Despite growing awareness about mental health, as a topic it generally remains taboo. Verbalisation of destructive thoughts is avoided; it interferes with the facade of a society in which the modern lifestyle surely equates to contentment. It is viewed as weakness, or melodrama. Mental illness is surely absurd in a well-off society with people starving on the other side of the planet. And yet, with a quarter of British people experiencing mental health problems each year, such attitudes are not only incorrect, they are toxic in their subsequent shaming and censorship.
I have had my share of mental health problems. Depression, anxiety and anorexia nervosa left me reeling at the end of A-Levels, unable to complete the first year of a degree at Queen Mary UL, and struggling with ongoing physical and psychological symptoms. I am still not comfortable with discussing these issues openly. Nonetheless I reached out to my family, and then to doctors and therapists. Not everyone is so lucky in their support networks.
The fact of the matter is that you cannot piece your mind back together until you accept that it is your responsibility, and entirely within your ability, to do so. This is not the same as self-blame, which is dangerous and counter-productive in perpetuating the conditions a mental illness thrives in. Accepting responsibility is acknowledging that there are aspects of yourself which only you can change. It is tempting to view mental illness as being innate to your character, inescapable and unchangeable. However it is a physical illness just as an infection is, and can be managed on several levels such as medication, meditation, and cognitive behavioural therapy to name a few.
One essential aspect of recovery is the ability to reach out, to voice your problems. This is not easy when mental illness is taboo, nor when a disorder itself thrives in secrecy. It took several years of therapy and familial support to allow me to stop feeling like I was a victim of my own unchangeable characteristics, that I was innately broken and warped. Initially I felt as though it was the job of my therapist to fix me, but eventually realised that I can direct my own thoughts. I can decide whether a situation is going to be a positive experience, and that is something every individual can learn by opening up to external help. Therapy is an education, working similarly to seminars in that there must be input from both the teacher and pupil if substantial progress is to be made.
Each mental illness sufferer follows their own journey of recovery. I relied solely on therapy for three years, afraid to turn to medication because of the potential side effects. Eventually the help of friends talking openly about their own experiences, combined with worsened anxiety symptoms, led me to try medication. It was in fact one of the best decisions I have made; another string to my bow rather than the life-altering hindrance I feared.
I should stress again that I have been extremely lucky. UEA provides excellent support systems, and in particular I have benefited from weekly sessions with an amazing mentor through the Dean of Students office. I still have moments when I resent needing help in maintaining my mental health, but nobody benefits from the role of fundamentally broken lone wolf. It might look glamorous on-screen to be a fucked-up artist or off-the-rails anorexic, but the reality is lonely, ugly, and saturated with despair.
Students are extremely vulnerable, living without their families probably for the first time. First year can be extremely fun, but also extremely lonely. There is pressure to put on a brave face, to prove it’s all good, youíre having the best time and can keep up with everyone else. It’s okay to be exhausted, lonely and homesick. If things become hard to bear, there are resources such as Nightline, the medical centre and the DOS. There’s nothing to gain by going it alone. In fact – and trust me on this one – reaching out could make the difference between getting through your degree or not. There’s all that and more to lose in suffering silently.