Harriet first began to experience mental health challenges after she delivered her first born. With her husband out of the country, Harriet travelled to a hospital far from home, accompanied by only her carer to have her baby. Both Harriet and her carer were only young girls who had just finished school. When Harriet was told she needed to have a caesarean to deliver her baby, she lacked someone older to guide her. She was scared.
In the days after the birth of her first born, Harriet says “many things happened in my life”. First, she felt excited and happy and wasn’t able to sleep. Then she and her baby both got sick. Her carer feared to give her food because of the caesarean, and so she didn’t eat for a week, she was just depending on drinks. She began to feel so weak and tired. When a doctor came and told her to start eating again, she remembers crying because she felt so bad. Then, she says “everything became zigzag”.
By the time she was ready for discharge, she wasn’t herself anymore. She was overactive, she remembers trying to give away all of her money to the doctors and nurses that looked after her and taking their pics. Someone said, “this is not normal”, and she was sent to Mulago Hospital for assessment.
Soon after going to Mulago, she was referred to the mental department. She remained there for almost a month, although she says, it felt like only a few days. Finally, she was discharged home, she was told to take medication, but she didn’t know what it was for. One day, when she went for review, she asked the doctor, who told her that she was struggling with mental illness. This was a shock to Harriet. She had thought her problems came from when she stopped eating, and that she would be better in a few weeks. Instead, at home, her situation got worse. She couldn’t wash, she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t look after her baby. She didn’t know what was happening. She felt stranded. Now looking back, she can see that she was severely depressed.
Harriet’s brother took care of her during this time, and somehow as the weeks and months passed, she got better. After four years passed, Harriet became pregnant and soon delivered her second child. Soon after, Harriet’s symptoms of depression returned. She remained in bed all day. It got so bad that she even tried to end her life. She thought to herself “I was working, now I’m not working. I can’t do anything for myself, I better die”. Harriet had hit rock bottom a friend referred her to HeartSounds, a peer support organisation for people with mental health challenges in Kampala.
The first day Harriet went to meet the members of this organisation, she got out of the taxi far away and walked a long distance to reach there. She didn’t want people to know she had a mental problem, fearing being stigmatised. When she arrived, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Here was someone with mental illness who was driving a car. Here was another person who looked so smart with his laptop computer, there was another who was going to study abroad. She thought to herself “If all of these people can do this, why not me?”.
She went back each day and began to gain strength and hope. By the end of the first week, she asked the taxi to stop right in front. She wasn’t ashamed anymore, her self-stigma* was reducing and she was learning to love herself. She also secured a job with the organisation. Soon, she was getting up early for work, there was enough support at work-place and life became normal and enjoyable.
After two years she got pregnant again. Unfortunately, Harriet’s pattern of illness repeated, and she was plunged again into a deep depression. At this point, neither her or her husband were working, and life in Kampala was too tough. She was overwhelmed. However, this time, when she started having suicidal thoughts, she knew there were people she could talk to, who she trusted, and who understood her. She reached out to her peers, who looked after her during this difficult time, and she started to feel better. She said to herself, “I know my body, I know myself, I need to take medication”.
At this time, Harriet was picked for a new project at Butabika Hospital. She was trained as a peer support worker, to help people facing mental health challenges. Through this role, she supported many people who got better, who went back to school and gained back their lives. Harriet says this work made her life better both psychologically and physically than ever before, she really loved herself and started shining.
Since then, Harriet has gone from strength to strength. She is studying for a degree at a prestigious University, she has a stable job of her dream where she is still supporting many people undergoing mental challenges, has her own business, a comfortable house for her family. Her children are healthy and excelling at school and her husband understands her and is supportive.
She says “before, when I heard the word Butabika, I felt sick because of self-stigma*. Now, I know myself. I know when I need a review, and I can take myself there”. Harriet has suffered from severe illness, but she has shown that mental health challenges can be overcome, with the right support and self-love. Now, she says “I feel proud of myself, I am a role model to many”.
This is Harriet’s story. She also wants to share these messages for anyone who is struggling with mental health challenges:
- Recovery is possible and real
- No health without mental health
- Nothing for us without us
- Say no to stigma
- Speak out for help, don’t keep quiet
- Believe in yourself and love your-self
- Be a person to inspire others
- Learn to motivate yourself and others
- Learn to say, “I can do it better”
*What is self-stigma?
Self-stigma occurs when a person with mental health challenges becomes aware of negative attitudes towards people with mental illness, for example that they are bad or weak, and believes they are true. This affects the person’s self-esteem, making them feel unworthy of love or a good life. Overcoming self-stigma by learning to believe in yourself and love yourself again is an important part of recovery, shown here in Harriet’s story.