“You are the last person I thought would suffer from depression,” said a classmate of mine. “Like, you always seem so chirpy,” she said, biting into her fried chicken. I give her a tight smile, a half-hearted shrug. What else was I supposed to say? I was taught to hide it well.
Hi there, I’m Hannah. I’m a 22 year old juggling two jobs, college and I have a mental illness. This is the part where you all chorus ‘Hi Hannah’ like we’re in an AA therapy group. You guys would know me as the salty feminist writer who frequently comes here and kicks the entitled ‘meninist’ beehive for their bad behaviour, but there’s something more to that.
When Malaysians think mental illness, they think of the people locked up in psychiatric wards. They think it’s an excuse for weakness, for laziness. In fact, the Malaysian Mental Health Association has an entire paragraph on it:
Mental illness is often misunderstood. For centuries, it has been seen as either possession by evil spirits, a moral weakness or punishment from a higher being. Those suffering from mental illness are commonly perceived to be restless, violent and unpredictable.
The sad part is how true this is. I’ve got a number of friends who won’t get help because their parents don’t believe in mental illness. Their parents believe that this is you being bothered by unnatural spirits, and you should ‘cleanse yourself’ and pray to ‘find your way back to God’. I can’t tell you how much I want to cry when I see fresh red cuts on the insides of their arms, their personalities gradually becoming more muted until there’s nothing but an empty shell left. I know the friends who self-medicate – drugs, alcohol, reckless behaviour – anything to make the hurt and trauma inside stop. I know what that’s like – I was taken to a psychiatrist after my 7th suicide attempt, but some people haven’t been as lucky I have been.
I have depression, and anxiety. Specifically, major depressive disorder (MDD) and general anxiety disorder. My psychiatrist is talking about my major mood swings that may be either Borderline Personality Disorder or Bipolar Disorder. I frequently go through periods of suicide ideation – where I obsessively plan to kill myself. My latest plan could’ve worked, I know it can. My closest friends worry when they see the books on my shelf – Ellen Hopkins novels, My Heart and Other Black Holes, John Green’s Looking For Alaska; they monitor my social media closely because I can’t tell them everything but I put it up there.
(Not so) funny thing about suicide, there was a study published last year that tells you the suicide rates in Malaysia (amongst the youth) are 1.09% for every 100,000 population. How many suicide cases go unreported because suicide is seen as a crime? How many deaths are swept under the rug so that people can actually bury their dead in peace?
So yeah, I probably don’t look like your stereotypical mentally ill person. I wear makeup. I smile. I chatter on and on about things I like, and I’m active in the social media sphere. I’m holding down a job. I have friends. I’m pretty high-functioning for someone who’s on a cocktail of pills that keep me on the side of the sanity line. I crack jokes about being crazy, a sarcastic quip on the tip of my tongue about killing myself one day by gassing myself to death in my car. I see my friends eye me warily, exchange glances with each other across the table – and I know why.
I have bad days too, the days where I want to get out of bed but I can’t. I literally can’t. I cycle through an entire emotional spectrum within 20 minutes. It leaves me so drained that I’m apathetic, and I disassociate from the world – like I’m a character in an RPG and it doesn’t really feel like I’m in control. I have phases of mania where I make reckless, impulsive decisions without a thought in the world and spend another week wallowing in self-loathing because I’m suffering the consequences. The anxiety and suicidal thoughts are always in the back of my head, making the inside of my head very noisy.
Mental illness has too much of a stigma in Malaysia, and too many young adults go undiagnosed – whether from denial, shame or other reasons. Therapy might not be for everyone, medication isn’t for everyone – but it doesn’t hurt to reach out. You never know what the person next to you might be thinking.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts, please treat it as a medical emergency. You can find a directory of Malaysian counselling services at http://mmha.org.my/resources/directory-of-councelling-services/ and Malaysian suicide hotlines at http://www.suicide.org/hotlines/international/malaysia-suicide-hotlines.html