“As millenials, we stare down the barrels of guns, why are we afraid of our truth?”
Seated across me, I’m not certain whether she is about to recite a poem or it is simply a rhetorical question Akinyi Awora poses to me.
Only a few days earlier, she took the bold step of revealing her recent diagnosis of clinical depression on social media.
Initially indecisive on whether to post or not, Akinyi says she got mixed reactions, from shock, unbelief, acceptance to some questioning whether she could really be suffering from depression.
Clinical depression also known as major depressive disorder is a mood disorder characterized by persistent depressed mood and major loss of interest in daily activities.
Globally, it affects 300 million people worldwide i.e. 1 in every 4 people and is the leading cause of disability worldwide according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Raised in a military family, the 27 year-old business development specialist was brought up on values of hard work and being the best, as most military kids are.
This led to her excelling in school from primary through secondary school and into university, taking up leadership roles along the way.
And it is these qualities of a leader and a go getter that some have a problem reconciling with the same Akinyi who happens to suffer from depression.
“It is seen by some as being weak and so there is an expectation for me to power through this as I do other ‘trials’ in life…yet you can’t power through illness,” she says.
Yet this societal stereotype that people who excel in life should have nothing to be ‘depressed’ about, does not reflect the truth on the ground.
The father of American democracy, Abraham Lincoln, is said to have been ailing from bouts of what was then known as melancholy, today believed to be depression.
Despite what he went through, Lincoln believed that a depressed man did not in any way precipitate his condition but rather he was a victim of circumstance.
He said, “A tendency to melancholy…let it be observed, is a misfortune, not a fault…”
Linet Odidi, a counselling psychologist agrees with this sentiment adding that the society places high achiever’s on a different pedestal than most.
“Society often believes that if you have attained a level of prestige be it money, influence or power that you have nothing to be depressed about. Yet, depression is an illness like any other,” she explains.
Referring to the recent high profile deaths of Professor Mugenda and Stephen Mumbo, she says that the lens of these two individuals was magnified because of the prestige placed on their lives and careers.
It is this particular lens she says makes it difficult for other people seen as high achievers to come out and admit that they need help.
‘Many who have interacted with me on and offline know me as an aggressive high achiever, a persona that doesn’t auger well with the ‘typical’ template of a person suffering mental ill health…’ admits Akinyi.
Although the situation may seem grim, Linet believes that there is still much that can be done to reduce the number of suicidal deaths and injuries caused by depression and mental illness in general.
“I can’t stress this enough, sensitization. We need to sensitize people on what mental illness is and where to get help. Some of these cases can be prevented if we sensitize and educate the populace on mental illness,
Doctors and mental health practitioners must also work together. Mental health symptoms often present themselves physically. Therefore if you’re treating a patient and the physical symptoms are not subsiding, perhaps you should look into their mental health,” says Linet.
Armed with the knowledge of what was ailing her for many years, Akinyi is now optimistic about the future.
“I pray that more people can be open about their experiences on mental health, so we can normalize the illness and help end the stigma around it,” says Akinyi.