Charlene Chua on having depression in a culture that saw it as 'taboo'

Charlene Chua

As part of our in-depth look at the effects of mental illness on illustrators, Canada-based illustrator Charlene Chua opens up about her experiences.

Tell us a bit about your experience with mental health and/or addiction.

"I grew up in Singapore, where a lot of emphasis is placed on education and getting good grades. I was a good student, but keeping up the grades was difficult. The stress leading up to the GCSE ‘O’ levels became too much, and I resorted to self-harm in order to cope. Although I stopped self-harming afterwards, my life thereafter seemed to be a constant see-saw of glum, pessimistic, and sometimes suicidal thoughts.

"In the society I grew up in, mental health was viewed as a taboo issue. Asian society, at least in my experience, tends to be reserved in discussing emotional and mental health issues. One person I knew suffered some sort of mental breakdown in her teens; no one would discuss what happened to her. Another person was considered ‘feeble-minded’ for being put on antidepressants. A neighbour who tried to commit suicide (but failed) was laughed at. People who did succeed at suicide were regarded poorly. Suicides were seen as an embarrassing shame on both the victim, as well as their family.

"I felt that I wasn’t ‘really’ depressed because I hadn’t lost my mind, or actually tried to kill myself. People who knew me simply thought I had a sullen personality. When I did try to discuss depression, I was met with skepticism and disapproval."

How have these experiences stemmed from, or been tied to, the life of being a freelance illustrator?

"The depression followed me regardless of what I did. When I switched from full time employment to freelance illustration, I thought I would be happier. But that was not the case. Over time the depression got worse, as it found more concrete worries to feed off.

"Earning a living is difficult as an illustrator. There is the constant ebb and flow of demand, and there is a real concern that one’s work will go out of style overnight. Depression amplified my worries, creating an inner critic voice that I could not shut out. Even when the going was good, I would feel depressed because the voice would tell me this was the last good gig I would ever get. When the going was bad, it was even worse."

What did you find helped your situation?

"I found an online resource called ConnexOntario, which offers free and confidential health services information for mental health and addiction. The service told me that I should make an appointment with my family doctor to get a diagnosis and a treatment plan. I was actually not enthusiastic with this response.

"As Canada’s health system is federally administered, I had heard that there was a long wait time to access mental health services. I hoped to access a quicker private solution, but was told that regardless of what treatment I eventually wanted, the initial diagnosis had to be done by a doctor.

"Fortunately, my doctor was very caring and sympathetic. He took the time to discuss depression as a medical condition to me, and how it affects the normal chemical functioning of the brain. He also explained how the medication would work in tandem
with therapy, and was not supposed to be an addictive magic pill. I also found that the clinic offered counselling services that were covered under government healthcare. As a freelancer, if would have been difficult to afford the cost of seeing a private psychologist or psychotherapist.

"I think for me personally, what helped most was my doctor’s and counselor’s attitude towards my problem. They were very understanding and sympathetic and at no point did I feel like I was a burden, or that I had done something wrong. They took the time to guide me through the steps to getting better, and support me along the way. My husband was also very supportive and encouraging throughout my treatment."

What advice would you have for a fellow creative who may be experiencing mental health issues?

"Even if society disapproves of mental health issues, ignoring your problem will not make it go away. Eventually it will take its toll on you, and the ones near you. You are not crazy or weak-willed if you seek help; if one doctor makes you feel uncomfortable, seek out another who understands. You can get help, and you can get better. The is a real, measurable improvement in life, I think, when you are properly treated for mental health conditions."

Charlene part of a group of illustrators – Ben O’Brien (aka Ben the Illustrator)Tobias HallJamie LawsonSydney LovellJimi MackaySharmelan MurugiahFranklin O'Toole and Elle Jackson – who’ve shared their stories during Mental Health Awareness Week, with the purpose of providing insight and encouragement to someone who may be unsure on how to deal with their own mental health issues.

If you're experiencing feelings of mental illness, here are a few links to helplines and charities:

Mind – UK mental health charity that provides urgent help, advice on treatment, and sources of support
Mental health helplines suggested by the NHS – including Depression alliance, Men’s Health charity and OCD UK
Samaritans – A 24/7 helpline and charity providing emotional support for those experiencing suicidal thoughts, struggling to cope or in distress 
Rethink – UK mental health charity providing information and services for anyone affected by mental illness 
Anxiety UK – charity for people with anxiety. Many on our staff and volunteer team have personal experiences of anxiety
Bipolar UK – charity for people bipolar, their families and their carers

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