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I Dealt With My Depression By Helping Others Speak Up

Tanya Cushman had a secret. Not a fun secret with an expiry date — like waiting till the 12th week of pregnancy to reveal the exciting news or planning a surprise party for a loved one. My secret was painful and shameful. It made me feel below par. Less of a human being. A prisoner in my own home. A waste of a life. My secret was so heavy that it broke me. It took from me my job, my friends, even my tooth. And it took away me from me. My secret was that I had depression.

Depression is a cruel and debilitating illness. It affects every single aspect of my life. The negative thoughts are deafening. I feel weak, ashamed and alone, unworthy, hopeless and helpless. I develop anxieties on top of my anxieties — leaving the house, answering the telephone, opening the post, driving my car, travelling by train, noise, people.

My family is brilliant, but it’s almost as if their brilliance shines rather too brightly, that I put them on a pedestal, as my depression convinced me that I just don’t match up. I feel I am a burden to them, that I’m dimming their light, that in simply existing, I am slowly, but surely, ruining their lives.

Talking about depression isn’t new for me. I do it every single day as part of my job, but from behind a laptop. I feel vulnerable, naked. My instincts are screaming at me to run and hide, but there’s nowhere to hide. And to make matters worse, experience tells me that you probably like me less now than you did two minutes ago; that you might feel a little bit ashamed for me; or struggle to maintain eye contact.

Depression is a cruel and debilitating illness. It affects every single aspect of my life. The negative thoughts are deafening. I feel weak, ashamed and alone, unworthy, hopeless and helpless.

You might think that I’m lying, maybe seeking attention, that perhaps I am to blame. The problem with keeping depression a secret is that it only serves to exacerbate the illness. Keeping depression a secret gives it every ounce of your power. There is a well-known quote by Mark Twain that says, “Anger is an acid, which does more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” And neuroscience tells us that keeping a secret is just as detrimental to us as suppressing anger. It affects our mental and physical health.

In fact, the very act of thinking about a deeply held secret changes our physiology. We experience a surge in cortisol levels, which have been linked to a weakened immune system, increased blood pressure, memory loss, and more aches. Every time that I look in the mirror, I can see how my secret has affected me physically.

There’s a Grand Canyon on my forehead — a frown line that wasn’t there before, a frown line that looks like the word ‘worry’ is etched on my face. In 2009, I discovered the magical world of Twitter — some of you might be familiar with that today — a place where people were openly talking about my secret for all the world to see, publicly, openly and with clarity.

I was so confused. I’d been so desperate to guard my secret. I’d lied to people, hidden from the world, convinced they’d all be better off without me. It was astonishing to me that there were people who were so unashamed of the very thing that I’d been so ashamed of. But it felt powerful too.

It was the moment when I gave up giving up. I was reading my story in their words. I wasn’t the only one who had depression. Others did too. I wasn’t the only one who was struggling to eat, sleep, interact with people, function. Others were too. Those are the people who saved me. The people who saved me from me were people I’d never met before, people who gave me a window into the outside world, people I could reach from my bed, people who said “me too” as I shared my experiences of depression with them, people who gave me hope.

And as the hope inside me began to grow, I realised something — people, including me, seemed quite comfortable talking about their experiences of depression online.

Research by King’s College, London, shows that personal contact with people with mental health problems is the most effective way to reduce discrimination and prejudice. It’s a vicious circle. The more we try to conceal the illness, the more we feel the need to, and the more ashamed we feel.

It’s clear that there’s a need for digestible information and an opportunity to harness peer support, not just for those with depression, but for their loved ones too. I gained so much from those conversations on Twitter, and I wanted to somehow be a conversation starter for others who were where I had been. And so the idea for Blurt was born.

Blurt exists to make a difference to anyone affected by depression. We start conversations, and connect people. Think of us as the knowing nod. You’ve all seen it. A slight bob of the head accompanied by a wry smile, a gesture that says so much. It says, “I’m here for you. I’m listening. I understand.” That’s us.

We strongly believe that mental health is just as important as physical health; the stigma takes lives of many. All of the work that we do is underpinned by those statements. During the Depression Awareness Week in April 2016, we ran a campaign. It was the first campaign we’ve ever done. The idea behind it was to start conversations, give people the chance to share the reality of living with depression and the impact it’s had on their lives, and challenge the stigma. The campaign was called “What you don’t see”. We had a good start.

After our week-long campaign “What you don’t see” in 2016, our hashtag was and still is going. It has been used over 100,000 times on Facebook alone.

On a Monday morning, we had already featured on Huffington Post UK’s front page, and we’d emailed thousands of our supporters, but we were still really, really worried about how the campaign would be received, whether it was perhaps a step too far to ask people to boldly talk about depression online.

But we needn’t have worried. By Monday afternoon, the hashtag #WhatYouDontSee had been trending for four hours on Twitter. At one point, it was the fourth most talked-about topic in the UK. And then, we broke our Twitter as we tried so desperately to reply to every single tweet, not wanting any of those brave people to go unheard.

Tuesday was a quieter day. But Monday had exceeded all of our expectations, so we didn’t really mind. We thought maybe we’d peaked early, and that was okay. And then boom, Wednesday. Buzzfeed wrote an article about our campaign. It trended on Buzzfeed’s website that day and was read by over three-quarter of a million people. We then broke our Twitter four more times as we so desperately tried to deal with the increased use of our hashtag.

Thursday was another really big, big day. Our campaign was picked up by Metro, GQ magazine, Stylist, Twitter’s Moments, rugby legend Jonny Wilkinson, author Marian Keyes, and then we reached the dizzying heights of Hollywood as Prison Break star Wentworth Miller talked about our campaign on his Facebook page.

Thankfully, Friday was a much quieter day. We were exhausted and emotional. It had been an exciting week, but we’d been replying to so many brave tweets that it had taken a lot from us too. Our hashtag was and still is going. It has been used over 100,000 times on Facebook alone.

What was so amazing about the campaign was not the campaign itself, it was the people. People who were able to share their story. It made for an incredible week, a week I’ll never forget. And in case you’re ever in any doubt, your words, they do have meaning. You can make a difference.

Depression convinced me that I would never amount to anything, that I was a waste of a life. It almost took my life in 2005 and 2007. Because of those people who were able to share their experience of depression, I was able to slowly rebuild myself. Those people were a catalyst to a chain of events that see me standing here today.

You see, there was power in their pain, not hurt and devastation. The power was that they were able to use their hindsight and allow me to use it as my foresight. I was able to learn from their experiences, and in turn, others have been able to learn from mine too. A Mexican wave of truth, courage and kindness. Search out those people who share your secrets. Allow them to tell your story in their words as one day, you may do for others too. And please know this: even when you feel empty, as though you are nothing, you’re not nothing. Your light shines so brightly, and even if you can’t see it, we can.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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