Wednesday 19 February 2014

Time To Talk About Student Mental Health

~ Seb Baird

“It’ll be the best time of your life,” we are told by our misty-eyed older relatives. Going to university comes to hold a kind of mythical status. While at school, it represents an ideal of adulthood; for adults, knee-deep in a nine-to-five, it’s a rose-tinted memory of carefree freedom. When you’re in the thick of university life, it can feel like something else entirely. We have to contend with fluid new relationships and isolation from our stable, old ones. We have to cope with the spectre of student debt and a fresh set of intellectual challenges. We have to deal with a flood of new pressures and expectations around our appearance, sexuality and social behaviour.

It’s no wonder, then, that the pressure sometimes gets to us.

Mental health among students remains an incredibly important issue: according to a report by the National Union of Students, 20 per cent of university students report suffering a mental health problem. That’s one student in every shared house of five, or ten in every lecture hall of 50 students. Yet, mental health is not given the attention it deserves; too often we pretend it does not exist at all.

About a month after I was diagnosed with depression in my second year, I talked to my friend Meg about it. I spoke to her about the negative thoughts and lethargy, the constant feelings of detachment and dejection. I couldn’t see beyond the oppressive feelings - the light at the end of the tunnel was not yet visible to me. Alongside the sadness and heaviness, I also felt a strong sense of shame - “I’m a smart guy,” I thought. “I’m young, and I’m studying at one of the best universities in the country. This is supposed to be the time of my life!”

Meg was two years older and studied the same subject as me. I looked to her as a sort of older sister. She was one of the most energetic and enthusiastic people I have ever met, and treated everyone with a singular respect and kindness.

Sharing my depression with Meg was a revelation. She listened to me, giving respect to the way I was feeling while reminding me that my emotions were not inseparable from myself. More crucially, though, she told me about her own experiences of depression - that she, too, had suffered an episode of depression about two years before. Her tale lifted a great deal of weight off my shoulders: I no longer felt alone; I knew there were others who had been in this fight too.

For me, one conversation about depression made me feel more connected and more positive than I had in months. It taught me that there is truth behind the cliche, “a problem shared is a problem halved”. It taught me a life lesson that I should not be ashamed to share how I was feeling. I started to tell my story: to my friends, to groups of people, on blogs. I co-founded the Mind Your Head Campaign, which aims to combat mental health stigma among students in Oxford. The more I told my story, the more people I met who told me, with a great sense of relief, that they had been through a similar experience but had never been able to tell anyone.

Too many of us still feel as if a mental illness is something to be ashamed of, whether that feeling emanates from ourselves, our peers, the media or broader social norms. A survey by Time to Change indicated that for 60 per cent of people, the stigma surrounding their mental illness was as bad or worse than the symptoms of the illness itself. Stigma stops us from seeking support, from our friends, our families and mental health professionals; it stops us from taking the steps that can help recovery and positive mental health. Dealing with the symptoms of a mental illness is difficult enough without having to worry about what your friends, family or tutors will think about you.

Stigma comes in many forms. There’s the ignorance and prejudice that comes along with comments like “pull your socks up” or ”get over it”. There’s the carelessness of saying “I’m a bit OCD,” or casually referring to someone as a “psycho.” Although not rare enough, in my experience, the worst forms of stigma are few and far between. Most students, even if they don’t have a deep understanding of mental health, at least respect the gravity and legitimacy of mental illness.

What’s way more common, and so much easier to fix, is the perceived stigma: the fear that others will judge us for having a mental health problem. If no-one talks about emotions, if we’re afraid to broach the subject depression or anxiety, then it’s understandable that those with mental health problems will start to feel ashamed of their condition, even though there’s no reason to do so.

Talking is the only way to fill the pervasive silence that surrounds the subject of mental health. Whether it’s sharing your experience on a blog, talking to a friend about what you’ve been through, or simply asking a friend how they’re doing, we each have a responsibility to contribute to a positive discourse around mental health. Whether someone comes to university with a mental health problem or whether they’ve just come from their GP’s office with a fresh diagnosis, they should know that their community is ready to support them and not to judge them.

Crucially, though, mental health isn’t relevant only to that one in five with a diagnosis and in treatment. None of us is mentally perfect.  In that same NUS survey, more than 40 per cent of students said they felt feelings of anxiety weekly, and nearly half of students reported feelings of worthlessness once a week. Whether it’s exercise, taking a break to read the newspaper (if you’re a perfectionist) or making an effort to plan your revision schedule (if you’re a serial procrastinator), there’s something you can do to improve your wellbeing.

Everyone can benefit from thinking and talking about mental health. If you do anything this week, make a commitment to yourself and those around you to take a stand on mental health. It could be something simple, like asking a friend how they’re doing and really listening, or taking time out with them to do something positive for your mental health. It could be something more complicated, like resolving to join a mental health campaign and to tell your story. Through thousands of resolutions, big and small, we can make a real difference to student mental health.

It really is time to talk!

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