My name is Anna. I'm 29 years old, and I am living with depression. That is the first time I have ever typed those words and I am determined it won't be the last. I want people to talk about depression, and I'm hoping that by sharing my experience, others will share theirs.
I recently had the honour of attending the One Young World summit in Johannesburg - a conference that brings young leaders together to discuss the issues in the world and connects like-minded people to create positive change. I was blown away by determination of my fellow delegates to make the world a better place. On the final day of the conference, each delegate was asked to write down one action they would take away from conference. I wrote 'to speak out about the things I care about, and not be scared of the reactions of others'.
So here I am. Writing this is the first step towards carrying out this promise.
Depression is a mostly invisible illness, shrouded in stigma and misunderstanding, that sneaks up on you when you least expect it. I don't think we can do much to change when it decides to strike, but we can certainly do something about making it more visible. Simply by sharing our experiences and talking about it.
I grew up in a loving family, had a happy childhood, and extremely supportive parents. I had an excellent education, did well in school, and graduated with an undergraduate and postgraduate qualification in Law. When the first signs of depression started to creep up on me, I ignored them. I had nothing to be sad about, what right did I have to feel this way?
I remember vividly the first time I started to feel the overwhelming sinking feeling that comes with depression. In March 2008, I was on the train home and felt suffocated by an overpowering sense of sadness. It felt different to the other times I'd been down or blue - it felt much darker. I was desperate for the feeling to pass, so I carried on as normal, ignoring the messages that my brain was sending telling me that something was wrong. I was ashamed of these thoughts. I kept everything bottled up inside me, and kept it there for the next two years until I finally went to seek help.
I never tried to harm myself physically - that was not how my depression manifested itself. Instead, I withdrew slowly from my friends, afraid that they were judging me and paranoid that they hated me. For the first time in my life, I partied not for fun, but to escape the feelings that overwhelmed me. As time went on, I began to feel nothing but emptiness and confusion. I didn't feel happy, and I no longer felt sad. For someone who usually felt so many emotions, that was pretty devastating.
Eventually, my amazing mum dragged me to the doctor, after convincing me that I couldn't carry on this way. She was right. I sat in front of the doctor and told him everything - he was fantastic. He explained what the chemicals in my brain were doing in a completely matter-of-fact way, and, most importantly, assured me that feeling like this was not my fault. That was the first step on the road to recovery.
They say that depression is usually triggered by something happening in your life, and when I look back there are a number of things it could have been. 2008 was the year a very close family member was diagnosed with cancer. It was also the year I was mugged outside my parent's house, a place that had always made me feel safe and secure. Maybe that was my trigger? Perhaps the trigger was the stress that I had put myself under to do well in my studies. I will never know. All I know is that in 2008, the chemicals in my brain, through no fault of my own, became imbalanced and they made me ill. For some reason though, society had conditioned me to be ashamed of my illness. But why? If I'd had the flu, or a stomach bug, or broken my arm, I wouldn't have felt ashamed. Why was my mental health any different?
Ever since recovering, I have been desperate to speak out about the stigma that still surrounds mental health. But I've been scared - really, really scared. The few times I tried to tell people outside of my close circle about my depression, I experienced a real lack of understanding. However, empowered and inspired by the bravery and determination of my fellow delegates at the One Young World conference, I've finally decided to make that first step and speak out.
I turn 30 next year. I'm looking forward to a new decade, free from the fear of depression that dominated my twenties, confident that I can be part of a change in the way that we view mental health. I spent too long wishing away some of the best years of my life because I was scared to seek help. I don't want others to ever have to feel this way. Mental health, depression, bipolar, anxiety, low self-esteem, post-traumatic stress - these are things we, as young people, should be talking about. We owe it to the next generation to make things different, to ensure that they don't feel ashamed to speak up and speak out. We owe it to them to make depression visible.