One common thing it seems that young Africans who have the luxury of going to school deal with, is the intense pressure to succeed academically. We often make jokes about our African parents demanding for the missing 2% when we get a 98% on a test and although they may do it in good faith, these kinds of demands bring a lot of pressure on top of whatever one is going through at that point in life, especially as a student in University. Already, many African children are under extreme pressure from the society and themselves to achieve academic success. When they do not perform at optimum levels, they are often ‘disciplined’ and stigmatized at home and in school to make them do better the next time around. This harsh approach to pushing a child to be better may actually be an introductory source of long lasting mental unease into young minds.
I recently read the heartbreaking news of a boy who committed suicide because he had to repeat a class. These are unfortunate results of the aggressive ‘healthy academic competition‘ that education has been reduced to. To be constantly compared to others, and pitted against peers is nerve racking for anybody and is likely to result in self esteem issues, at such a young age.
Imagine the exhaustion of having to constantly wonder whether you are adequate or trying not to embarrass yourself and your family.
Many African parents forget to assure their children that they will always be enough, no matter what society says.
The WHO 2015 report on Depression, Anxiety and Suicide showed that over 264 million people in the world live with anxiety disorders. The trend is lower in higher age groups, and increases with population growth and other socio-political conditions. With the rising occurrences of natural disasters, political unrest and war, the numbers will probably be off the charts for 2017.
Anxiety is characterized by extreme, irrational fear or worry. Most people go through this existential crisis but some experience it in worse forms (anxiety disorders) like social anxiety, panic attacks, and more.
It is an uncontrollable and overwhelming disorder that prevents people from going about daily activities with ease. It makes normal interaction difficult and can be life threatening when it introduces serious cases of depression, suicidal tendencies and physical problems. Anxiety often feels like being suffocated in a pool of negative thoughts. These thoughts stem from image issues to pressure to succeed to war trauma or any other type of trauma. Anxiety is a toxic disorder to the sufferer and the people around them. Some everyday traits include constantly looking for the exit in public places, insomnia, panicking when you are standing in a line or crowd alone, inability to let go of past events, overthinking, paranoia, fear of all good things turning sour and the fear of talking to strangers.
Most people overlook everyday anxiety as normal and unworthy of treatment. However, if left to linger, it can lead to anxiety disorders where one becomes unable to see positive aspects of anything. Oftentimes in our society, we simply peg sufferers of anxiety as pessimistic or negative people.
The theme for World Mental Health day this year was ‘Mental Health in the workplace’ because although the stats for anxiety in adults might be less than that in children, adults experience anxiety in almost the same ways. As an adult in African society, a lot of worries come to revolve around what people think about your lifestyle. Am I getting married on time? Am I impressing my peers? Can I provide for my family or attend to my bills on time? With the stress of deadlines, the experience of making public presentations and having to engage in office meetings, an employee with anxiety may be having a hard time. Harassment in offices and public places is also another leading cause of anxiety for women who suffer from anxiety. This could also be a contributing factor to why anxiety is higher in females than in males.
People with anxiety disorders have many tells. Some people pull their hair or eyebrows, some may tap things, bite their nails, fidget with objects or even have constant stomach upset and bowel movement issues.
My first ever anxiety attack happened when I was 6 and my family went to the amusement park. I couldn’t get on the roller coaster because I was afraid that something horrible would happen. I always had a strange fear of heights and till this day, I avoid pedestrian bridges just because I think one could crash beneath me as I walk, or I could be tipped over the rails by a strong force. I’d rather take my chances crossing the busy express road than walk on the bridge. This may not make sense to you because I could die either way but it is one of those things.
When I was younger, I always had pens that I could press on the top just so the clicking sound could occupy my anxious mind. I can’t speak for other children who may have suffered anxiety, but I am certain that mine has something to do with the need I always felt to impress my family.
I believe finding the root source of your anxiety is also important because it helps to slowly combat it. As the fifth child, I was constantly under pressure to be as good as my other siblings in everything I did. I have dealt with minor panic attacks for years now and while anxiety is treatable, not everyone in this part of the world is comfortable talking about it or can afford the expensive medication or therapy which is viewed as a luxury in this part of the world. These days, a lot of people tend to self medicate and practice self care in little ways by focusing on things that make them happy.
My first major panic attack happened when I found out a friend had died. I couldn’t move or talk, I couldn’t even breathe. I was dizzy and thought I was going to die. It lasted for a while and after, I wasn’t in the frame of mind to speak to anyone about it. The second one happened during a test. With the price for the test and everything else that was going on in my life, it was too much. The exact same thing as before happened except this time I was shaking violently and a friend was there to help. It took about thirty minutes after to collect myself. It was after that I started tapping my feet and performing breathing exercises to try and cope with my anxiety.
Anxiety interrupts how you want to live your life. You tend to avoid whatever could cause you episodes even when it might be fun and non life-threatening. It is the inability to escape your own thoughts and it is too often accompanied by harmful coping behaviors like excessive eating, drinking alcohol or smoking before appearing in public. It could introduce high blood pressure, fatigue and insomnia. Sometimes, a panic attack can occur just because you are afraid of it happening again.
Anxiety can be treated with medication. While people tend to trivialize mental illnesses in Africa, work places and schools especially need to take it more seriously. To begin with, school counselors and office HR departments need to pay more attention to mental health of the people they are entrusted to cater to. It is sad that when one finally struggles to overcome the stigma associated in Africa with having mental health issues, one is still almost sure to be let down by a system that can not provide help; a system that doesn’t see it as important or even acknowledge it.
There are various ways to cope with anxiety like therapy, breathing exercises, crying, eating, listening to music, drinking tea, long showers, writing, joining support groups, exercising, talking to friends, avoiding whatever causes you stress and just finding what works for you.
Loving someone with anxiety can be very tough as they probably can’t focus on the positives in life but it is important to not give up on them and be patient with them because they have no control over their thoughts and feelings.
As a society, we need to educate more people. Anxiety isn’t just someone being negative or ‘making a big deal out of nothing’. We need to stop gas-lighting people going through it.
For Africans living with anxiety, it may sometimes feel like you’re fighting for your life, fighting to enjoy the little things without spoiling it. Knowing the problem is not enough, you should actively try and find help.You deserve it.