Thursday, 16 November 2017

Sick of Studying: Does the language of mental ‘illness’ always make sense in Higher Education?

Michael writes about the language of mental ‘illness’ within the context of University life.

-Michael Priestley

We are often incited to think of mental ‘illness’ in the same manner as physical ‘illness’; as a biological condition that besets genetically vulnerable individuals and thus demands specialist diagnoses, explanations and treatments. As with any such condition, organisational responsibility can only lie, it seems, in the providing of specialist services for the individual to access in times of crisis. But without due care, this may lead us to thinking of mental ‘illness’ solely as something to be medically treated, rather than socially prevented; something separate and other, something only for doctors and patients, something that we as students need not really think or do anything about, either for ourselves or for others. We can become so entrenched in this language of ‘illness’ that it can become difficult for us to perceive and openly discuss both the relevant social and environmental risk factors and/or potential solutions that we just already know from our own experiences of University life.

Using a different language might, I suggest, help us to view and thus respond to mental health in a new, and more helpful, way. For the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, this involves letting go of our specialist, universal, conceptions of ‘illness’, and returning instead to what we already know about mental health through listening to other people’s experiences within the context of their own lives. Perhaps then, as clinical psychologist Richard Bentall has suggested, it no longer makes sense to talk of ‘symptoms’ at all, but instead ‘abandon psychiatric diagnosis altogether’ (2006, p.220) and (re)conceptualise mental ‘illness’ simply as ‘complaints’ (ibid) that are contextually embedded within the social world.

For me then, I came to realise that my own experiences of depression and anxiety might itself be symptomatic of a bigger sickness within the context of higher education and society more generally. I had become sick. I felt hopelessly inadequate upon facing the often incompatible academic, social and economic expectations of student life and I constantly anticipated failure and humiliation. I began to isolate myself, taking comfort in increasingly unhealthy work patterns and, progressively, self-harming.

But perhaps, I now realise, this sickness wasn’t a job solely for the doctor or other mental health professionals. It was just as much a job for policy makers, the University and society more generally. Because what I was really sick of was the stress, the pressure and the insecurity of University life; the relentless assessment, the needless competition, the obsession with ‘future employability’, the impossible social expectations, the overwhelming debt, the constant financial anxiety. Maybe, just as certain longstanding beliefs that natural medical conditions disproportionately affecting women were, in fact, inherent to patriarchal capitalist society, the student mental health crisis could come to be seen as indicative of a larger social crisis within higher education.

I don’t say all this just to complain or to promote some political agenda. And of course, always talk to a professional if you are concerned for your own or others’ wellbeing. But I do hope that the sharing of my experiences might hold some value for both students and for the University. Because as an individual, it was both liberating and empowering to learn that some of my own failings were really just as much the failure of higher education. And for Universities, by expanding the language of mental ‘illness’ in order to to listen to, learn more about and respond to students’ own experiences, they may help to develop a more effective, collective and coordinated environment for student mental health and wellbeing.

Hi, I'm Michael. I'm currently a prospective PhD student at Durham University and wanted to write for Student Minds about my own experiences of depression, anxiety and university life. 



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