The Importance of Being Honest

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Mental Health is a sensitive topic which is very often pushed under the carpet, skirted around or avoided. Here Megan Sherman confronts it head on and talks of the importance of being honest.

My transition from overwhelmed fresher to settled student occurred whilst campaigning with organisations related to mental health awareness, which enabled me to overcome confidence and self-esteem barriers impeding my immersion in campus life, whilst exposing me to the forefront of the contemporary mental health debate.

The University of Southampton and its union provided me with excellent support to ease the transition to essays, independent living and socializing, experiences which indiscriminately challenge every student, but accentuate the difficulties for those vulnerable to mental distress. They can even trigger conditions for individuals hitherto evaded by diagnosis. Proactivity and co-operation, in sharing facts and experiences surrounding mental illness on campus, will help to support these students, by challenging the reductivist, deterministic beliefs that symptoms determine the entirety an individual’s character, determine their chances in life, and constitute acceptable grounds for discrimination.

Whilst the scale of impact varies from mild to severe, the symptoms of a mental malady will affect approximately 1 in 4 people during their lifetime. The prevalence of symptoms within students have, in a study conducted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, registered as high as 65% of female and 54% of male undergraduate students, whilst only 0.53% of first year UK-domiciled undergraduates in 2009/2010 declared a ‘mental health difficulty’ as a reason for disability.

Image by Bryony Wellburn

This contrast suggests that the majority of students experiencing difficulties with mental health are not formally registered within a support network and intensive support may be neither appropriate, nor necessary, for those whose symptoms are mild, infrequent and not part of a serious diagnosis. Still, despite the ubiquitous effects of mental symptoms on our society, the archaic idea that they warrant shame, stigma and taboo is still in currency. Thus a student’s experience of University, as well as their overall performance, could be unnecessarily marred by mental health issues, but committed publicity for the subject can illuminate the stupidity of stigma.

Whilst the impact of mental health on our campus can’t be represented in any breadth, or depth, by the details of my own experience, I can’t advocate the benefits of honesty without practicing it first myself. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 2010. The first serious episode of depression, far beyond the remit of adolescent angst, can be identified as occuring aged 12-13. Behavioural extremes prior to diagnosis varied from the depression-associated incidences of attempted suicide, self-loathing, dietary neglect and poor self-esteem, to the mania-associated incidences of excessive self-esteem, racing thoughts, religious thinking, paranoid thinking, short but intense psychosis, impulsive acts of self injury and drastic lifestyle change, the most excessive of which involved me moving a hundred miles to Cardiff with barely any money, nor a job, but a conviction that somehow, I was having a Damascus experience.

The result was that an education otherwise carried by achievements and active learning was unduly disrupted. Nonetheless, the severity of the symptoms were oddly fortunate, to the extent that I received the early diagnosis and intervention conducive to long-term recovery; the luxury of beginning University with the self-knowledge to navigate a degree, concurrently to mental health issues, is one that not all affected students will have. Raising awareness has become an cherished aim.

This is not just a personal, but a shared endeavour, attended to by Parliament, celebrities, and citizens. Whilst charities such as Time to Change, Rethink Mental Illness and Mind have advanced a national anti-stigma agenda and sought to construct narratives of hope and recovery, for authors and readers alike, a recent Parliamentary debate gave oxygen to the experiences of MPs. This came ahead of potential legislation to remove legal barriers to jury duty and employment as a CEO, which reinforce the erroneous idea that a mental health diagnosis means you’re an incompetent participant in civic life.

On campus, groups such as Mental Wealth, in collaboration with Solent Mind, run awareness weeks to provide coping strategies and support for students. Mental Wealth are enabling regular term time tea sessions next year, which will provide a safe, non-judgemental space for students to socialise and engage with each other, be if they are interested in or affected by mental health, or just enthusiastic about tea. Even basic contact with an article that’s candid can help a student to overcome difficulties, so regular contact of this kind will be invaluable.

Mental health is inextricably connected to political, economic and social conditions, and the issues faced by those affected will continue to be compounded by budget cuts, NHS restructuring, fitness to work tests, benefit changes and the long term burden of an ageing society, as well as the general conditions of modern life. Students graduating in to a workforce whose mental needs are neglected may not be fit to carry the coveted economic recovery, although some would argue that’s the responsibility of the government.

Nonetheless, society will be unable to efficiently challenge it’s urgent, mounting issues if it has nothing to declare about mental health first. It’s time to talk.

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