Winfrida Erasto could easily pass as a happy woman when you meet her. But hiding behind the happy face is a story of a difficult childhood which was occasioned with abuse. Unlike many children who grew up experiencing emotional love and care, the case was different for Winfrida. She grew up having a rough childhood, a situation that has led to her current mental health issues. Born in Iringa, Winfrida together with her four siblings were raised by their mother who was a teacher and a father who was an accountant. The father unfortunately succumbed to cancer last year.
“I never had a happy childhood, I never knew what my talent was or what I would like to do in the future, I was not okay and not normal,” confesses the 26-year-old woman.
“I was emotionally abused by people close to me and was always scared and sad and I managed to hide that so many times. I was also bullied at school, no one believed that I was capable of doing anything. For example there was this girl at my school who used to bully me to believe that I wasn’t beautiful.”
“ I moved schools and it only got worse as I had no one to fight for me. I resorted to crying all night long but chose to bury it instead of confronting it. I believe this is what led to the mental health issues I suffer today,” explains Winfrida.
Winfrida says her parents raised her like any other child though she thinks that she experienced tough love.
“My father died so I would rather not talk about him, but my mother is kind and always ready to listen, but unfortunately it’s never easy to speak out if you have mental issues,” she says.
“Now I can talk because I know exactly what’s wrong with me but when you don’t understand then it’s hard to tell others in a society which advocates for people to mind their own business. And today I wish I had talked with my parents or anyone close about what was going on,” she says.
According to her the abuse she experienced also involved being yelled at. Since she is still in therapies with her psychologist and still working on the past situations to know how she is going to handle and confront her past, Winfrida wouldn’t like to disclose the names of her abusers and other types of abuses she hand to endure while growing up.
“The therapies have helped me a great deal. From back then it was not easy to notice that such a situation could be a problem in future as I did not even know it was abuse,” she says, adding that she now understands that treating people with cruelty or hatred for no apparent reason is an abuse.
“I was treated with cruelty and hatred by some people and I don’t know why they did that, I was just a child. I was afraid to tell my parents.”
It wasn’t until July this year when she discovered that she was suffering from anxiety and depression after she experienced a number of symptoms.
“I went to the hospital where I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I did not visit the hospital because I knew I was mentally ill but because I was experiencing headaches, insomnia, heartache and change in heartbeats, loss of appetite and memory loss. It was the doctor who revealed to me that I had chronic depression,” she says.
She says her parents could have picked a clue or two about her depression and tried to resolve it without thinking it was a mental health issue.
As a way of dealing with her condition and helping others who are going through the same situation, Winfrida, who works as a customer care agent for M-kopa – a solar company, took the initiative to start a social group named SafeSpace, which also had the intentions of raising awareness on mental health issues in the society.
“The core purpose is creating awareness but SafeSpace bears other purposes like creating a stigma-free zone for people to meet, share and talk about their issues, feelings and problems without the fear of being misunderstood, ignored, stigmatised or judged,” she explains.
The association also acts as a bridge between mental health patients and health facilities or professionals and also promoting mental health in general.
Winfrida who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Relations (Labour Relations) from The Institute of Social Work says the real reason which attracted her to create safe space was the knowledge gap regarding mental health issues.
“I have been struggling with mental health issues for many years and it never occurred to me or any one close to me that it could be mental issues. So that made me curious and attracted me to act upon it. Information about mental issues is limited, you can find it in books or blogs or websites but a question is how many Tanzanians read books or blogs or even newspapers?” she queries.
“The existing media reports mental issues such as suicide, like any other news while victims are sick and have been looking for help all along, but we see them as weak people. So you will never understand until it happens to someone close to you. So SafeSpace aims at helping people understand that it is okay not to be okay or it is okay to get sick because mental illness is not different from malaria, or cancer or any other disease, if a leg or stomach can hurt why not the brain?” she says.
What makes SafeSpace worthwhile is the fact that now she can help people change their minds about mental health issues. “I can listen to people’s feelings and learn and meet new people every day, which makes me very happy and satisfied. Two years ago I would not have done this due to social anxiety.”
The key highlight about her depression journey was the day she discovered that she had mental health issues because; “it answered a lot of questions,. I have always known that I was not okay and not normal either so it was like finding the missing piece in the puzzle. It changed my life completely. I began to understand many things especially my past life. I was able to do things that I didn’t do before, I begun planning for my future.”
“There are so many people behind my success and I’m grateful to them every day. I acknowledge a few like Ms Ritha Tarimo, who was the first person to understand my mental health issues, my mother, Mr and Ms Mjuni, my psychologist who tells me that he believes in me, friends and countless others including my bosses and co-workers who have been very supportive even when I don’t even understand what I’m going through. God bless them abundantly,” she says.
Having mental health issues can impose a lot of challenges on daily life that is why keeping a healthy work and life balance is never easy, but she can manage to work as an employee, work on her initiative and still find time for social activities.
“I have a time table, I finish my work on time so it does not affect my other activities. My secret is to live one day at a time, work, exercise, eat healthy, and have a little time for fun.”
“My life plan is to help people in any way I can and as many people as I can, people who are in need to be precise, because I have been crying for help for many years, wishing an angel would appear and help me because I didn’t even know the reason for my tears,” she concludes.