I really didn’t expect to come to Oxford. For a long time, I didn’t expect to go to university at all. I didn’t really expect to get through my A-levels; quite honestly, getting through one day to the next felt like enough of a challenge.
But to the outside world, I was doing fine. My schoolwork was okay — actually, quite good — I had some great friends, a wonderful family, and I was always busy. And yet I was increasingly feeling like I was drowning. I was high-functioning, but depressed.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression a couple of months before my AS levels. I remember crying so much that day, partly out of fear that I was going mad, and partly out of sheer relief that I wasn’t. Does that make sense? If you’ve experienced similar, it just might.
I won’t go into too much detail, but what I will say is this: depression drove me to some horrible places. I remember feeling so scared of failure that I sometimes avoided it altogether by just not getting out of bed. Oddly, sometimes I felt okay. Sometimes, I felt everything. Sometimes, I felt nothing at all. I remember feeling numb, completely devoid of emotion. That lack of emotion was — for me — the scariest thing.
With the support of my family and friends, I began to feel better. It took a long time, and not a few roadblocks, but I got there. I got to a stage where I could start to think about the future again.
I thought my AS exams had gone terribly. One of the worst parts of depression, I found, was having serious impairments to concentration and memory. But when, to my surprise, my marks were okay, I applied to universities, including Oxford. I was terrified of being interviewed, and nearly didn’t go. I had to stay in a Holiday Inn with my mum the night before, because I was too nervous to stay in the college where I was interviewed.
But then I got into Oxford, and lived happily ever after.
So, why am I talking about this now?
Because that, friends, is not the end of the story.
First year was great, really brilliant. But second year was a bit different. I’d put on weight and my confidence had taken a hit. This reached a head in Hilary term. And, despite being JCR President, I had no idea where to turn to get the help I needed. When I did reach out for help, I didn’t get what I needed. I think a large part of this was due to the fact that I was really good at hiding how I felt — I was still on top of my presidency, really enjoying it a lot of the time, and getting many wins for students — but when I was on my own, I wasn’t doing so well. I was given a counselling service appointment in 3rd week, and then was offered a further one in 9th week. Not ideal, really.
Cutting a long story short, I worked a lot of stuff out over Trinity term and the summer, and I’m now doing great. It wasn’t until I went to a Mind Your Head meeting at the beginning of this term that I decided I’d start talking about my experiences with mental illness. And since I have, it’s been really eye-opening. Everyone can relate. As soon as I started talking, people told me their stories, or the experiences of those close to them. I realised just how many people here are used to wearing that mask: the “I’m not really okay but I’m getting by anyway” disguise. This place really can make and break us at the same time.
There are two things we must do, now, as a student body:
We must get rid of the stigma around mental illness. That’s why I’m writing this. It’s not something I’m doing lightly, either, or without a lot of consideration. I’m hoping that if people see an OUSU presidential candidate speaking up about their experiences of mental illness, it’ll emphasise that doing so is not an admission of weakness. It’s an admission of being human. The wonderful OUSU campaign, Mind Your Head, has started this conversation — let’s take it up a notch.
We must create the welfare support system that we need. I’ve heard a lot of discontent with the support systems in place here. Let’s review what’s working, and what’s not. Let’s make it clear what services we have available to students on college and university levels. Let’s investigate other models of welfare provision, and see how feasible they’d be at Oxford. Let’s collate a really strong evidence base from which to make concrete proposals to improve pastoral care at Oxford.
Creating a welfare system stronger for the long-term is one of the main things I’d want to focus on as OUSU president, as this would allow the Vice President for Welfare and Equal Opportunities to work on contemporary issues.
My other pledges are all geared towards making sure students are supported in key areas. I want to give better support to common rooms in pushing for the best rent deals for their students. I want to found an Oxford University Festival to celebrate in our communal strengths, and I want to open up the conversation about ‘lad culture’ with inclusive forums and discussion groups.
Running to be president of OUSU is not a particularly glamorous thing. Yesterday, in a college hustings, I found a receipt on which someone had written “FUCK OUSU”. I wouldn’t be doing this unless I wanted to see real improvements in the university, or unless I believed I was the best candidate for the job. I’m doing this because I want to see a happier, healthier, and more cohesive Oxford.
So let’s make a student union which works for us.