I’m a little apprehensive publishing this, but since I have found little reward from effort, perhaps there is some to be found from risk. This post contains material of a sensitive nature.
The subject of mental health has experienced a new wave of popularity in recent weeks. And in truth, it’s all a little bit awkward.
For a start, it’s become overtly political. Last week, the Liberal Democrats announced that mental health was to become one of their flagship policy areas.
Coinciding neatly with the beginning of the university year, the announcement seems like another attempt to appease a student population that still feels heavily betrayed by the party’s failure to deliver on earlier promises.
As if to reconcile this tension somehow, the Guardian then published a hard-hitting story about the ‘invisible’ problem at Cambridge. Written by an English student, Morwenna Jones, the article describes how perfectionism drives people to increasingly desperate ends once they arrive at an environment where it’s difficult to stand out. It’s an inspiring read, and the narrative reminds me a lot of Thin, the stunning memoir of fellow Cambridge English graduate Grace Bowman.
As is evident enough from the Guardian’s ominously titled section, ‘mental health: a university crisis’, it’s an issue that stretches deep into the student community.
This new publicity has given me a lot to ponder. The first issue it raises is how much I admire – even begrudgingly – those who are prepared to be so open about their challenges. Mental health can be such an intensely private experience that it takes something remarkable to break its vice-like grip.
For me, the public/private nature is the most polarising aspect of it all, and the most difficult to negotiate. At the moment, for example, it seems like my Facebook feed has turned into a competition between who can shout the loudest or the most frequently about their depression.
Then there’s the press coverage, which inevitably deals with talented and (dare we say it?) attractive people, as if the central point of fascination is how those who have so much to live for have found so little to live for.
Why do I care so much about publicity? It’s easily ignored, isn’t it?
Well, by making these problems so apparently visible, it feels like the invisible – those who don’t speak out – become somehow excluded or illegitimate.
Publicity is like a pressure-cooker that puts a man to a decision for all his chips. You’re either all in – a champion of your own being, bold and brave enough to admit your problems and seek help – or you’re not, and you’re convincing yourself that you must be a fraud and that these problems simply mustn’t exist.
Much of what I encounter on body image and mental health is intended to empower people – that much is clear. But to me, it does the opposite. The more noise I encounter, the more suppressing it becomes, and the harder it is to admit to myself what is going on.
The longer this continues, the weaker and more impressionable you become. The last time I remember talking about ‘it’, back in February, one of my closest friends barked reproachfully “you don’t have an eating disorder!” Well, that’s me told, isn’t it? Every disclosure carries some level of risk. More often than not, it doesn’t seem worth taking.
The second (related) thing I’ve been faced with is my response to statistics. The Guardian article is chock-full of them.
It transpires that almost half of Cambridge students have either been diagnosed as depressed or would diagnose themselves as such. More broadly, the NUS believes that one in five students suffers from a mental health problem.
There’s no comfortable middle-ground here. Reflecting the true scale of the problem is a necessary step towards achieving the level of resources required to combat it. On the other hand, normalizing problems like this carries its own risks too. It’s all too easy to feel that if you’re simply experiencing what everybody else is going through, it shouldn’t be considered a problem.
I think it’s fair to say that some of us are prone to exaggerate our own perceptions of how we behave in relation to the world at large, or to twist situations to suit what our minds want to believe. Inevitably enough, what our minds want to believe is not always particularly healthy or attuned to our own best interests.
What it boils down to: you’re either strong enough to take a stand against yourself and become a success story, or you fall increasingly deeper into a private trap of destitution and denial.
I can guess what most people make of me. Fatalist is one word that comes up regularly. Bipolar, perhaps? Manic depressive? Possibly. Hopeless? Definitely.
I’ve always said about this blog that I would justify the terms of reference I use about myself. And so it follows. After ten years of university, I earn around £14,000 a year, I’m currently one sniff away from the dole, and I’ve spent the last six months learning that I’m as unemployable as I am undateable, with some horrendous interviews to boot. My boss has referred to me, albeit jokingly, as a ‘jug-eared twat’, I’m a laughing stock around the office, and I’ve become a bitter disappointment to my family and others too.
If you’re the judgemental type, you’re welcome to determine whether you think I have reason enough for my mental incapacities. I’m sorry to say it – I’m more than often ashamed to be alive. I hope that admitting that out loud will prove a turning point.
The main reason I read the Guardian article was to see if Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity, would be mentioned. Mercifully, it did feature, and quite heavily at that.
I started attending Student Minds Leicester 12 months ago. It’s not something I’ve wanted to be open about, despite the wonderful support it has provided. And that, above and beyond my need for privacy, saddens me.
I remember how the same dilemmas I’ve retraced above were battling in force this time last year. I didn’t know if my issues would ‘qualify’ me to be there. As a completing student, I didn’t know if I was even eligible to be there. It felt a huge risk to put myself into a situation where I could be turned away.
The reality was far more comforting. Student Minds has helped me to seek medical help when I was physically struggling, encouraged me to tone down some negative behaviours, and has offered me something to structure my week around when all else seemed empty.
The first meeting of the new academic year took place on Thursday after a three-month break, and I had to convince myself very hard to turn up, despite how much I’ve missed it.
Last year, a whole roomful turned up to the introductory session, only for very few to appear thereafter. Inevitably, as the only male, I was concerned that the girls had been put off by my presence. The convenors wouldn’t hear my apologies, but the guilt stayed with me. I was frightened of the same happening again. I’ve had my year of help – it would be selfish to risk dissuading others from turning up, regardless of whether or not it was my fault.
After much deliberating, I did decide to show up. Selfish of me, perhaps – but I’m glad that I did. It was lovely to be reunited with an amazing group of faciliators. What did upset me, though, was the lack of people. My view of ‘publicity’ suddenly became more troubled.
The university does next to nothing to support Student Minds. It certainly doesn’t publicise it. The group has even struggled to secure a room for one hour a week in the evening. It deserves so much better, and that troubles me profoundly. So if I don’t write for the good of myself here, I write in support of Student Minds Leicester, its wonderful crew, and the great work that it does for precious little reward.
Despite all I’ve said here, I’m still a coward. I’ve known for a long time that I could probably benefit from more professional help. Instead, I wallow in self-doubt, writing obliquely and frustrating people who try and get through to me but fail.
But I do want to get somewhere. I owe it to myself, the Student Minds team, and those who spare me thought and care, to own this and to fight my way to a better place.