Last year, Hamzat Lawal, Founder/CEO of Follow The Money and Connected Development (CODE), faced what he describes as one of his darkest moments and eventually overcame a bout of depression triggered by a work crisis. With COVID-19 before us and increasing reports about depression and other mental health cases recorded, he shares his personal experience in this treatise, offering some tips in dealing with the crisis
If there is anything like being immunised for the rainy day, that was exactly what happened to me last year when I went through a period of depression. In hindsight, I can now say that, perhaps, The Almighty, being aware of how the COVID-19 pandemic was going to hit the world below the belt, quickly took me through a crash “immunisation” programme on how to survive personal gloom. Today, I can look back with sunshine in my heart, at that time, it was not funny at all!
First, it is important to recognise that many people are suffering in silence in more ways than one, with most of these experiences pointing towards diagnosed or undiagnosed clinical depression. More importantly, now that we have a global pandemic on our hands, such mental health conditions have increased. That some people do not recognise this reality does not take away the truth that it exists. And, the scary fact is that according to available research, it is more prevalent in young people.
For instance, according to recent data from the US Healthline and YouGov’s COVID-19 tracker, Americans are reporting significant and sustained increases in symptoms of depression and anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Women, minorities, people with preexisting health conditions, and adults under 34 all reported higher rates of fear and anxiety. The number of people reporting these symptoms are well above historical norms.
I am, especially, concerned because according to experts, given the current environment of stay-at-home orders and physical distancing, it is very challenging to spot symptoms of mental health issues. Ironically, it is the same “lockdown” conditions that increases triggers of mental health issues. Whether it is because people have lost their jobs, or the fear of losing one, the struggle to pay bills, or worry about their health and safety and that of everyone in their house, the continuous onslaught of worry and insecurity is leading to greater mental health issues than before.
Certainly, the situation must be similar everywhere in the world. Depression, anxiety, and fear have become part of our current everyday living. It can, however, be argued as worse in the developing and underdeveloped countries where there is little presence of social security, and minimal government palliative intervention to the general citizenry – the more reason I am disturbed. I have experienced such dark feelings in the recent past when there was no COVID-19, and so could relate with young people like myself, who are today faced with untold weight of anxiety and gloom.
It happened to me at the beginning of 2019. Having nurtured Connected Development (CODE) and our flagship project, Follow The Money, to global status and universal visibility, I received raw shock when our first partner and donor, the Indigo Trust, withdrew her grant support. Even till today, I cannot actually explain why the partnership withdrawal hurt so deeply. Possibly because of my youthfulness, natural exuberance, and inner drive, which to a large extent were the factors for our fast-piling success stories. The green horn inside me was not used to such setbacks. So, without warning, I sank.
Nevertheless, it is instructive to note that none of my colleagues noticed my emerging mental state. Experts say that depression, like anxiety and fear, often has clear symptoms: a depressed mood; feeling sad, empty, or hopeless; having difficulty with day-to-day tasks; increased fatigue; and sleep difficulties. In my own case, however, these symptoms remained hidden below the surface.
I continued my life as if everything was okay with me. I carried on with all the paparazzi and razzmatazz that my status as the Chief Executive of CODE and Leader of Follow The Money demanded. I kept my appointments; I was always punctual at work, as usual; I clicked my mental focus on point, and nobody noticed the simmering larva underneath the “Hamzy-façade” during official assignments. To my colleagues and friends, on work and off work, it was the normal me.
I did all within my ability to consciously push back the raging mental tide: I told myself, “don’t let your inner crisis consume both your work and life!” Thankfully, it did not.
Something else suffered. While Hamzy the CEO was intact; Hamzy, the person, was falling apart. At home, I was a nervous wreck. It was as if immediately I crossed the threshold into my home, the full weight of my mental state came crashing down on me. I would become fidgety and broody. I would sit and stare morosely into empty space for hours on end. And even when my dear wife helped me go through the motions of personal care and hygiene, I still felt like a zombie in my own home. I could no longer sleep, as my eyes remained wide open till the wee hours of the morning. Eventually, it was my wife’s sudden decision to “cry out for help” that gave me a rude shove back to reality, and I began the slow ride to Heal-Town.
It is from this journey that I gathered a few tips for young people like myself – and indeed everybody – on how to climb out of the present COVID-19 induced depression. In my own case, with what I went through last year, there is no crisis that can consume me again, literally speaking.
My first prescription is, talk to someone. I talked to my wife and then to my mother, and because my wife and my mother are close, it became easier for us to create a tripartite “therapeutic” roundtable. In these days of social distancing-inspired online presence, it would not only be fun but deeply healing for people with kindred spirits to come together and share their fears and anxieties, instead of sharing only bad news and gossip all the while hiding real issues and personal struggles. The human mind is wired to go into “fight or flight” mode when faced with fear; and it is better to fight together than alone.
Secondly, despite the fearful situation you find yourself in, try as much as possible to keep breathing. This means making a resolve to remain alive and well and taking care of yourself. Experts say that the most concerning symptoms of depression are thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, and developing a plan for suicide. You must consciously tell yourself that you need life more than life needs you. When you feel choked because of anxiety flights, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and keep on living.
Thirdly, be patient with yourself, and keep smiling. No one has experienced this before. There was no plan for COVID-19 anywhere. When I experienced that dark time, I never saw it coming. So, sometimes when I remembered the tragedy that befell me, I would just smile. Allow the emotions to flow through. Face the lockdowns. Reach into yourself and believe that there is dawn around the corner. More opportunities will still surface for you, for sure!
Finally, keep moving; and start thinking new things, designing new strategies, trying new directions, making further plans; set a new routine and reach out to people that you can work with, offline or online. Last year, because of the outcome of the Indigo Trust pull-out, CODE initiated some new ideas. For the first time in a long time, we had a face-to-face board meeting. We rejigged and scaled up our governance infrastructure and set our eyes on higher goals and best practices. Tightening every loophole, I found out that the more activities I began to drive, the more opportunities kept popping up before us. This is why we are still firing from all cylinders.
Hamzat Lawal is an award-winning seasoned campaigner passionate about service delivery at the grassroots and mobilising citizens for actions