Elisa Magistrali reflects on her own experiences to help lift the social stigma and stereotypes around people affected by their mental health.

Reading so many powerful and touching stories of individuals who took the courageous step of speaking out about their struggle with mental health for World Mental Day earlier this month, made me pause and reflect on my own journey with depression. Was it worth sharing my story? Could I contribute to help lift the social stigma and stereotypes around people affected by mental illness and encourage those who are experiencing it, whether directly or not, to feel less isolated and seek help?

Mental health is an extremely hard topic to talk about, because it is so personal, so intrinsic to someone’s essence, like a second skin. I have always been reticent in talking about my depression, especially with people who haven’t experienced it themselves, as the first question I would normally be asked was: “Why did that happen?”. I could never answer that question.  

Since I was a teenager, I have suffered from depression, which has taken different forms during the years. Panic attacks and extreme perfectionism when I was a teenager, obsessive determination to achieve academically throughout school and university, measuring my own success as a person with my academic/work achievements, eating disorders on and off, withdrawal and inability to cope with everyday life, low self-esteem and anxiety after the birth of my first child. And I could continue.

While fighting these internal battles with myself, I was trying to carry on with a “normal” life, determined to prove to myself that there was nothing wrong, that I could keep everything under control, at school, with my relationships, with my body. Until my body snapped and stopped. Numb.
Still today, I hardly remember anything of those years. Just a sensation of chill and loneliness.

My journey is still going but over the years, thanks to professional help and, most importantly, the support of family and friends, I have learnt more about myself, the nature and symptoms of my depression and how to manage my moments of extreme lows. One step at a time.

The past eight months or so of lockdown have been challenging. Well, for whom have they not been? Personally, during this time I felt more aware of my own fragility and the risk of isolating myself and feeling lonely.

Humans are social animals and the current situation affects our own essence of identifying ourselves as part of a bigger “tribe” and developing as individuals through physical interactions, building relationships and sharing experiences. Of course, technology has helped massively in being able to carry on working, socialising, and learning (oh Google Classroom, what fun!). But how about body language, eye contact, facial expressions?

I have purposefully tried to pace and listen to myself. There have been, and will be, darker days. And that’s fine. As long as I have the willingness (and support) to break through the negative pattern. By speaking out about my own experience I have found a strength and depth in myself that I’m proud of, an understanding of my drivers and needs that I wouldn’t otherwise have, as well as an openness in the way that I live my life, recognising that mental health affects everyone and, as the World Mental Organisation says, “there is no health without mental health”.

So, I finish this blog with the hope that what you have read felt true, honest and encouraging. I strongly believe that the more we talk about such challenges in an open and non-judgemental way, the more people who are suffering from mental illness will feel less isolated and more empowered to seek help.