There is no arguing that mental health is one of the most important aspects of our lives. After all, it is a key determinant of our wellbeing.
However, it is so easy to overlook the matter and dismiss it because unlike physical illness, its abstract nature means we simply cannot see the mental state.
One’s actions could speak for what’s going on in the mind though.
She is Auni
Meet Wan Auni Kamilah Abdul Razak or Auni as she is fondly known as.
She has recently made the independent decision to become a mental health advocate after having gone through an impactful battle of her own.
She was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Severe Anxiety and Paranoia.
“My therapist and psychiatrist said that what I was diagnosed with was situational and I just needed the right coping skills, mindset and understand to go through this,” she explained.
Although it may not seem like it from her jovial outward personality, Auni was struggling with problems in various areas.
Family, friendship, academic and financial issues were deeply bothering her. She also found herself stretched with commitments for the student organisations she was involved with. “I had too much on my plate, even things that I never knew would pop up. It was out of my locus of control,” said the Actuarial Science student of Purdue University. It was in October 2018 that she recognised her depressive symptoms.
“The first thing I realised was just unease and restlessness. I had to constantly be on my toes. Even though my entire body screamed that it needed rest, my mind kept pushing me to stay awake,” she recalled.
Auni became aware that her sleep cycle was disrupted too. “I would try to put myself to sleep but my head was running with ideas and possible solutions that I could take to solve all my problems. I felt like the sleep I needed was unnecessary until I fixed my source of pain,” she revealed.
She was also skipping meals. “My body just needed rest that it stopped my appetite; I stopped eating right and that added to the fatigue.” With fatigue came the loss of joy. The situation was apparent when the music enthusiast no longer found the joy she used to in the art.
Auni described depression as, “A state of sadness that you no longer feel hopeful, which is crazy to me because people always notice and ask me how I’m such a positive person. Unfortunately, when you face a dilemma that’s bigger than yourself, all aspects of who you know you are, are no longer relevant. I became numb as any feeling I had was too intense and I was out of any ounce of energy. I became so numb to my own emotions, even those around me.”
“Depression affected my attitude. I lashed out my pain in forms of anger to those I truly cared about as if the hurt that I was feeling was alright for me to hurt others. I didn’t realise this until recently but it made sense back then,” she elaborated.
Looking back, she figured that it was, in fact, an abusive cry for help – something she is deeply sorry about. However, the 22-year-old is glad that she had it in her to be expressive about it even though it may not have been done in the healthiest way possible. Her actions had eventually raised the alarm about her struggles to the people around her.
A clear indication
Auni was in conflict with her own housemates. She was seen as ‘going wild’.
An episode of a mental breakdown clearly showed that Auni was losing her grip. But she was fortunate to have the housemate whom she was closest with around.
On that day, Auni had one more class to attend but her emotional state didn't allow her to focus on the lesson. Auni was already in tears as she texted her dear friend who then told her to come back home where she already was. Auni was bawling her eyes out throughout the journey home.
Once she settled in, she shared some details about her situation to her friend who also gave her input.
“One of her answers really triggered me and I was in so much pain I just wanted to die. I screamed at her that I wanted to kill myself then and there; I never knew that inner dialogue could ever come out but it did.
"I tried to head to the kitchen, knowing where we stored all our kitchen knives but she used her strength and all her body weight to pin me down. If it weren’t for her, truly, I might not be here today. Thank you, Amirah.”
The only other person in her life who knew about what she was going through during the early stages was her older brother. Despite the different time zones between them (he studies in the UK), Auni would always turn to him for his guidance and advice. She is thankful to have an older brother (whose birthday falls on 10th October, so here’s a big shout-out to him!) who always has her back.
The influencing factors
Auni describes herself as a logical and critical person. She also prefers to talk it out because she tends to think a lot and doesn't want to be too buried in her head.
While she was aware of the option to remain positive amidst the many issues she was dealing with, not being heard added to her struggle and proved to be too much for her.
“It’s hard because I expected that people could listen and understand me, but I forgot that there are some people that are still learning how to listen actively and engage with me when I share the problems that I’m going through.”
Auni added, “My expectations to be heard and understood catalysed my severe depression and I didn’t know where else to turn to because my problems were really personal and I am selective when it comes to whom I share it with”.
At the end of 2018, Auni received the help she desperately needed. She acknowledged the fact that not everyone goes through the same journey.
“I know people who struggled for years – a decade even – to finally get the help they needed to understand their mental health – be it therapy or spiritual counselling.”
She is lucky to be surrounded by those who are well informed about mental health. They are ones who played a key role in guiding her to therapy.
“At first, I did not know that I needed professional help. I was dealing with a lot and I thought confiding in friends would suffice,” she told us.
Her friends who happen to major in Psychology – one doing her PhD and the other having just graduated with a Bachelor's degree – felt otherwise.
The counselling session
While it never occurred to her to go for counselling, Auni took the suggestion to do so positively. Based on the information she learnt from her friend, she engaged with her University’s Counseling and Psychological Services for her first counselling session – a session she deemed as “very useful and needed”.
“At that time I was just realising I was suicidal. I had suicidal thoughts and ideation, and they managed to ask me the very hard questions like:
Have you planned out how you wanted to die?
Do you have all the equipment yet?
Yet all these answers were a close no to me because I just started it but they managed to catch it early. I cried a lot just realising that my inner darker thoughts were the most harmful words I’ve ever heard. I am my own biggest bully,” Auni admitted.
Auni spoke positively about her counselling experience and would recommend it
“…because we all just eventually need someone to express ourselves to. It was helpful because this person listening, the counsellor had no relation to my life. He knew no one, has no bias and judgement. So just talking and talking about it made me realize how much clearer it was feeling inside.”
However, it turns out that counselling was not enough for Auni. She required more help than she realised.
The mental institution
Auni was all by herself in front of her advisor’s office as tears ran down her face when the chief of police approached her.
Upon sharing a little of what’s bothering her, the officer gave Auni his phone number and his detective’s. That further escalated to the said officer informing her that they knew of a place that was safe and could cater to her needs.
“I immediately said yes, so it was voluntary. The only truth they held back from me was the fact that it was a mental health institution. I’m thankful they did because I would have said no. It was their decision, but I agreed,” Auni recounted.
“I didn’t know how to tell my family. The institution took my phone away so that I had no contact with the outside world.” There were only two landlines for the patients to use to call family and friends in the States and even that came with its own set of rules. Auni was only able to make a call to a friend and she asked that her mother be informed about her situation.
“The thought of this always puts me in tears,” she expressed. In fact, she was crying throughout the first two days at the institution “because I could only think about the pain my family had to go through to hear me being warded on the other side of the world.”
When she was finally allowed to make international calls, she learnt that her situation had left her family devastated and in tears too. Thankfully, they have since learnt to cope with the situation.
On how it was like at the Mental Institution, Auni explained, “It was nothing like a hospital and more like an open inn with psychological services. They planned our days with group therapy, learning sessions, therapeutic art and enough time to sit around and meet other patients.
"Meeting other broken souls is the most crucial part of the healing process. I was taken care of, they catered to my Halal diet and we would be called to see our psychiatrist and therapist at least once a day. It was such a great environment to forget the outside world and just focus on self-healing.”
Looking back, Auni feels grateful for the people who were placed in her life. She views them as help sent from above.
Where she is today
Everyone in the institution had to be prescribed, as it was a compulsory requirement.
It was during this time that she was introduced to medication. However, she chose to not reveal what she was prescribed with. “Go seek professional help and get the right prescription. It will take a while to find the right medication for you with the right dosage, but it’s worth the while,” she encouraged.
Currently, Auni is not on any medication. She understands that words and situations do have the ability to trigger her condition.
She now turns to a variety of coping mechanisms to aid her in managing the situation. It is also what has helped her get where she is today.
“I needed to have different avenues of expression,” she noted.
For Auni, this includes journaling, singing, playing musical instruments and working out. She also enjoys reading because “it shifts the voice in my head to focus on whatever the author is trying to say instead.”
Auni further added, “Breathing exercises also work but that’s using mindfulness –being able to ground yourself in the current moment and letting whatever in the future and past be.”
She believes that mindfulness is an important element in defining one’s coping mechanism. “Use your senses and experience the many different senses.”
To those looking for more variations, Auni also put forward the idea of practising gratitude. She plays the ‘Gratitude Game’ when she goes through a low moment. It involves her being thankful for many different things.
While that may not sound like a big deal, the challenge lies in her having to be thankful for the littlest thing. “The more detailed and smaller, the more points I get.
"Like I’m thankful for that one taste bud I have on my tongue for letting me taste the wonderful food I love.”
Yes, you read that right. She now challenges you to come up with something more obscure.
Becoming a mental health advocate
Auni finds that when she speaks out about her struggles with mental health, it encourages the other person in the room to be more open and brave to share their struggles too.
“I realise the more people I meet that come to me with their story, the more I can relate to each and every one of them. And that’s so beautiful. If only we knew that we’re all struggling uniquely but similarly in pain, we would have been each other’s cheerleaders.
"So now I really don’t mind sharing my struggles, because I know someone out there might come across it and connect with me and that’s great,” she further added.
It was at a Question, Persuade and Refer Training organised by her university in conjunction with mental health awareness week that Auni was enlightened on how she could play her part to help others too.
It focused on how to help and support individuals that are showing signs of suicidal thoughts and ideation.
She told us, “The workshop was only 3-hours but I felt like a hero right after that. I dealt with suicidal thoughts and ideation before, so it was also a little hard for me to keep myself seated and my eyes dry during the sessions, but afterwards I felt like now I should learn how to approach others in the way that I wanted to be approached.
"I became a Mental Health Advocate in March of 2020, it wasn’t a hard decision, it felt more like an epiphany and I was determined and motivated and had the drive to focus on the place that’s dearest to my heart, Malaysia!”
She now hosts the Self Love Show where she talks about all things related to mental health. It is her mission to “destigmatise mental health and celebrate adversity.”
From her perspective
As a Muslim, Auni also finds herself having to deal with those with the perception that with true faith, one should not be scared or sad. “The narrative that the older generations formed around this idea is very toxic and false.”
She cited that through the stories about the prophets and noblewomen that are mentioned in the Quran, they, too, show emotions such as sadness, fear and anger.
She added, “But Allah still loved them and gave them encouraging words to lift their spirits up.” And that, in Auni’s opinion, should be proof that emotional intelligence is important regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof.
Auni feels strongly against the portrayal of depression by the media, which allows for individual interpretations leading many to conduct self-diagnosis. It does not help that the term ‘depression’ is loosely thrown around these days.
“Not all of their audiences understand the depth of what their content is saying. It’s hard to curb this because we can’t control what an individual sees in one’s art. But we can open the conversations and dialogues circulating around mental health and encourage everyone that feels depressed to get a professional diagnosis,” she explained.
“There’s so much information on the Internet that we see youngster self-diagnosing themselves and using their own thoughts as an excuse to be the best versions of themselves. We need to stop this, shine a light on individuals who take the right steps and cancel the narrative around self-diagnosis,” she added.
On those who question and belittle depression
Despite many initiatives taken to combat the false understanding of mental illness, the stigma surrounding it still continues to exist.
Yes, we still have those who equate those suffering from mental illness as crazy.
To that, Auni stated, “I really don’t know how to respond to this because it’s just lack of experience and knowledge, I can’t do much about this but to speak louder and be heard. My goal to debunk this is to ensure that I always bring it up as a topic and not be ignored; I’m tired of hiding and being ignored.”
Auni is firm with her opinion on those who belittle others who face depression.
She said, “Honestly, I pity these people, not only because they are ignorant, but also because they haven’t gone through a significant struggle in their lives that would give them the tenderness and understanding that doesn’t belittle another person’s problems. I wish for them nothing but happiness because maybe they’re not strong enough to face such a calamity.”
She cheekily added, “And if that’s so, I just want them to be happy with themselves and live their own lives, far away from me, as far as possible.”
Her quarantine experience
With the COVID-19 issue, Auni was subject to the compulsory quarantine upon returning from the States. Being alone gave her the time and space to self-reflect. “My self-talk sways from being positive to negative independently.”
She has lived on her own before and finds comfort in it.
“I like being confined, sometimes, because it gives me enough space for myself to know who I am. I feel like in this time and era, we’re always busy about something else, we forget who we are and don’t feel the need to build that own personal relationship with oneself.”
Auni also appreciates the ability to have controlled social interactions for she would have the power to choose whom she lets into her circle.
While many of us have good intentions in helping, at times, it backfires because of the method adopted. Auni suggests practising active listening.
“Go on Youtube and learn how to be a better listener, ask better questions that show you are engaging in their problems and never ever, ever give advice. What they are sharing with you is only a small percentage of the entirety of their pain, so don’t assume you truly understand what they’re going through, because only God has that power, so don’t play God,” she firmly advised.
“Help them when they ask for it, but make sure you’re by their side and make them feel valid. Their struggles are valid. But also, if it’s taking a toll on your own mental health, communicate and take a step back and refer them to better help, like another trusted friend or professional help,” she added.
Auni’s message to those who are battling mental illness is, “Remember, this pain is temporary, it will go away one way or another. Focus on how happy you’ll feel when all of this pain disappears, then with that positive outlook, change the perspective on the pain you’re dealing with and KILL IT! YOU’LL DO AMAZING!”
If you are keen to reach out and/or follow her journey, you could do so by following her Instagram at @aunikamilah and her show at @selflove.show.