By: Mwongeli Masesi
I have been trying to write this piece for quite some time now and every time I’ve gotten to the end of a draft I have decided it wasn’t good enough and started all over again. I have asked myself the same question each time: what makes me think I am qualified to discuss depression within the Kenyan community? I don’t have a degree in psychology or sociology and I may never have any degree at all. I am not qualified in any other way besides the fact that I have lived with depression for well over half of my life.
As a kid my parents explained away my moods and acting out by saying it was “just a phase” or “growing pains”, and I wanted to believe them because that was easier than accepting the overwhelming sadness I felt on a daily basis. It went on like this for most of my youth and in high school I was just “rebelling” when I started drinking, doing drugs, and misbehaving in school. I kept up my grades for the most part and participated in enough extracurricular activities, and while my behavior wasn’t exemplary, it was good enough to placate my parents and prevent any serious repercussions.
I often wonder now, after being diagnosed with clinical depression over a year ago, whether my parents ever suspected it might just be more than a phase for me. I remember a few months ago sitting across from my mother at the dining room table in tears and asking her if there were any signs she noticed when I was growing up. If she noticed that the inexplicable pain and sadness I carried had become almost debilitating well into my early twenties and that “phase” was now just part of my daily life.
She didn’t have an answer for me.
That became yet another moment to add to the list of times growing up where I needed emotional support and one or both of my parents were ill-equipped to provide it. Because for them when they were growing up in Kenya they had “real struggles” like how their families would afford school fees, whether or not there was enough rain to keep the farms productive, and how their country would move forward after gaining independence from the British. Those were the realities of my parent’s childhoods and so what could their youngest daughter, who was growing up in America with all the opportunities they only dreamt of, possibly have to be sad about?
Over the last decade there have been several psychiatrists in Kenya who have attempted to bring the conversation of mental health to the forefront and better educate communities but most initiatives have fallen on deaf ears. And even though according to the International Institute for Legislative Affairs, “mental health experts estimate that 1 in every 4 Kenyans may be suffering from a mental health problem,” most of the country is still in denial as to the existence of any mental illnesses.
It is not uncommon in many Kenyan villages to see young men and women chained to trees, a practice done in order to keep individuals from hurting themselves or running away. In some cases families send their loved ones to Mathari Psychiatric Hospital, the main mental health facility located in Nairobi, where patients are kept in crowded wards and prescribed medications without proper diagnosis.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as Kenyan immigrants make their way overseas they maintain that unwillingness to discuss or acknowledge the possibility of mental illness within themselves or family members.
In fact, while I was researching the topic of mental illness among African immigrants I was only semi-surprised to discover that while over two million African immigrants live in the United States, there is virtually no information regarding depression among the community.
Similarly as I spoke to the few family friends willing to discuss this topic I heard almost identical narratives with few variations: every individual had experienced depression or anxiety of some degree in their life but were hesitant to discuss the feelings with loved ones and were equally as hesitant to seek any resources which might be available. It was communicated to me on several occasions that any form of depression was a source of shame and weakness for many of these individuals and hardly anyone mentioned that it might be more than just a brief period of their life.
Mental health issues take on various forms and last for different amounts of time for the individual but I have a hard time believing the experience was as cut and dry as many individuals wanted me to believe. And that’s what I’m struggling with as I’ve tried to write this. I didn’t necessarily expect my friends and family who grew up in the same culture as I did to bare their souls and detail every agonizing moment of their depression but then again maybe I did.
And so in absence of that happening I can only offer you pieces of my own experience. I can tell you about how I’ve tried to commit suicide at least twice a year since I was fourteen. I can tell you about how I wish my dad was alive and I was dead. I can tell you how overwhelmingly sad I get every time I think about how my mom is going to spend the rest of her years without the love of her life. I can tell you how every morning I want to cry because the thought of being alive another day is unbearable. I can tell you that I’ve felt different variations of this hopelessness for more than half of my life.
I need to tell you all of this because everyone offers you advice on how to not be depressed anymore and then they congratulate you after you’ve made it through it all but what no one tells you is that the depression and anxiety might just always be in the background of your life.
I suppose I also need to tell you all of this because it helps me navigate not only my present experience but also that of my past. I had hoped to maybe come to some revelation during the process of writing this and that I would be able to offer some new insight into depression within the Kenyan community but I failed in both aspects. But what I can do is continue the conversation and hope that more individuals share their stories and that slowly the stigma falls away.
I am Mwongeli.
I am Kenyan.
And I suffer from clinical depression.