Monday the 10th October was world mental health day, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the challenges that I have faced at university as someone with a history of mental illness. Some might interpret openness about mental illness as whiny or self-indulgent, but I would ask said people to read what I have to say with an open mind and patience.
I have had a diagnosis since I was 14; at first it was atypical anorexia, depression and social anxiety, then it was bulimia and generalised anxiety disorder. I could talk through my recovery and the way my illness affected me at school, the fact that I was on an NHS waiting list for 6 months, but student minds is about university and how people cope with the transition, so that’s what I want to focus on.
There are three separate problems that I have faced at university; they are the abundance of alcohol, judgement from others and difficulty in accessing support. These things have all interlinked to make the transition to university a very difficult one for me, riddled with relapse in symptoms and lots of fear and anxiety. I have absolutely no doubt that there are hundreds of other people at Durham and universities nationwide who’ve had very similar experiences to my own.
Despite the fact that in our day and age many people are open minded and have some degree of understanding about mental health, I think a much smaller percentage have lived in close proximity to someone struggling with a very real mental illness. I have encountered a few different responses to my illness, including people wanting to ‘fix’ it, people thinking that I’m not ‘trying hard enough’, and people who outright want nothing to do with someone experiencing mental health issues.
I can’t really explain it in any other way than that at various points last year, I had breakdowns. I had massive panic attacks, episodes of paranoid delusions, often linked to alcohol consumption and at one point was taken to A&E for self-harm by my flatmates. I believe that these low points were caused by being taken out of my comfort zone, by a lack of awareness on my part as to how to look after myself as an adult, and that my access to therapy had been cut off. Needless to say, my friends and flatmates hadn’t really experienced these things previously, and understandably, found it stressful.
I don’t blame any of the people around me for their responses, even those that at the time I found difficult. The fault was not theirs, nor mine, nor the college welfare team’s, nor anybody else’s. The reason why these things happened was simply because I didn’t know how to look after myself. People who have experienced mental illness are often very vulnerable, and being thrown into university life, it’s almost unavoidable that there will be points of difficulty.
This is why we need charities like student minds, why we need to talk far, far more about mental illness. We can no longer hide from the problem, because even those of us who never experience a mental illness will almost inevitably come into contact with someone who has. I want mental health to be seen in the same way that an allergy, or diabetes may be. I want my having a relapse to be on the same level as someone having an allergic reaction to something, or needing an insulin boost. Every single student deserves access to mental health support if and when they need it, and we need to work to remove the stigma that makes people embarrassed or afraid to seek help.