Over the last few years, I like to think that the UK societal view on mental health has changed for the better, following a number of campaigns led by highly powered, successful people such as Alistair Campbell and Stephen Fry, and also following government initiatives, such as the 1 in 4 and Rethink campaigns.
Partly as a result of these strategies, people have begun to recognise that mental health problems really can affect anyone, at any time of life. This article’s aim is to go one further, and encourage those who are actually suffering to seek help. NICE, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence found that 50% of people with mental health problems do not ask for help, which can have devastating consequences.
These developments could not come at a more appropriate time. In the last few months, the world has lost two extremely talented sportsmen – Darren Sutherland and Robert Enke – to suicide; a tragic ending to a treatable condition. Over the last three years, both Kelly Holmes and Marcus Trescothick also have spoken openly about their fight with depression. Through this openness, others who are suffering will, hopefully, feel less isolated and stigmatised.
There are many similarities between sportsmen (and women) and students. Both groups of people need to be motivated and committed, and often have perfectionist traits. Many students are driven to succeed all the time, and find it hard to constantly maintain their high standards. For this reason, it is my aim in this article to encourage students, like myself, to seek help when facing mental health difficulties. It is known that university students are one of the ‘at risk’ groups in society, and moreover, depression is increasing among the student population.
Depression and anxiety are clinical diagnoses. These are not based on any objective test, such as a blood sugar level in diabetes. It is even more difficult, therefore, to ‘medicalise’ the problems you may be facing and feel that you are experiencing the effects of an illness, but you are.
Depression is very common; one in five people become depressed at some point in their life. Everybody can get low at times, but someone is said to be suffering from depression when these feelings do not pass or become so bad that they interfere with their everyday life. The feeling of depression is deeper, longer and more unpleasant than the short episodes of unhappiness that everyone experiences occasionally.
Symptoms include: losing interest in things that you would normally find pleasurable; low mood; finding it harder to make decisions; not coping with things that used to be manageable; feeling exhausted; feeling agitated and restless; loss of appetite and weight; and difficulty in sleeping. Often people don’t realise how depressed they are, because it can come on so gradually. They may try to struggle on and cope with feelings of depression by being very busy. This can make them even more stressed and exhausted. Physical pains such as constant headaches or sleeplessness then start. Sometimes these physical symptoms can be the first sign of depression.
If you do feel depressed or as though you are slipping down a slippery slope, believe me, talking from personal experience, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I would never try and belittle your feelings or suggest that you bottle up your emotions. There are lots of helpful strategies available to help you in these times of hopelessness. Apart from letting good friends and your family know what you are going through, it is vitally important to tell a professional, so that they can try and make constructive improvements there and then, without delay. Each university faculty will have a pastoral service; they are paid to deal with these issues day in, day out, and can support you with issues about support, extended deadlines and mentoring services. The GP services at university are highly experienced at dealing with depression, and will make appropriate interventions, be it referral to a talking therapy (which I thoroughly recommend), or through medication, which can also help enormously.
I have planned a charity challenge in spring 2010 in Borneo, which is going to be absolutely fantastic. I am currently recruiting more people to join the ever-growing team of us who are heading over there. I am raising money for the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity aimed at increasing awareness of depression, reducing the stigma associated with it and improving the NHS mental health services. We will also gladly welcome those who wish to raise funds for other charities, but would rather the charity was related to the subject of this article. If you want to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime challenge, visit www.challengeborneo.co.uk for more information. You can also find the link to the donations page, to donate funds.
On a positive note, remember, remember, you are not alone. The encouraging theme from most people’s experience of depression is that they have learned to deal with their depression and come out the other side as stronger, more insightful individuals. Although a painful experience, depression can be an important stimulus to take stock and revaluate your lifestyle, assumptions and values. When you get through it you may well be able to tell a life story that celebrates your ability to recognise the warning signs and to take steps to address issues and move forward to a happier, more meaningful and fulfilled life.
Lukas, Medical Student