Undoing the stigmas around mental health 140 characters at a time
by: Rofhiwa Maneta - 6 July 2017
Last year, 23-year-old Thabile Mpe was diagnosed with type two bipolar disorder. Two things immediately became clear to her. The first was the lack of public information about not just bipolar disorder, but the entire spectrum of mental illnesses. The second was that the language used to communicate mental illnesses was either peppered with stigma or incomprehensible to the layman.
“My initial reaction was shock,” says the University of Pretoria student of her diagnosis. “There’s a stigma that comes with bipolar…it conjures up images of someone being fine one moment and then wyling out the next. It was all a little bit confusing. My psychiatrist said the ‘disorder is characterised by long, depressive episodes and instances of hypomania’ and I didn’t understand what any of that meant.”
Fast forward to 2017 and Thabile – who recently ‘celebrated’ a year on treatment – is now doing her bit to demystify mental health. After her diagnosis, she founded Mental Wealth ZA (@MentalWealthZA) – an online support system where people with mental illnesses share their stories and struggles.
“It began as a Twitter account where I’d share my own experiences of living with bipolar disorder, but I was eventually encouraged to open it [the Twitter account] up so others could share their stories as well, and we all learn from each other at the end of the day.”
At its core, Mental Wealth is a safe space that reminds those living with mental illness that they’re not alone.
“It’s about providing a sense of community and letting people know they aren’t alone in their pain, confusion, insomnia or anxiety. Say you have an anxiety disorder and you log on and see other people discussing how they relate to their mental illness, it’s easy to think ‘hey, that’s me’. That chips away at the isolation that often comes with living with a mental illness.”
Thabile’s strategy is is simple enough: she shares a topic she’d like to raise awareness about each morning, crowd-sources people’s personal experience and publishes/retweets the results to the world.
Good morning loves. Can you think back to symptoms you displayed in your youth that were downplayed as “shy”, “Moody” etc?
— Mental Wealth™ ZA (@MentalWealthZA) June 30, 2017
“It’s a circle of learning,” she says. “Let’s say I, myself, would like to learn more about schizophrenia, I’d let the people on account know. They’d usually share either their own experiences or the experiences of people close to them. That way we’re all learning together.”
The most important thing, Thabile says, is consent and anonymity. She never shares anyone’s story without their express permission and she offers anonymity to those who prefer it.
“Regarding ethics, I have three rules: I don’t share unless I’ve been given consent to. I don’t judge. I always affirm,” she once tweeted.
A look at Mental Wealth’s timeline immediately suggests that Thabile shares a strong connection with the account’s 1 700 plus followers. The accounts followers share harrowing and detailed accounts of their lives with her. They share a camaraderie which is both endearing and unnerving.
@MentalWealthZA I would love to explore mental illness signs in children. Parents can be so pushy if their child is shy but it’s not their..
— Gwennie ☺️ (@gwen_wilsonSA) June 29, 2017
On 22 June, Thabile tweeted:
Just saw my psychiatrist. Told him about the comfort eating. Who else is struggling with weight gain? 💔 — Mental Wealth™ ZA (@MentalWealthZA) June 22, 2017
What followed was a stream of replies from her followers who shared their own experiences with comfort eating as well as words of support to both Thabile and anyone else who might have been happened upon the conversation. Other conversations include experiences with therapy, how living with mental illness affects familial and romantic relationships as well as how to minimise anxiety as exam season approaches.
Went though this after my first diagnosis 2years ago, can’t seem to get rid of it even now 💔💔 https://t.co/rlSyHITj4b
— Fels Mulaudzi🌻 (@Felicity_M2) June 22, 2017
Some of the topics can be particularly triggering for Thabile.
Thabile says stories about sexual assault and the resultant depression and post-traumatic stress that come with it disturb her the most.
“Those stories always get to me the most. Sometimes it’s to the point where I just go home and cry about it,” she says.
As for the future, Thabile is currently working on a website as well as assembling a team who’ll help turn Mental Wealth into a fully functioning NGO. For updates, follow @MentalWealthZA on Twitter.
Project Demo finds the voices of young people in South Africa, amplifies their stories and turns their cause for change into a reality. Tell them your issue. They’ll take it on and campaign with you.
Image: Supplied (Thabile Mpe)