Interview with Joséphine Mwanvua, Above the Storm

“Creativity heals like nothing else!”

– Joséphine Mwanvua

Joséphine Mwanvua runs a motivational mental health blog dedicated to “guiding you through mental rehabilitation from depression and anxiety”. In the following interview, I ask Joséphine about her own experience of mental illness and stigma, as well as her ideas on how we can eradicate such stigma through education and providing support to those suffering.

My name is Joséphine, and I run a blog about depression and anxiety called Above the Storm. My goal is to educate, motivate and be candid about my own experiences. I want to let people know that despite what it seems, depression and anxiety can get better and can be managed. We must try to develop the patience and care it takes. I hope to inspire people to dive deep into themselves and nurture their minds, bodies, and souls. I created my blog when I noticed improvement in my mood and thought it would be a disservice if I didn’t share my experiences with others.

As a child, I became depressed after some time due to bullying, having my voice silenced all the time, and being restricted from eating certain foods. I didn’t know I was depressed back then. It continued into my tween years, where I felt confused and then a loved one died. Depression crept up again in university due to school and financial stress, and confusion over what I wanted to do in life and who I was. Eventually, anxiety presented itself during that time and it worsened my situation. As an adult, I was able to put myself into counselling and it was there that I found out about my history of depression, and what I could do to heal.

What does stigma mean to you? How has it affected you?

Stigma to me means something associated with a societal taboo, not spoken about, and where most people don’t know much about the topic. Stigma has greatly affected me as a child because I had issues, and twice times teachers voiced their concerns for me to my father but he denied that I needed help. We are African, and in African communities (in black communities in general) mental health is a big taboo, and anyone suffering with mental illness is typically seen as crazy. There’s no discussion around depression or anxiety in particular.

I think it’s partly because African nations are communal, so if someone is going through a hard time or has suffered trauma, friends and family will show up every day to keep the person company, cook, and clean for them. It’s like that until they’re on their feet again. I think my father is a good man, but he just didn’t understand. It was hard for me to cope as a child, so I’m thankful to have sought help as an adult.

How can we encourage more openness and honest discussion about mental health?

The best way to encourage openness is by having a raw, private conversation with a trusted loved one, either about what you’re going through or if you’re worried about them, and to continuously have these check-ups between each other. That’s two less people de-stigmatizing their view on mental health, and it’s creating a safe environment for you both to talk. If you want, you could do it with more than one person.

If you have the courage, you could take it to social media, or make a presentation on a mental health topic for school. In high school, I often spoke out on issues I cared about at every opportunity I had. I have asked people to sign petitions, too!

What are your favourite or most memorable mental health campaigns?

I like Logic’s song, 1-800-273-8255. It’s about suicide, being candid with yourself about your emotions and seeking help.

How should we conceptualise good mental health? What are we actually aiming for?

It’s hard to say, but one thing everybody should understand is that every person goes through bad days and good days, even people who don’t have mental health disorders. Someone who is prone to depression might feel a lot bluer than someone who is not, on a bad day, but that’s okay. Just be with your emotions and tend to your needs.

Why do so many of us not feel ‘good enough’?

Many of us don’t feel good enough because we were either raised with certain expectations from loved ones and if we did not meet those expectations, we weren’t given the same degree of affection. Some of us were completely ignored whether we tried to make someone proud or not.

And it’s not just in the home, though. As we grow up, we want to fit in with certain crowds, and we become increasingly aware of messages in the media. We believe in all the messages fed to us and compare ourselves constantly, never feeling like we live up to expectations or ideals. 

How can schools teach students effectively about mental health?

I like the idea of inviting a therapist into classrooms to speak about mental health, available services and therapies for children, teens, and adults.

Do you have any advice for people experiencing mental health problems at university?

Yes! I have a blog post about being depressed in university, where I mention what to do if you’re too overwhelmed by everything. Essentially, it is to work with an academic advisor to create a manageable schedule, try setting up an appointment with the school’s therapist, evaluating the gravity of your situation in home, school, finance, etc., and deciding the best steps for you to take.

What are your thoughts on the current mental health system in your country?

I live in Canada. I don’t think the system is bad, but there’s room for a lot of improvement. Counselling and psychiatric appointments are free through a referral from a general practitioner. As a patient, you might meet some professionals in the field who, for some reason, don’t care about you or have it out for you. Others don’t do their jobs very well either. But there are many who have the empathy it takes for the job, who are passionate about the field, and really know how to work with you to raise you up. We’re currently under Justin Trudeau’s liberal government, who doesn’t shy away from speaking about mental health. Trudeau has promised to give $5 billion to mental health initiatives (more services, better care, etc.) across the country over the next 10 years.

Canada also deals with suicide the way a lot of other countries do, which is if someone is having suicidal thoughts, they are sent to the hospital, and then to a mental health facility where they might not want to be. The counsellor tells you before starting the initial session that they’re obliged by law to do this immediately. I think this not the best law because it creates fear in many people to speak about their suicidal thoughts. We need another way, where we effectively try to understand them and have them see life in a different perspective. It is deep, and cuts through the complicated mess that leads to suicide. I don’t know what that method is yet.

How do you go about practising self-care? How did you learn to practise self-care?

I make sure all of the following areas are taken care of in my life: relationships, spirituality, health & wellness, hobbies, and education. Most of all, I make sure to better the way I treat and speak to myself. I learned self-care through therapy and self-help.

What are your views on CBT?

It’s not so bad, but in my experience, it’s not always effective. I don’t like the constant focus on asking me how I feel about things and then the immediate summarization of everything I just said. Many therapists who use CBT do it in a bland, by-the-book kind of way. My first therapist used CBT and sought growth in his practice by learning new ways to help his patients. He complimented CBT with other techniques. He was great!

What is your experience with alternative therapies, such as art, music and dance therapy?

Creativity heals like nothing else! Doing art, whether in a therapy setting or not, releases stress, emotions, and is a healthy way to cope.

Often, you hear advice telling you to “just be yourself”. Why is it so hard? How can we just be ourselves?

Maybe you don’t know who you are. It’s hard to be yourself if you haven’t taken the time to find yourself yet.

What advice might you give to someone struggling with their mental health?

You might have heard this before, but the first step is admitting to yourself that you have a problem. A lot of people think they’re fine when they’re not.

So, after you have admitted that, seek help wherever you can and educate yourself: online therapy, 7cups, in-person therapy, books, videos, find a healthy outlet, etc. Be with yourself. Learn about yourself. Learn to love yourself.

What is your experience with these issues? Comment below or send me a message

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