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Mental Baggage

I’m at the airport smiling as I go through check in. My emotions are tightly packed into my 7kg carry on baggage. False bravado. I’m not leaving on holidays, but everyone is telling me to enjoy my trip.

The truth is I’m leaving Yangon to go to hospital in Bangkok. A suspicious looking mole on my arm has changed appearance in recent weeks and the Yangon doctor fears it might be skin cancer. Living in Myanmar, I’ve been wary of illnesses like dengue, malaria and hepatitis. Not skin cancer. With the doctor’s concern ringing in my ears, an appointment is made swiftly. Everyone from the Yangon doctor, to the hospital, the insurance company and my family and friends are rallying behind me. Within two days of my appointment I’m in a Bangkok hospital under the knife.

If I’m honest, I’m relieved to get out of Yangon for what I’m hoping is only a few days. The past weeks have been tense. Escalating conflict in the north west of Myanmar has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes and an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness. I’m aware that it’s getting to me, I’ve been working for months without a proper break and I’m exhausted. Around me I see others flounder, struggling in different and sometimes more pervasive ways.

Why is it that when we are stressed, we tend to stop only when physical symptoms appear? Somehow these outward signs give us permission to slow down, take time off or get help. Why does physical ill health seem a more legitimate excuse for taking time out from our work or seeking help?

In March this year, the World Health Organisation declared that depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. In Australia, intentional self-harm and stress rate higher in causes of death than skin cancer. Aid workers are particularly vulnerable. A 2015 Guardian study showed 79% of aid workers had experienced mental health issues. Why aren’t we taking it more seriously?

Whilst conversations around mental health are happening more often in my communities, they are certainly more rare and less socially acceptable than physical illness. As foreigners voluntarily seeking a career in post conflict regions, it’s like a privilege we forgo. It’s hard to raise mental health issues when working alongside colleagues who were political prisoners, or communities affected by serious conflict. We tend to wear our medical emergencies from far flung field locations like a badge. In direct contrast, the harder and more difficult mental and emotional struggles are often not shared. Whispered behind closed doors lest they affect our career, our reputation and the image of resilience we have carefully constructed.

I return to Yangon after treatment in Bangkok. A week later the biopsy confirms it was a basel cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. I’m given the skin cancer all clear, insurance pays for the lot and I’m immensely relieved. Yet, the truth is that the time out has been great for my mental well being. I’m positive, energised and ready to return to work. I also know that I’m being more productive, making better decisions, more resilient. There’s no way I would have made time for this break, even though in retrospect I needed it.

What I learned from this unscheduled medical emergency is that minding myself better inside and out needs to be not just a practice, but also a priority. It’s time to ditch the baggage associated with mental health and seriously invest in our mental wellbeing as much as we do in our physical health.


Ellen Maynes is an adviser and facilitator with 20 years experience in the NGO, corporate and academic sectors. Originally from Australia, Ellen is currently working on projects in Yangon on a variety of issues including gender equality and media development. Ellen is passionate about connecting and supporting people and organisations to improve the impact of their work.

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