Words: Amanda Ndlangisa
Because of stigma and discrimination, gay men are more likely than heterosexual men to struggle with their mental health. Thankfully, depression and mental health is no longer this taboo conversation that we have been ignoring for decades. You are not weak if you reach out for help.
Research and real life experiences have found that compared to heterosexual men, gay and bisexual men are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and younger men seem to be at a higher risk of depression than older gay men.
According to research, the LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts, and engage in self-harm, as compared to youths that are straight identified.
*Tshepo, 32, can attest to this. “I was about 7 years old when I realised that I might not be “normal” like the other boys I used to play with. I found myself more drawn to my female classmates, not because I had crushes on them, but because I felt more comfortable around them. At around 13 years, I tried coming out to my family, but unfortunately they didn’t take the news well. My mother tried to “pray the gay out of me” while my dad tried to “beat the gay out of me”. This led me to a downhill spiral, my teen years became the worst years of my life. I experienced suicidal thoughts because I thought I was the only one. Back then, we didn’t have as much representation as we do now. I couldn’t see a way out. I heard a group of girls in high school talking about ‘cutting’ I got curious and I started doing it. It felt good at that time but it was never enough. It was only in varsity I found an “escape”. There were more people like me and there were recourses to help people like me. I started attending the free counselling offered at school, then I was referred to a psychologist who then referred me to a Psychiatrist. In 2012, I was officially diagnosed with clinical depression, it wasn’t the easiest thing to hear but I wasn’t surprised. I’ve since been on medication and through attending therapy with my mother, we have a better relationship now.”
Dr Shelley Bernhardt, a Counselling Psychologist at Witkoppen Health and Welfare Centre says that fear of rejection from friends, family members, anti-gay messages heard in spaces like churches, communities and in the media can worsen one’s mental health. “Having support in life is immensely important to a person’s mental health and overall well-being. But not everyone is privileged enough to get this support. Depression is real but even more so in the gay community because of the rejection they face. Getting diagnosed and starting medication as soon as you can will help in the long run.” concludes Dr Bernhardt.
Bruce Little agrees with Dr Bernhardt. “Years back, I was diagnosed with a mood disorder and it means that my “happy” times and my depressed times can be a bit harder to manage than the average person. Luckily, I was able to afford seeing a psychiatrist and other mental health experts and I was also able to gain access to medication and other treatment that has made all the difference to the way I live my life. It has changed my life completely – for the better. This makes me very privileged because I know there are many thousands of people around the world that don’t have access to these amazing resources as I do.”
Early Warning Signs
If you believe, or are wondering, if someone you know, or even yourself, is struggling with depression or anxiety, take a look at some of the most common warning signs below.
Dr Tamsyn Nash, a Counselling Psychologist at Witkoppen Health and Welfare Centre says that experiencing one or more of the following feelings or behaviours can be an early warning sign of a problem:
Eating or sleeping too much or too little
Pulling away from people
Having low or no energy
Feeling numb or like nothing matters
Having unexplained aches and pains
Feeling helpless or hopeless
Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared
Yelling or fighting with family and friends
Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
Having persistent thoughts and memories you can’t get out of your head
Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
Thinking of harming yourself or others
If you’re feeling one or more of the symptoms mentioned above, you may need to seek professional help. But what if you can’t afford one or get in touch?
Here few techniques you could try:
If you feel yourself sinking, give yourself time to just be. Give yourself one day to just feel whatever you are feeling. It’s okay, we’re all human. Negative emotions are valid.
Relaxation exercises such as breathing and meditation can be helpful for coping with anxiety.
Exercising can help lighten up your mood, try jogging or walking around the block. (Don’t forget to adhere to the rules). Otherwise do a little workout at home.
Practice self-care. Self-care isn’t always getting massages and eating at your favourite restaurant. Self-care means doing the things that make you feel good, read a book, take a long bath, sleep. Whatever it takes to make you feel good.
Talk to someone you can trust. Talking about your feelings within a safe space with someone who’s non-judgemental allows you to express what you feel instead of ignoring or suppressing it.
Say NO more often. We have so many responsibilities and we tend to feel bad when we can’t perform all of them. Learning the art of saying “no”, identifying and expressing your needs is helpful, especially when your anxiety stems from your taking on more than you can handle.
If you’re on medication, remember to take it as prescribed.
Mental health is a serious illness that often leads to depression which has claimed lives of many South Africans. It is as important as physical health. Take care, watch for the signs. Your wellbeing is important!
Here are a few helpful numbers you can contact should you need to:
Suicide Crisis Line: 080-056-7567
Domestic violence helpline: 080-015-0150