I’m only 18 years old. I’m young, but old enough to have just the right amounts of independence and freedom. I’m a first-year student; I can stay out late on a Monday night and wake up at 2 in the afternoon on a Wednesday if I want to. I’ve got nothing to worry about. These are the best years of my life.
At least that’s what everybody thinks.
In reality, this past academic year has been the most difficult year of my life, and it has certainly not been the idyllic picture of student life that many people imagine. I struggled intensely with the adjustment to University, and things spiralled so far downhill that last November, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. These aren’t problems you would expect a student to be suffering from, especially not in first year where it is, supposedly, all about having fun. However, since revealing my mental illness to other students, I have discovered quite a number of other people who have, or have had, similar problems to myself; people who you would never even suspect of having a mental illness.
This demonstrates that mental illness, contrary to popular belief, is not rare. In fact, statistics show that 1 in 4 people will suffer from some form of mental health problem at some point in their life. 25% of people is not a small amount, and that doesn’t even include the amount of people surrounding the sufferer who are also affected. Mental illness is not something that affects only severely disadvantaged people, or those that have had trauma in their lives. You do not have to be a certain ‘type’ of person to have mental problems. It can affect absolutely anyone and that includes students, perhaps even more so than the general population, given that studies have shown that high intelligence is linked to depression.
So if mental illness is so common, and increasingly so among students, why aren’t we made aware of this? School leavers are lectured before university about personal safety, and sexual health, but not about mental health. Mental well-being is taken for granted – it’s regarded as something that we’ll always have; something that we don’t need to safeguard or devote time to, like we do our physical health. But this shouldn’t be the case. Of course, there are many different causes of mental illness – sometimes it may be entirely due to genetics, and in those cases, prevention is almost impossible. However, in the case of university students, moving to university is highly stressful, and stress is often the trigger for more serious mental health problems – this was certainly true in my example. Whilst I don’t know, and will probably never know, what the root cause of my anxiety and depression is, I do strongly believe that if I had been more aware of my increasing levels of stress, and had been equipped with techniques to reduce that stress and guard my mental well-being, my problems would not have been so severe.
In addition, school leavers, and students already at university, need to know that it’s not unusual to be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their student career. Before I came to university, all I had heard was stories of people having the most fantastic time of their lives at university, first-year especially. So, whilst I was having a rather unenjoyable and pretty dismal first semester, I kept thinking ‘Why am I not enjoying this? What on earth is wrong with me?’, and when I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, I thought I was terribly strange. I didn’t dare tell anyone at university, because they wouldn’t understand how or why I’d got like this.
Yet, as I’ve mentioned, after sharing my problems with other students, I realised that I was by no means alone in my difficulties. This proves that university is not all constant fun and games for everyone. But new students, as disheartening as this fact may be, need to know this, so if they do find themselves having problems, they will know that they are not alone and that they are not extremely unusual. There is nothing worse than feeling isolated, or feeling like the odd one out, and if I had known that I wasn’t completely bizarre for having problems, I might have coped better.
As well as mental illness affecting people you wouldn’t expect, it also comes in forms that you wouldn’t expect, or recognise immediately. When I was first diagnosed with anxiety and depression, I couldn’t accept the diagnosis, because the way I saw it, those conditions didn’t describe how I was feeling at all. I thought depression meant you moped around in your pyjamas all day and ate ice cream and cried at daytime television. I thought anxiety meant you sat inside biting your nails and twitching, too scared to leave the house. I wasn’t moping around crying, and I wasn’t locking myself away in my room, so surely these diagnoses had to be incorrect?
No. What I learned was that mental illness affects people very differently, and it is wrong to group people into categories and assume that everyone with a certain mental illness is exactly the same. For example, one person with depression might have hypersomnia, whilst another might have insomnia. One might overeat, another might severely under eat. Same condition, entirely different symptoms. Moreover, just the name of a mental illness doesn’t tell you everything. Paradoxically, people with depression do not always feel ‘depressed’ or sad. Likewise, having anxiety does not necessarily mean that you are ‘anxious’ all the time. This was the case in my example; I had a whole host of other symptoms, but not one was feeling nervous or anxious, which was why I initially struggled to comprehend why the psychiatrist was trying to tell me I had anxiety. But mental illnesses are vast; they are like giant umbrellas that encompass a whole range of symptoms, many of which, confusingly, are contradictory.
Mental illness, then, is not only difficult to recognise because you cannot physically see it, but because it does not come in the stereotypical forms that you might expect. The most cheerful, friendly person you know? They might have depression. The most chilled out, relaxed person you know? They might have anxiety. People with mental illnesses are not all holed up in their houses, too scared to face the world. You live among people with mental illnesses, and interact with them every day, even though you don’t realise this. Maybe if people realised that mental illness can affect anyone, no matter how good their life seems, and that it is not uncommon, we’d be able to talk more openly about it, and stop people with mental illnesses feeling alienated and alone. And maybe that in itself would begin to solve the real problem.