LEILA ALAVI ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH
Creative Director for shoe brand SELVE
WHY LEILA IS OUR GIRL:
I met Leila at a wedding of our mutual friend. She was on her own, I was on my own. We danced the night away and her personality struck me immediately. She not only is such a pure and funny and super intelligent woman who is unapologetic about life and herself. She also is the best dancing partner and her beauty is simply striking! We also became Facebook-Friends obviously and one day she put out a very intimate and personal post about her father who suffered from mental health issues all her life. The post was so beautifully written that it made me cry. It was honest and so touching. Since (but not only because) it’s mental health awareness month, we had to turn to her for our questions - and we got her amazing and honest answers.
1.Who are you and what do you do?
I’m a shoe designer, working as creative director for www.selve.net My roots are Bavarian and Persian. I live in Munich with my little daughter, where we are living the full „working single mum“ bliss. I’m lucky to have a profession that affords me a lot of creative freedom. Altogether, I would describe myself as a a friendly, aesthetically driven cynic.
2. When was the first time you came in touch with „mental health“?
Mental health has been an issue for me for my whole life, I grew up with a psychotic father who suffered from a severe form of paranoid schizophrenia. If you look closely enough, most people experience episodes of being mentally unwell, in a myriad of different ways. I personally have lived through bouts of depression, especially in my teen years, and I have had a tough time coming to terms with my father’s illness.
3. How was the relationship with your father - and how did it change?
As a child, I was very happy and content. Although the symptoms and manifestations of my fathers schizophrenia were difficult and had formative effects on me, I was not aware that our family was any different from other people. I felt very loved, and although he could not really fulfill the typical role of a father, he cared for me very much and was invested in my wellbeing and growth.
Things did get difficult, very difficult actually, once I entered my teen years and hit puberty. Part of that was the natural contention with your parents you experience as a teenager, but the more I grew up, the more my father started to see me as threat, the way he saw all grown ups. At the same time his illness took a turn for the worse. It was a tough time. But we found a way to reconnect, although by then our roles had been completely reversed. I was taking on a more parental role as he needed care and protection and I also became his official guardian.
4. From your experience or personal view, what is the toughest or the biggest challenge when it comes to mental illness?
The most difficult part for me was to discern what was real and what was delusions - and still maintain a healthy connection. For example, on 9/11 I came home after school, my father sitting in his usual spot and he told me about the two planes crashing into the Towers of the WTC. I dismissed him completely, not believing him, as that sounded just crazy.
Me not believing him always hurt him very much. In this case it was „real“ - but you have to understand that for a person suffering from a mental illness, everything they experience in their head is real to them as well.
Anxiety is real. Depression is real. Delusions are real - to them. Everybody deserves to feel to be taken seriously. It comes down to feeling appreciated as a human being. Of course it is a huge struggle, but try to manage that, a friendly, open connection despite their illness.
5. What are the biggest misconceptions or struggles that you have to deal with if you openly speak about depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and more if you suffer from it?
There is this idea that people can cure their depression or anxiety by just „sucking it up“ and then things will miraculously get better. Often this is accompanied by a myriad of „helpful“ suggestions like “fresh air“, „exercising“ etc. Usually this just puts the ill person even more down, as it’s basically saying: „This thing that is „wrong“ with you is your own fault.“
On the other hand, many people are afraid of people with an illness like my father had. A schizophrenic person in full rage can be quite scary, that is true. But then again, not many people actually ever witness such an outburst. It is more a pervasive idea that they might cause harm. Or that somehow, their sickness is a dirty thing, something contagious that should be hidden away.
Most people just have absolutely no idea how to react to someone like that. The answer ist: Be friendly and be polite, it’s how you should treat everybody, always. A sick person is desiring and deserving attention, appreciation, warmth and care, too, just like every human being.
6. Do you think nowadays we speak not enough about mental health still? In the US at least, it seems like that people are more open and don’t make a big drama out of going to a therapist or a psychologist. Over here it feels like it’s still a big taboo…
I feel like there is a little more openness to talking about depression or burn-out, then there was before, but it it is still much to taboo to talk about mental health in general.
There is still a huge stigma. Many people do not seek treatment for fear of being ostracized, or because they are afraid of the sometimes very real repercussions it can have on your career. Having a record of therapy or a mental illness can harm your chances to advance in high profile jobs and many other things. That is horrible.
Taking care of yourself and your mental health is actually one of the bravest and most responsible things to do.
For example, who would rather be treated by doctor or be educated by a professor hiding their struggles, feeling deeply unwell and ashamed, much of their energy focused on keeping up a sane facade….. then by someone who actually admits to having issues, addresses them, hopefully solves them and is then able to refocus on the other things in his life and career.
To me this is a very simple question with a very simple answer.
At this point I would like to add, that it is not only important to take care of your mental wellbeing but also important to find the right person to help you with that. Find the right doctor, find the right therapist, find the right method, and if you need it, find the right medication.
7. In your opinion, what can one do if your loved ones (whether it’s parents, your bestie, your partner) obviously need help? How do you do it emphatically and mindfully and carefully?
Not accepting that one is sick is often part of the sickness, unfortunately. The more acute the symptoms are, the more delusional the perception of their self will be.
I have experienced people who were dear and close to me descending further and further into their mental struggles without being able to see clearly.
I think it is very important to find the right balance between showing your concern, offering help and not focussing too much on the problem. The sick person needs to feel secure in their relationship with you. The more you say „Somethings wrong with you“ the more they will withdraw.
But it is also important not to deplete your own resources. Please do offer as much help as you can but really only as much as you can. There is no benefit to anyone if you overextend yourself. Often it has to get very, very bad for the sick person to realize they really do need help. They will need you then, so don’t stretch yourself too thin in the beginning - or at any time.
There is this romantic notion that somebody can be cured by just being loved enough, cared for enough…. Don’t expect that. Nobody can save another person. They have to do it themselves.
I have often seen people trying to „wake up“ a sick loved one, trying to rescue them with strenuous and dramatic actions that mostly just stressed the sick person out more. Then they would be disappointed by their wasted efforts, give up and withdraw themselves.
This serves just to harden the one suffering the illness in their „everyone is against me“-stance and further isolate them.
What works best is stability and reliability. Signal that you will be there, that you are not aggressive, that they can be themselves with you.
8. Do you feel the image of mental health changing?
I really hope that it will change further, that it will be more accepted, but there is still a long way to go.
Tracing my father’s history of medical treatments, it looks like things have gotten much better nowadays. New remedies and therapies are being invented but still you have to apply and wait for a long time to receive therapy. (If you are on public health care)
I think there need to be quicker ways to receive help, especially since most of the afflicted take so long until they realize they need it for the first time - by then things are usually in a very bad way and they need immediate attention.
And I wish that pharmaceutical drugs will be better, less damaging to the overall health and also less crippling for the patients emotional and mental abilities. My father was very much incapacitated by the heavy medications he had to take and in the end he died of the side effects the drugs had on his body.
9. What can every single one of us do to break the stigma?
Just be open.Talk about it! Be inclusive!
Don’t be afraid and include theses humans struggling with mental health in your social activities, even if it might feel awkward or trying. Talk about your own mental status and other peoples mental health the same way you would about a broken your arm or leg.
And don’t forget that a mental illness is restricting to the afflicted but they often do have special abilities as well.
My father was highly intelligent and he had is very own view at the world. Growing up with him taught me many things, most importantly to think outside the set patterns.
Thinking differently is the source for creativity - a gift from my daddy, that has brought me to where I am now, a happy and content woman with a creative career.
So just let people with mental illness enrich your live, too.