include ingestion of pesticide, hanging and use of firearms.
According to data from World Population Review, in 2017, Kenya was number 114 out of 175 countries with a suicide rate of 6.5 per 100,000. The data further showed a 58% increase in suicide rates between 2008 and 2017.
Year 2017 recorded the highest cases of suicide reported, 421, while 2010 recorded the least, 75. The years 2014-16 recorded 301, 221 and 302 cases respectively.
Another survey (Economic Survey 2018, by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics) shows that in Kenya, more men commit suicide than women. The major cause, the study found out, is depression, in which the country is ranked sixth in Africa.
Some 79% of global suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries.
HELPING THE SUICIDAL
Befrienders psychotherapist Hiram Chomba says they get an average of 15 calls a day from people attempting to end their lives.
Psychotherapy is used to identify mental health treatment using psychological rather than medical approaches.
Chomba says though more men commit suicide, women are the ones who reach out the most. Once they get a call, Chomba says the first thing they do is to listen.
“Listening to the person express his or her self reduces risk and is therapeutic. Some even open up while crying, and we reassure them we are here for them. We later assess the risk and if it is high, we ask for their kin’s contacts. We then schedule a free session for them,” he says.
Having just one branch in Nairobi, Chomba says they sometimes refer callers from other regions to counselors in their area. However, they also offer online services.
“We have so far done two trainings in Kikuyu and Mutuini, Nairobi, where we have trained people in listening skills and how to assess suicide risks,” he says.
Although there is still a lot of stigmatisation, mainly due to lack of information, Chomba says awareness on mental health issues has increased in the recent past.
“When people don’t understand a phenomenon, they ground it in superstition or stereotypes. However, people are changing their attitude,” he says.
Chomba says the causes of depression could be biological, economical, psychosocial and shared genetic vulnerabilities, like bipolar disorder.
“High-risk factors include a previous suicide attempt and parental issues, like being raised in an abusive family,” he says.
Chomba says the biggest warning signs are preoccupation with death, where one is always posting about death and pointing out the desire to die.
“Giving out things valuable to them is also a huge warning sign,” he says.
Chomba urged anyone going through mental health issues to seek help because there are a lot of resources and people willing to help.
“If you feel depressed, get assessed and diagnosed by a professional. Reach out, even if it’s your friend or neighbour who is going through depression,” he says.
“Not everyone who is depressed is suicidal, but all suicidal cases have suicidal ideations. Suicide is the secret no one should hide.”
Read: I’ve fought depression since last year — Mukami Mwaura
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