“It was a feeling of total inertia. I just didn’t want to do anything, not even get out of bed”. “Everything I used to enjoy seemed pointless”. “I felt very alone.”
Depression is a serious medical condition. It is not something that you can remedy by ‘pulling your socks up’ or simply ‘getting on with it’. The causes are complicated and still not fully understood. In some people it is caused by an under-active thyroid gland which can make you put on weight and feel sluggish and lethargic; other people may experience it as a response to certain foods; and still others become depressed as a symptom of illness. Often though, it has no apparent physical cause. Some experts describe it as a form of ‘unfinished mourning’ following a major life change or a major shock. And while it is unclear as to whether there is a genetic basis for depression, it seems that some people are more susceptible to it than others.
As far as Oxford goes, the environment that students are in is one which can be conducive to depression. It is a very intense place. Many of us find when we get here that, although we were easily among the most able and talented at school, at university we are suddenly just part of the crowd. There are other changes too. The workload can at times seem not only daunting but physically impossible and as a fresher you might be separated from your family and friends for the first time. Suddenly your old routines and your old support networks are gone. Even if you’ve been here two or three years already, it can still be difficult to cope at times. It is easy to feel that you are not as successful, as popular, or simply as happy as many of your peers.
It is important therefore to keep things in perspective: to remember that most people here are not superstars. They are just like you, and just like you they have low points and times when they feel that they aren’t getting the most out of university. However, a ‘low point’ is reasonably common amongst most people. Think of it as the mental health equivalent of the common cold. It is no fun, but it will pass after a while. The clinical term ‘depression’ on the other hand, refers to something more serious.
The main symptoms of depression include: having negative thoughts, feeling extremely anxious, not enjoying things that you usually enjoy, wanting to distance yourself from others, feeling restless and agitated, having difficulty sleeping, feeling helpless, feeling aches and pains with no physical cause, and feeling tired. There are other symptoms, and people with depression may experience a different number of symptoms, in different combinations. The way people experience depression is very varied. For some, it can even be a strangely productive period. One student told me “I sometimes relish those days when I feel depressed. I can wallow in pure selfishness. I don’t care about anyone or anything else. I do a lot of thinking then.” For others however, depression is extremely dangerous and can lead to self harm and even suicidal thoughts.
In Oxford there are reasonably good welfare services. OUSU provides counselling services run by trained professional counsellors where most students can get an appointment within a week, there is the student run ‘nightline’ open from 8pm to 8am and each college runs its own welfare system, often with student peer supporters and professional members of staff. However, the symptoms of depression can mean that it is difficult for people to get help, and students can fall through the welfare net. A depressed person often lacks the motivation to actively do something about the way they are feeling and may also be less inclined to talk to others than usual. So it is important that friends and neighbours keep an eye out for each other.
The good thing is that depression is treatable. Exercise, for example, is particularly good because it stimulates the endorphins in your brain and also eating a healthy diet, especially one containing oily fish, can help a lot too. But it is not an easy battle. Depression is something which feeds off itself and fighting the negative attitudes that it creates is tough. Oxford does not always provide the best atmosphere in which to deal with this, but the support is there if you need it. The important thing to remember is that you are not alone.