Lucy Francesca Davies
Man, even typing this is scary. What you’re about to read is personal, and encompasses the worst years of my entire life. I am sharing this experience because we need to talk about mental health. I’m talking about depression. 1 in 4 people will be affected with a mental health problem in their lifetime and there has been a rise in demand for Mental Health services at Universities across the UK. So why are we struggling to speak openly, still?
The first year of University can be difficult. Why wouldn’t it be? Most will be living away from home, having left the comfort and familiarity of family living in favour of student halls. There are empty gin bottles lining the window sills, and sixth form is a distant glimmer somewhere beyond the horizon. Many will thrive in these circumstances; there’s always something to do, somewhere to be, someone to meet and hang out with. There’s the quasi-unlimited freedom that spurs your drunken footsteps towards BBQ Kings, quieting the “What would Mum say” about your impending feast of cheesy chips.
This aside, the first year of university can also be incredibly isolating. It’s not a feeling exclusive to first year; but the changes are so significant, day-to-day living is so different and daily autonomy is new. There’s no bustling parentage to remind you to tidy your room, shower, do your homework. Pets and siblings remain a journey away- and at the end of the day, in student halls (at least at first) you’re living with strangers. It can be tough.
When I was in first year, I struggled with depression. The problem had followed me from sixth form, to volunteering abroad and all the way up to University, trailing behind the family car packed with my worldly possessions along the M8. Everything seemed so exciting; oh the people I’d meet! The places I’d see! Did I mention I’d never been north of Hull before I actually accepted my offer to study in Glasgow? In my mind, University had to be somewhere intangible, far away. I thought the further away I was from home, the further I’d be from the problems that I’d met there.
This, unfortunately, is not how depression, or any mental health condition, works. For months, I was miserable. I’d vacillate between not eating then feasting on takeaway. I’d do nothing but university work, then stay locked in my room for days at a time. I’d obsessively clean everything, then wait until I was surrounded by a mess of clothes, shoes and mugs before noticing my room was untidy. I was medicated; then I wasn’t. But this post is not going to discuss medication- it’s simply too complicated, personal and individual. My cocktail of anti-depressants, or lack thereof, makes no difference to the point of what I’m writing.
What I’m writing is a personal account of how I’m still standing, despite crippling depression and eventual hospitalisation just before my 19th birthday. Post-hospital, I moved into a different student accommodation, where I met wonderful people who I still call close friends, and am forever grateful at how willingly they took me in. This is not a one size fits all solution, but a change of scenery when you’ve been wallowing in complete apathy is a must. The turning point for me was when I told the relevant University staff what had been going on. Truthfully, they seemed deeply upset that I’d gone so long without saying a word. You see, they can’t help unless they know you need it.
I’m now in third year, and I have down days like everyone. But I can identify that these down days are not depression; and I can’t give you the exact day when I knew I was no longer depressed- but I know things began to get a little better each day once I told the University what was happening. Each time the sun rose, it seemed a little brighter, and I didn’t loathe waking up each morning the way I had. The University made allowances for me that lightened the worry on my mind, and they urged me to prioritise getting better over my studies.
Beginning University can be terrifying: the institution can seem faceless and impersonal. Opening up about what you’re facing helps in so many ways; not least because looming deadlines don’t have to be final. If you need to sit an exam out and focus on yourself, they can make that happen. But not if you don’t tell them. With depression especially, keeping quiet about it is the worst thing you can do.
So what do I want you to take from this? Firstly, that no matter what you’re facing, telling the relevant University staff can only help ease your mind with University work. Secondly, that it’s ok to feel like you’re not making friends and not doing first year right. Thirdly, I’d like you to know that the dark days don’t have to last forever. It’s never as easy as pulling your socks up and being told to cheer up, but it’s not as impossible as I know it can feel. Lastly, please share your troubles. If you’re having a hard time, don’t wait until it gets worse to talk about it. Sharing it is how you start to recover. And you can, and you will.
Today we have a thought piece by Ellie Haberlin-Chambers, one of this year's Brand Ambassadors. The opinions and thoughts within this piece are personal to the author and must not be treated as dogmatic of GUCFS' thoughts and feelings.
The aim of Mental Health Awareness Week is two-fold: to raise awareness about emotional and psychological self care, and to consequentially reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. Why mental illness carries this stigma is a complex matter, and not for this post - but we need to recognize that the shame attached to mental health problems often leads people to suffer in silence. Ignorance about the causes and symptoms of mental illness, as well as about the availability of treatment perpetuates the myth that the health of the mind is less important than the health of the body. That’s outrageous.
Health officials are realizing that just like physical health, prevention of mental illness is hugely important. This can be initiated by understanding the significance of our own emotional wellbeing which is so often overlooked. So what does emotional self-care look like? And who educates us about how to look after ourselves in this way? What is the mental health equivalent of ‘eating 5 a day’? What strap line can the government formulate for this one?
Education around mental health has often been a matter of luck: a child is left with only their family and caregivers to model what to do when they feel sad, angry, rejected, jealous, left out, frightened or worried. In contrast, physical self-care has a more consistent approach and by the age of 7 a child knows that the basic response to a cut is to clean and cover the wound with a plaster; they would have seen the school nurse do this; they would have seen it on television. Maturity extends our response and we demonstrate competence and confidence in helping another who is physically sick or injured: we assess whether they need a basin or a plaster, water or a clean tissue, paracetamol or an ambulance.
So why don't we know what to do when we see emotional suffering? Why do we expect someone to just “get over it”? Why do we minimize someone's suffering before even asking them where it hurts? When we do find the source, we often judge their pain as if it isn't real. It’s implied that if they just tried harder they could 'pull themselves together', 'pick themselves up’, 'chill out', 'calm down' and 'stop feeling sorry for yourself'’. We reinforce the message that to be vulnerable is not a good look. Don't be sad. And don’t let it show.
Anyone who has ever felt that they didn't fit in or who felt that they weren't good, attractive, tough or clever enough; anyone who has ever loved and lost and ruminated over the disappointment and rejection knows that emotional injury can be just as crippling, equally as painful and as real as any physical ailment.
Not looking after ourselves emotionally is dangerous. When faced with rejection, the first response can be “well, I deserved it. I wasn’t enough.” This can trigger a downwards spiral wherein self-esteem, the emotional immune system, falls to pieces and leaves us defenseless to resist infectious negative thoughts. As the symptoms of a psychological wound are ignored they mutate in the same way as they would if a physical wound went untreated: the infection spreads and develops.
Unfortunately people often sit with these deep-seated feelings for months, or even years, before speaking to someone or seeking help. Not feeling as though you can speak out is allowing the stigma around mental health to win. It allows depression to be normalized, to be deeply unhappy to be ok.
Knowing ourselves is a key part of mental wellbeing: finding out why we habitually respond in the way we do helps us to realize that our feelings are not random but are a response to something which hurts (for good reason); this knowledge helps restore self respect and increase self-esteem; we can then develop strategies to reframe a situation and regulate our mood; by extending our repertoire of responses we discover that we have more control over our lives. We become robust and resilient. We become our own best friend rather than our worst enemy.
Finally, I wanted to say how wonderful it was to see Stella McCartney at her Paris show earlier this month ask her models to come out for the finale and dance: immediately the models transformed from being extraordinarily beautiful and unapproachable into people with whom it looked possible to have fun; they became ordinary and all the better for it. And, as their bodies moved, they brought the clothes to life. The fashion industry gets has gained a bad reputation since the rise of the strikingly skinny supermodels of the 90s- but changes are being made, and these are very exciting.
On the theme of emotional well-being, the mood in the room changed and the atmosphere was one of joy. I thought how lovely to see, and important to remember, the many ways that we can use our body - that we can decorate it and make it beautiful but that it is designed to move: to carry us through life, to work and play, to be strong and flexible, to love and nurture. I hope, this Mental Health week, we all remember this.
The Mental Health series is aligned with GUCFS' partnership with the Scottish Association for Mental Health and our shared goals to open up a frank discussion about mental health on campus, and runs parallel to all of the events GUCFS is putting on this Mental Health Awareness week. The series will cover an array of different conditions and how to support friends living with them.
GUCFS’ choice of charity this year is incredibly important to me. The Scottish Association for Mental Health helps thousands of people deal with and talk about mental illness- something that has been stigmatised in the student community. Today I want to discuss something that I feel is often pushed aside: anxiety and how to deal with it when someone close to you is suffering from it. 1 in 6 young people are now afflicted with anxiety, so it’s more pressing than ever that we are open and willing to talk about it. In universities all over the UK counselling services are vastly oversubscribed due to the high demand of students needing their help. These are some of my tips, from personal experience, on how to support someone who is living with anxiety:
It’s incredibly important when dealing with a friend who is anxious, to also care for yourself; so don’t discount your own emotional wellbeing because someone else needs you to. When you are well, you’ll find it easier to help others cope. Your help can be invaluable to someone with anxiety and in a world where there is still a stigma surrounding mental health, a non-judgemental ear and willingness to speak openly is paramount.
Charities such as SAMH offer advice on dealing with friends afflicted with a myriad of Mental Health conditions, and try to explain what it is like to live with one, as well as actively helping thousands living with these conditions.
Here they have a PDF which will give you are greater understanding of Anxiety and Panic Attacks: https://www.samh.org.uk/media/448340/understandinganxiety.pdf
They also run numerous campaigns such as the ‘See Me Campaign’ which is working to end the stigma towards people who suffer from mental illness. This aims to inform people about the ability to speak out if you are facing stigma or discrimination in relation to mental health. Find out more about this here: https://www.seemescotland.org/