Stigma, suffering, and breaking the silence

Struggling with depression at Oxford, and how the conversation is only just beginning

CW:Self-harm and mental illness

My whole body felt weak, and my head was full of clouds, as I sobbed into my pillow in my college room. From where I lay I could hear my peers cooking in the nearby kitchen, the murmurs of cheerful conversation as people returned from lectures. I, however, was stuck between my sheets, numbed by the depression I have suffered from for most of my life. Two hours later I was sitting in a lecture with friends, smiling at the lecturer’s poor attempts at humour and making neat, meticulous notes. Yet inside, I felt exactly the same. In Oxford, a place filled with multi-talented overachievers, the pressure to be, not just okay, but always thriving, is immense. So even whilst spinning out of control, I felt the need to mask my situation as much as possible. Unsurprisingly, bottling up these feelings just led to far messier outcomes than if I’d simply spoken to someone about them, and dealt with them head on.Speaking out about mental health has been a featured topic in recent weeks, with The Telegraph publishing that Prince Harry himself spent 20 years suppressing thoughts about the death of his mother, before turning to a counsellor.

Everybody knows that mental health problems are rife in Oxford—there are enough statistics kicking around to tell you that. However, even whilst society’s paradigm of suppressing the reality of mental illness is beginning to shift, there are still plenty of people afraid to talk. I have spent a long time avoiding talking about my issues, and, instead concealed them to fit the perfect image of myself that I wanted people to see. High grades, smiling profile pictures, and a string of impressive extra-curriculars are not uncommon among people dealing with high-functioning depression. Having dealt with horrible feelings for almost a decade, it took a tearful, alcohol-fuelled breakdown to make me seek professional help. Bottling up emotions, especially in Oxford as a student, isn’t unusual, but I knew I was wrong to let it get that far.No matter how trivial you may think your problems are, if they are causing you difficulties and anguish, then it’s worth going to a counsellor, a friend, or a GP. Slowly, very slowly, opening up to those around me, I noticed how much better my life has become.

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When I began to talk more to my friends, they started to understand better why I had sometimes acted in certain upsetting and confusing ways. Equally, I found that people often felt liberated talking about their own issues back to me—I learned about their own mental health struggles too. Whether this was a friend who spoke about struggling to cope with family bereavement, or another friend who admitted her struggles with an eating disorder, people have shared sufferings with me that I otherwise would never have known about. Immediately, I felt less alone.

Talking about feelings and experiences as real-life people matters. Whilst the profile of mental health in young people has improved in recent years, the problem of how mental illness is displayed in the media, and popular culture, still leaves much to be desired. Most movies and TV shows featuring characters who suffer from mental health issues simplify the path to recovery (think Carrie Mathison in Homeland). They also sometimes serve to glamorise and romanticise some-thing that is neither of those things (as seen in 13 Reasons Why). Shows rarely depict the less savoury every-day impacts of mental illness—characters suffering from depression (such as Effy Stonem from Skins) are often depicted as pensive yet fragile, rather than individuals who struggle to eat, sleep and look after themselves properly. It is the voices of people we should be empathising with, who listen to our feelings and have real ones of their own.

Engaging with others, and, for some, documenting personal experiences in writing, helps to create a platform for discussing mental health issues. Blueprint, a newly-launched Cambridge student magazine purely focusing on mental health in students, is proving immensely popular.I am not foolish enough to imagine that everyone has had positive experiences talking about their mental health issues with other people. There are many who still take the ‘stiff upper lip attitude’ to the subject, which can prove more than a little discomforting. But, as mental health experiences continue to be voiced, and misconceptions are broken down, we can hope that these attitudes too will crumble away.

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Whilst this article may have been cathartic for me to write, I am under no illusion that opening up is easy—it can, and does, take time. Encouragement to speak out can be drawn from the notion that you are not alone. You are not the only student who has lain in bed in college and cried, lacking the energy to even open curtains. You are not the only student who has sat at their desk and deliberately mutilated their own body, or considered doing so. You are not the only student who has taken pills with the desire to escape your own feelings. You are not alone in your struggle.Talking about mental illness alone might-not necessarily cure it, but it can help.

Besides battling social stigma, conversation may help to raise awareness that there is an immense deficit of money and resources in mental health care. Indeed, whilst support can often be sought from friends, family, and people around you, in some cases more specialist help is needed and people need access to counsellors, psychiatrists, or other mental health specialists in order to get better.The self-stigma and feelings of shame that can conceal mental health struggles, and the fear of the consequences of treatment and diagnosis, are highly destructive. It does take time to open up fully: I have come on leaps and bounds, but still I write this article anonymously.Mental Health Awareness Week falls in third week and its theme this year is ‘Surviving Not Thriving’. Certainly, Oxford can feel like a matter of trying to survive a ruthless eight-week term, and one of the best things we can do, as suffers of mental health issues, and their friends, is talk about it. The more we do it, the easier it gets.

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