For those suffering with a mental illness, it can be exhausting and frustrating. Ashley Alonzo knows this all too well, and so the 30-year-old mother and swim coach is trying to make a difference, and wants everyone to know you are not alone.
You Are Not Alone TT is the name of a Facebook group that Ashley impulsively created, in an attempts to find and nurture a safe space where Trinidadians can seek out for help, advice, love, support or just somewhere where someone will always be around to listen. Living with a mental illness can feel lonely at times, because your loved ones may not always understand what exactly you’re going through. But YANA does.
In September 2016, Abigail Young-Sing tragically passed away after a silent battle with post-partum depression and psychosis. Knowing the kind of woman Abigail was, this really opened Ashley’s eyes to the reservations about speaking about mental health, mental illness and plain-old ‘how are you feeling’.
“When you think of Abigail, the first thing you see is her smile,” Ashley explained. “You would have never thought that she was affected by post-partum depression. I was sitting with a friend and we were just shocked that nobody knew anything.”
The shock throughout T&T that accompanied Abigail’s death was example enough that mental illness needed to be majorly destigmatized, and there was a greater need than ever to talk about what you’re going through, and to prevent this from happening again.
“I remember thinking there have to be other people like [Abigail], other people like me,” she added. “Other people who have mental illnesses and who don’t talk about it.”
It was this thought that prompted Ashley to log onto Facebook and create the group – to reach more people – and within days, hundreds of members had joined, sharing their own similar struggles. Within months, the group had reached thousands of members, and today, the group functions as a go-to for those living with mental illness in T&T, to share struggles and triumphs, encouragement and advice. And this made Ashley feel both happy and sad.
“I was happy because people now had a space to talk,” she explained. “But sad because all these people feel the same way as me, where they hide a portion of themselves so that to the rest of the world they can be considered ‘normal’ and not be judged or labelled.”
Ashley, who has been living with bipolar disorder since she was in her late teenage years, said that Trinidad has so far to come in terms of mental health awareness – just in terms of how society views mental illness, and how our politicians and police address it.
“I don’t think the society at large understand mental illness properly,” Ashley said. “But if you become more aware, and learn to understand, then you can see with different eyes.”
For Ashley, it’s quite simple: when someone is sick, or has a broken bone, or has any sort of physical illness, there’s no doubt about it that seeing a doctor or taking medication or going through treatment is the clear answer. But with mental illness, people don’t think that way. In fact, society tends to think those who are treating a mental illness are weak – and that’s not the case.
‘When you get a [mental health] diagnosis, all of your emotions, all of your reactions to things, everything gets taken kind of with a grain of salt,” she said. “Because it all gets blamed on your illness – like “oh, that’s just her depression” or “that’s because he’s anxious” and not for what it actually is.”
And that’s why YANA has been as popular as it is – because it becomes a forum for people to discuss issues that they might not necessarily typically discuss among friends or family. It allows them to open up about something that is affecting them, that may also be affecting others, and to relate to people who are going through the same sort of things.
It’s important for these issues to be discussed and addressed, because while it’s not a direct ‘side effect’ per se, there’s certainly a higher suicide rate amongst those living with mental illness.
But in the same way there are derogatory slang terms for LGBT persons or those with mental disabilities, terms like “mad” or “crazy” are degrading to those living with mental illness. And like with the ‘R-word’ or the ‘F-word’, it comes from a lack of understanding.
“It’s important that we as a society seek to understand mental illness,” Ashley ended with. “Because it affects more people than we realize.”