Oxford must get rid of stigma attached to mental health

This article was prompted somewhat by an advertisement that came into my inbox recently. As deputy comment editor of Cherwell, I was invited to apply for a job writing for Keep Off The Grass, OSPL’s Fresher’s guide.

Given that I didn’t have a Fresher’s period since my lungs decided to unilaterally stop working that week, I felt my input would be inappropriate. However, there is one very important point that I think merits a mention.

I’m not the only person who invested a lot in attending Oxford University. Having always felt somewhat isolated throughout most of my academic career, I thought that I would finally find a safe haven for my self-indulgent geekishness. Of course, what I immediately proceeded to discover was that almost everyone I knew appeared far cleverer than I did.

Generally, if you feel inferior to someone when they recount the details of their interview entirely innocently, that’s not a good sign. To make such a transition, I would argue, is even harder than the move to independence for some people. I easily settled in to a life independent of the comforts of home- but to adjust to a world where what had previously defined my identity was suddenly nothing special was a lot harder.

Pretty soon, I was having daily thoughts of “I don’t belong here”. Every time I hit a wall, I took it highly personally. It was getting to the point where my constant anxiety was a serious strain on those closest to me. Yet I resisted any sort of counselling, convinced that my problems were only temporary.

It was only after 4th week when I eventually sought a GP and was referred to the university service that things started to improve. One of the first things that the counsellor told me was that hundreds of people passed through daily, that I wasn’t alone. This was what gave me the confidence to be able to treat my problems seriously.

I had to be told that this sort of thing was actually fairly common. I’ve spoken to people since who have been through the process, and it’s clear I’m not alone.

But I didn’t know that at the time. And next year, there’s going to be another generation of freshers who will struggle mentally, for similar or even entirely different reasons. What matters is that they don’t feel weak asking for help.

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It would have been far better for me and a lot of people close to me had I done so earlier. Oxford is an amazing place, and I wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else. At the same time, it can be incredibly mentally taxing, and some people may need more support than others. It’s a good idea to highlight the importance of peer supporters just as the Wadham fresher’s guide did.

However, this is no use if such occurrences are treated as alien to the authentic Oxford experience, as for some people they are all too real. I don’t want any upcoming Oxford students to feel the sense of shame that I did in seeking help. I want them to have the confidence that they belong here that I was denied, and in some cases counselling etcetera is a perfectly legitimate means of securing that.

There is a huge stigma attached to mental health issues in this country, which is why my proposal may be difficult to fulfil. I suggest to the editors of Keep Off The Grass that they seek testimonials from Oxford students of all walks of life about their own difficulties adjusting. That way, those freshers who need support know that their personal difficulties do not invalidate their right to be here.

Welfare reps in colleges across Oxford do an excellent job of highlighting the importance of seeking help, but if the fresher’s guide acknowledged the frequency with which students seek counselling, it would send a message that it is a perfectly normal part of student life, just as much as embarrassing oneself at crew-dates. Oxford is a world leader academically; let’s make it a world leader in mental health awareness too.