An NUS survey found 78% of university students suffer from mental health issues. And with government cuts to funding to aid mental health, it seems that we, as a country, are moving backwards in our understanding of these issues. People who suffer from mental illnesses ask, ‘Is there something wrong with me? Is this feeling normal? What’s made me this way?’ Evidently, mental illness has become a topic that still seems to lack understanding.
The organisation Time To Change had its national Time To Talk Day on 4th February, and its aim is to try and beat the stigma of mental health issues. Part of this is gaining the courage to talk about personal experiences, and raising awareness – throughout the country, as well as amongst our generation – as some may feel embarrassed to talk about how they’re feeling. 2015 was the year I learned to accept that it wasn’t something I should’ve dismissed. I don’t know what it is that makes me feel or think this way, but it’s there – and has been for years. Part of my mind has constantly nagged me that something was a little off – but coming to accept that I haven’t been myself, and dealing with these issues, is an idea I’m trying to make sense of. The media want to discuss the stigma of mental health, but this, in turn, has led to parts of social media glamorising symptoms of depression, anxiety and self-harm.
A previous article on what you shouldn’t say to someone who’s depressed highlights perceptions of how a person suffering from mental illness should behave. People are made to feel “qualified”, but mental illnesses aren’t something you’re qualified to suffer from. It’s the dark shadow over your head, the feeling of isolation even when you’re surrounded by friends, the severe lows where you can’t muster enough energy to get up, and the questions that fog your mind. Mental illness creeps up on you. It takes its pick and holds on. Although others may not be able to see the problem, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
You can’t pinpoint the day something goes or becomes ‘wrong’. Being depressed at an impressionable age led me to take an attempt on my life. There was no identifiable trigger, but in some part of my mind, I’d had enough. Admittedly, at such a naïve age, I should have realised the consequences of my actions, had the attempt been successful.
I convinced myself the only person who would understand why I feel this way, is me. So, I kept quiet, ignoring that what I was feeling wasn’t just teenage hormones, but something unexplainable. The feelings and thoughts about myself worsened through sixth form. The environment I found myself in was toxic, claustrophobic, and mentally, emotionally and physically draining. So when a sweeping ‘craze’ of constant calorie-counting and subtle fat-shaming consumed my year, it became inescapable. I like food; I like watching Bake Off and Masterchef as much as the next person. The phantom of ‘healthy living’ was everywhere, both inside and outside the classroom.
Inadvertently I was made to feel guilty about liking to eat, with comments like, ‘Are you really going to eat that? It’s X amount of calories,’ or, ‘A moment on the lips, forever on the hips,’ from people reading the calories on my food. My appetite decreased rapidly, I concealed the full extent of the problem, and became a regular at the gym. So instead of plodding along, I decided to run. I’ve never been the skinniest, and that’s fine because I like food and want to enjoy it. So, I worked hard, went to the gym, ate less, kept a part-time job, learned to drive, gave away my food, applied to university, and went home every day knowing that I was my own ticket out. With the stress of A-levels, I began to experience headaches and stress I had never experienced before. I was so focused on getting out of school, I had forgotten what I was doing to myself.
It was around this time that I learned that my best friend had been seeing a therapist for anxiety and panic attacks. I’ll never pretend to understand how she feels, and she’ll never pretend to understand how I feel or where it came from, especially when she confided in me that her anxiety had worsened and decided to try a new method – antidepressants.
There seems to be a stigma surrounding antidepressants and those who use them. However, antidepressants aren’t just prescribed for those suffering from depression, but also anxiety, OCD and insomnia, as well as ADHD. Sometimes you have to try something, even if it scares you.
I referred myself to the NHS to enter therapy and become the person I once was – or thought I was. After a blind-siding experience, everything seemed to come crashing down, taking those feelings off the shelf and back into my mind. After several sessions, I was referred to my GP to seek an alternative method of antidepressants. I was scared – as if it’s my dirty little secret, something I felt ashamed of. I’ve come to realise that I need to get better, and this is a way I can try; and in the process of doing this, I’ve come to contemplate what’s best for me.
It took losing nearly two stone, a severe lack of appetite, hair loss, crying for days and nights, self-mutilation, and an irrational breakdown, leaving me wanting to escape from the psychological prison I found myself in. I hadn’t been honest about what was going through my mind, especially with those closest to me. I kept it from my family and the people surrounding me here. I regret not telling them sooner, because I pushed them away when I needed them most. I downplayed the truth and lied to those closest to me, and the ones I care about most.
I was afraid I’d be shunned, that people would tip-toe around me, being wary of what they say. I didn’t want it to become anyone else’s burden.
So, when someone asked me, ‘Do you suffer from depression or anxiety or anything like that?’ I half-lied because I myself didn’t know. I lied because I didn’t want them to worry, because I’m not ‘that’ girl who has a problem.
The constant battering of ‘There’s something wrong with you’ in your head, especially when it’s your own voice, or you’ll never believe you’ll be good enough at anything, or for anyone, is the cruellest trick you can play on yourself.
Awareness about mental health is integral to our understanding of not only others, but also ourselves. Hopefully, speaking out about personal experience with mental illness will raise awareness and help beat the stigma surrounding these issues.
It’s not just you.
For further information about the stigma of mental illness and Time To Talk Day, or to seek help, you can visit these websites:
Time to Change: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/
Mind Infoline: http://www.mind.org.uk/help/advice_lines
Rethink Mental Illness Advice Line: http://www.rethink.org/about-us/our-mental-health-advice