How to talk about mental health when the topic is considered a taboo

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Photo Of Woman Lying Beside A Phone

Almost a year ago, I decided to start a documentary project about mental health in Senegal. What I did not know at that time was that this would start my own journey with learning and acknowledging the importance of mental wellbeing.

I was born in Senegal and spent the first fourteen years of my life in Dakar. There was always a history of mood disorders on both sides of my family, mostly depression yet, we never spoke about it. Ever. Not a mention, not a “let’s sit down and talk about what this is and how it affects your life”.

This isn’t abnormal in Senegalese families, in Senegalese culture it is very much encouraged to avoid talking about things that would make one another uncomfortable, we call it “sutura”, it’s supposed to be representation of discretion and modesty but what we’ve failed to realize is that every time we follow the rules of “sutura” we are taking away someone’s chance to feel seen and heard. We are unknowingly boxing them in and making them suffocate further more.

Last year, a family member who suffered from depression for at least a decade passed away, following her passing, I found it difficult to start a conversation about mental wellbeing with my younger cousins and realized that this went beyond a family issue.

There was always a history of mood disorders on both sides of my family, mostly depression yet, we never spoke about it. Ever. Not a mention, not a “let’s sit down and talk about what this is and how it affects your life”.
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Aminata Diobeh Fall, during the Leading Minds conference in 2019.
Aminata Diobeh Fall, during the Leading Minds conference in 2019.

I wanted to feel involved in my community and thought that a documentary would be the best way to start a dialogue and push policymakers to take action and include mental health in the school curriculums.

After posting on social media that I was looking for young people willing to talk about their experiences with mental health on camera, a young woman reached out to me and explained to me that although she wished she could help she didn't feel comfortable discussing it on camera because the subject was too taboo and she was afraid of how her family members would perceive her.

We had a short conversation in which she gave me more details about some of the things that happened to her and I urged her to seek professional help.

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These women are called "Badienou Gnokh", they serve as advisors for family planning purposes in their neighbourhood. They say drugs and alcohol abuse have devastating effects on the mental wellbeing of the young people in their neighborhoods.
These women are called "Badienou Gnokh", they serve as advisors for family planning purposes in their neighbourhood. They say drugs and alcohol abuse have devastating effects on the mental wellbeing of the young people in their neighborhoods.

5 things you can do to take care of your wellbeing

What I failed to do was to give her useful advice on how to deal with her mental wellbeing when talking to family or professional help isn’t an immediate option. So, here is what I would tell anybody in a similar position:

1. I urge you to be empathetic with yourself, you’re human, you’re constantly growing, evolving learning new things about life and yourself.

Change is inevitable, it comes in different forms, maybe you’re learning how to deal with anxiety, maybe it’s a different environment.

The options with change aren’t limitless, I really want you to try and accept change as you would seasons, they come and go, we might prefer one over another but we also always find a way to power through the ones we like the least because we understand that a new cycle will arrive. While waiting for the cycle to arrive, be gentle with yourself.

2. Find or create your own safe space, your refuge, it could be a physical place or an activity you love. Find somewhere/something that could serve as an escape for the days when it gets too hard and you need to be on your own.

3. This is one of the hardest things, but find someone you trust that you can express your worries and feelings to. This person could be receptive or not, this isn’t about them, think of it as yourself vocalizing and affirming out loud what’s happening to you and taking the steps necessary to find a solution.

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Self care and mental health is not selfish sign

4. We’ve got one hard thing out of the way, so we need to get to the next step, seek the next best thing to professional help; peer to peer support. Specifically, through the use of online platforms or apps, in Senegal we’ve got SHIFT Senegal and SOS Senegal which are both platforms on Instagram created by young Senegalese women Anna Gueye and Fatou Dieye Fall that care about mental wellbeing. There is also the Runaway app created by Satvik Setvi, another youth leader in mental health.

5. You have to keep trying, you might not succeed in doing some of these steps. It might take you multiple tries to learn how to be empathetic to yourself, you might open up to someone and be completely disappointed with their reaction.

It’s a horrible feeling but it’s important to not give up on yourself. You can and will get through this, it will be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do but it will all be worth it.

I’d still like to urge you to try your best to seek professional help, there is only so much that peer to peer support can do. It’s an excellent base but it’s nonetheless a base, you have to eventually move from it and get to another level. I wish all of us to get to the highest level, one in which we are at peace with our mental wellbeing.

Every day, life presents us with challenges - but also with opportunities for reflection and growth. Discover more stories about Personal Growth and Health on Voices of Youth. And watch a segment from Aminata's documentary below.

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