Building narratives-Tafadzwa Negonde: A survivor-cum-mental health advocate

If the journal writings of Tafadzwa Negonde are anything to go by, wishing mental health away has never worked.

An untreated depression as a result of his mother’s death years earlier would mark the beginning of a series of unforeseen mental breakdowns and he would over the years capture his journey in a series of journals he hopes to one day transform into a book.

If the journal writings of Tafadzwa Negonde are anything to go by, wishing mental health away has never worked.

Fast-forward to today, Tafadzwa, who has been living with bipolar for 14 years, is inspiring those who find themselves in his situation to dare their limitations and defy the odds.

“I am happy to share that though diagnosed with Bipolar in November 2014 at Harare Hospital Psychiatric Ward after my last relapse and psychiatric admission and having suffered two previous psychiatric hospital admissions (2005, 2009), I will be celebrating a decade of good mental health with no relapse this coming November” stated Negonde.

Bipolar is a form of mental disorder associated with episodes of mood swings ranging from depressive lows to manic highs. Manic episodes may include symptoms such as high energy, reduced need for sleep and loss of touch with reality. Depressive episodes may include symptoms such as low energy, low motivation and loss of interest in daily activities.

Mood episodes last days to months at a time and may also be associated with suicidal thoughts. Treatment is usually lifelong and often involves a combination of medications and psychotherapy

In reality, every person is affected by mental health issues either directly or indirectly, but for a long time, we have ignored it as a people, even hiding it even, in fear of being mocked by the community.

Having caught up with the United States-based educationist cum mental health advocate recently, I found his journal writings, which he shared with me a couple of months back to be very brave. Writing is indeed therapeutical. He has lived through it all. He was ridiculed at a time when he was at his lowest and could have done better with some support.

He suffered his first mental health breakdown while he was a scholarship student at St. Lawrence University, New York in 2005.

Tafadzwa’s tale demonstrates that mental illness can affect anyone, even the top students, and there is no need to hide it or feel ashamed.

His story inspires me. There is a lot we can all learn from it.

For one, let's treat depression early.

Following his mother's death, he neglected to take his medication because of stigma and unhealthy stereotypes from fellow African students who attributed mental health issues as something that only affected white people and those deemed “affluent”.

“Depression was a struggle, and I had a few challenges,” he writes in a letter intended for a former schoolmate who suffered from mental health.

“I did not understand it and I did not take it seriously. I was inconsistent with my medication, some days I adhered whilst on some I skipped.

“My family did not accept it or for a lack of better word couldn’t comprehend the prevailing situation. They had never experienced it, I guess”.

“I honestly cannot blame them. One family member, loving and well-meaning once said: ‘Tafadzwa siyana nezvimapiritsi izvi’(Tafadzwa, leave these pills).

“This further worsened my lack of drug adherence”.

“My African friends at St. Lawrence University would commonly say ‘depression is a white man or rich men’s disease. I was even considered “crazy” at one instance, even before I had even relapsed.’

“Apparently, the common notion or assumption made was that Africans were strong and were not supposed to suffer from depression. It is against this background that I somehow suffered a lone battle although I did get counselling for grief from my school. The psychologist I was seeing told me that I was suffering from not having grieved properly. St. Lawrence University was super helpful! But what good was counselling if all my social support structures were not understanding me and worse off I didn’t take it seriously either?”

Sometimes you feel depressed and most people would tell you to be strong, not to cry and to keep your head up. From the counselling I got, I learned that you should sometimes do the opposite. Cry out for help, seek professional help and get treated early stated Negonde.

He paid tribute to the former Education USA Country Coordinator who assisted him with his US College applications and also went on to connect him to a psychiatrist for help. According to Tafadzwa, this psychiatrist helped him a lot through medication and psychotherapy. In the end, he would be allowed to return to the US to finish his studies and eventually graduate with a B.A. in Economics from St. Lawrence University.

Along his difficult journey, failure to adhere to medication led him to two other breakdowns, including one that led him to abandon a promising career as a Chartered Accountant at a Big four auditing firm, just four months before completion of his articles of clerkship.

These are the kind of stories we as a people often attribute to witchcraft, some relative who is jealous of your success that they have to bewitch you into mental illness. Tafadzwa shared that many people would commonly say that “akaroyiwa nekuti aigona chikoro (He was bewitched because he was bright in school).On the contrary. Tafadzwa does not believe this and attributes his mental health struggles to severe depression that came from losing his mother when he was in his last year of high school.

Remember all those top students you know from your neighbourhood or rural area who failed to fulfil their dreams because they suffered mental health breakdowns?

There are always tales of a father or an uncle who bewitched them to boost their business.

There is a 99.9 percent chance that those people suffered from a mental health condition that can be cured.

With enough support, they could still attain their set life goals if they were to seek medical attention.

It is not too late to do so now, they still have a chance to lead a normal life, if they are to see mental health professionals.

It’s never too late, and Tafadzwa is a testament of that.

“I’m now willingly sharing my story with anyone interested and hope I can write more about mental health one day,” said Tafadzwa.

“I take my medication religiously and had to make some lifestyle changes and faith in God has helped me a lot. Since 2014, I have managed to teach English in China, got married, and most recently just finished my graduate studies in the US. 

“Where there is life, there is always hope.” 

Tafadzwa says he wishes to compile his journals and struggles into an inspirational book which will be a game changer to all those battling several mental health-related illnesses.

 It is one I look forward to reading and would be very crucial in educating us as a people on how to navigate issues to do with handling depression and mental health-related issues.

The environment we live in makes it easy to ignore our mental well-being, but the repercussions are serious, and Tafadzwa learned the hard way.

It however does not have to happen to you and me or anyone we know.

Tafadzwa is also a holder of a Master’s of Science in College Student Personnel from the University of Tennessee Knoxville and is currently a Residence Life Coordinator at the Colorado School of Mines.

Through his volunteer work of assisting underprivileged students from his home country to get scholarships, coupled with his mental advocacy work, there is no doubt that he has become a beacon of hope for many people.

“Healing is possible, and it starts with getting help, and Tafadzwa is determined to transform and help others who find themselves in his situation.

In the words of Gloria Steinem “The final stage of healing is using what happens to you to help other people. That is healing in itself.”

Tafadzwa’s story is one meant to empower and help others in his continual healing journey.

According to the World Health Organisation “people with mental disorders also require social support, including support in developing and maintaining personal, family, and social relationships. 

People with mental disorders may also need support for educational programmes, employment, housing, and participation in other meaningful activities”.  In 2019, 1 in every 8 people, or 970 million people around the world were living with a mental disorder, with anxiety and depressive disorders being the most common.

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