Suicide survivor fights mental health stigma

Kelly Eve Koopman, left, and Sarah Summers.

October is Mental Health Awareness month, and Sarah Summers, who grew up in Crawford and now lives in Muizenberg, speaks to NABEELAH MOHEDEEN, about her experiences with depression and bipolar disorder.

Sarah Summers was diagnosed with depression at 16.

At the time, fighting with her mother, feeling adrift in high school and the world in general and struggling to connect with people, she decided to move to her father’s house.

It was there that she swallowed all the pills she could find and chased them down with Windolene.

What followed was a rush to hospital where she spent several weeks on a drip.

Sarah, now 30, says she was exploring her sexuality at the time, including her attraction to women, and that this had also made her feel vulnerable and isolated as she felt like there was no one she could talk to about those feelings.

“I woke up in hospital, and the nurses were so caring and the ward was filled with mentally ill patients and I asked myself why on earth I would do that. I felt guilty but so loved. My mom sent me for yoga and meditation, and I was in a good space. It helped me get a new understanding of depression and what I wanted from my life.”

Then, at 22, while in a deep meditation session, she had a psychotic episode that left her feeling cut off from reality and without control over her body.

She booked herself into Groote Schuur Hospital and underwent a week of observation.

Her doctor then diagnosed her with bipolar disorder and told her she would need to go on medication.

“I was upset. I was busy trying to figure out the relationship between mental illness and spirituality. I asked myself were my episodes me going crazy or was it spiritual? But I also knew that I was able to control it more. Two years ago, I would spend two months in bed not knowing what is happening to me but now when it happens I know what is happening and I know what I need.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), bipolar disorder affects about 45 million people worldwide. Bipolar is described as both manic and depressive episodes separated by periods of normal mood.

Manic episodes involve an elevated or irritable mood, over-activity, rapid speech, inflated self-esteem and a decreased need for sleep. People who have manic attacks but do not experience depressive episodes are also classified as having bipolar disorder.

According to the WHO, treatments are available for the acute phase of bipolar disorder and the prevention of a relapse. Psychosocial support is an important component of treatment.

According to clinical psychologist Carin-Lee Masters, there are two types of bipolar: Bipolar I and Bipolar II.

Those with Bipolar I can have episodes of severe mania.

Bipolar II involves at least one episode of hypomania, a milder form of mania and does not require hospitalisation or include delusions.

“Bipolar II is not necessarily a less severe illness, because the depressions can occur in both types. Hence, there is an elevated suicide risk in both types. The most frequent cause of suicide is depression, and depression is fundamental to bipolar disorder.”

She says 40 to 50% of those with Bipolar I lack insight about their condition and often have no self-awareness of having been manic, while in Bipolar II, this percentage is lower.

Those with Bipolar II tend not to experience the same devastation to family, career, and education that those with Bipolar I do, but they find it very hard to be productive and can struggle to hold a job.

“In Bipolar I, it usually takes several manic episodes, having devastating consequences, before people with the disorder recognise they actually have an illness. I often see people in their 30s who are finally coming to terms with it and they have lost a decade of their life to the illness.”

Sarah says that now when she has an episode she goes into a “spiritual state”, where she feels like she leaves reality and her body, but she is much more creative.

She says she now knows “how to ride the wave”, but when she is no longer able to, she seeks help.

She has identified her triggers as stress, and being overwhelmed.

“It is not an easy journey, and everyone reacts differently. Many people have different traumas that they are battling with, but mental illness is not your fault. We need self-care but we also need communal care and structural care which makes self-care easier,” she says.

Sarah has completed her honours degree, focusing on mental health stigma in the media.

Four years ago, she started the web series, Coloured Mentality, with her girlfriend, Kelly Eve Koopman, which explores coloured identity.