Behind the lens with a smile, Donna van der Watt fought a ‘black hole’

Photographer tells how reaching out has helped her cope with depression

Nelson Mandela Bay photographer Donna van der Watt captures happiness on film but most of her smiling subjects don’t know that crippling depression once brought her to the edge of suicide.
All it took, however, was a statement she posted on Facebook in September to lift the lid on a mental health topic very few talk about openly.
Since then, Donna has been amazed at the outpouring of support, along with messages from friends letting her know that they too suffered from this serious mental condition.
“If I’m genuinely truthful, every day of the past four years especially, has been a struggle for me,” Donna wrote in her post.
“Sure, on the outside I look happy and I seem to successfully function and run a business
. . . but inside it’s chaos and I’m fighting many little constant battles. That is what depression is . . . a constant war with yourself, a struggle to every day just survive the next minute . . . and then the next . . . and then the next.
“Depression, suicide, mental illness all have such bad stigmas attached to them . . . we aren’t supposed to talk about ‘stuff like that’ . . . ‘those people’ just need to build a bridge and get over it . . . It’s our ‘choice’ to rather wallow in sadness instead of choosing to be happy
. . . we are just ‘looking for attention’.
“Sadly it’s not a choice. We can’t just forget about the bad stuff and move on.
“It’s a genuine, very real, very raw illness that we can’t help. We seem to be missing the tools needed to claw ourselves out of the abyss one centimetre at a time. I’m not sure why some people escape the clutches of mental illness and others don’t, but it is what it is.”
Donna started her Facebook post with a warning that the “not-so-happy” post would contain TMI (too much information) personal overshare, but instead of turning 5,000 friends off, she said it had encouraged many of them to reach out and share their own “not-so-happy” feelings.
“I was inundated with private messages. I did not realise it was such a big thing and that it affected so many people,” she said in an interview this week. “It also is not socially acceptable not to be happy, which makes it hard to talk about.”
She wrote that September in particular had been hard for her as this was the month in which her sister committed suicide four years ago.
September is Suicide Awareness Month and October is Mental Health Month but if, like Donna, you suffer from depression – then pretty much every month is a struggle.
In Donna’s case, the death of her sister was the last straw, particularly as it came after other traumatic events dating back to a sexual assault when she was only 16 years old.
“The ‘it should have been me’ mantra played on a loop constantly in my head. I was the one who had constantly battled with depression, I was the one who’d thought of suicide so often, why couldn’t it have been me?
“My whole life crumbled and every part of me broke down. I was incapable of doing even the simplest thing. I was blacking out and falling over unconscious without warning.
“My memory went to the point now where I still have to write down every single thing or thought or I forget it instantly. I even record my calls, and then have to check re-check and check again in case I’ve forgotten something.
“Suicide is such a destructive force that leaves tremendous devastation behind.
“Not only does it consume and defeat the victims themselves, but it infests the minds and lives of the family members who are left behind. It’s like a weed that unashamedly grows in every dark nook and cranny of your soul and slowly but surely all the unanswered questions and perceived guilt can completely take over your life.”
She has charted her own path through depression and her advice is not to ignore the sadness but instead to reach out for help.
“To everyone in pain: you are not alone,” says Donna. “We can all survive, just take one minute at a time.
“If you know of someone you suspect might be struggling, someone who’s going through a bad time, someone who has stopped visiting or going out, someone who smiles but has sadness in their eyes, reach out to them. Call them. Message them. Check up on them, even if they tell you to stop or if they pull away more. Be persistent. They might be too broken to try reach out to you for help.”

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