I, like most people, have begun to regard adverts on YouTube with little more than disdain, a tedious necessity that must be endured as a penalty for watching any half-decent free show. However, lately, an advertising campaign featured on the website has caught my eye. Time for Change, an organisation designed to tackle the issue of mental health discrimination has launched a new set of TV and radio adverts which are aimed at raising awareness of problems that the term ‘mental health’ can evoke in modern society. Still, this does raise the question as to why it has taken so long for mental health problems to acquire mainstream media focus.
Contrary to popular belief, mental health problems are in fact more common in students than in the general population. Indeed, the Association for University and College Counselling (AUCC), which represents 530 counsellors and 120 higher education institutions, says 3-10% of the student population will have contact with their counsellors in a single year.
Inevitably though, there will be some who slip under the radar, those who progress through the higher education system without receiving any help with mental health difficulties. Indeed, I was almost one of them. In 2008, after long periods of almost continual low mood, I was diagnosed as suffering from depression. This marked the start of a journey that would see me brush with self-harm and eventually leave me contemplating suicide.
In my case, the fact that I was male made it difficult for me to open up about my problems. I was worried that I would be perceived as weak or vulnerable. Men are supposed to be able to cope and feeling like I couldn’t made me feel very inferior. Gradually though, the strain of dealing with the illness alone began to take a firm hold of me. It was as though every piece of feedback I received regarding anything I did would first pass through a filter, allowing me to interpret the information only in a way that was harmful. Despite my increasing desperation, I told nobody about my problems. Seemingly every aspect of my life was being affected and by December, I’d had enough and was ready to quit university. It was around this time, that I began to self-harm.
In the UK self-harm rates are among the highest in Europe and depression is the most common psychiatric disorder in those who report deliberate self-harm. The difficulties I had in telling people about my problems were still essentially based on the contradiction they made to the typical male stereotype. However, the worse my situation got, the greater the risk I was running by not telling anybody.
The watershed came in January 2009. After a series of panic attacks, the self-harming spiralled out of control to the point where I was seriously contemplating suicide. One night after being found bandaging my newly inflicted wounds, I realised I could no longer go on living like this and decided to seek professional help.
I first saw Rob Sharpe, at the time the university’s only male counsellor, in February. Initially, he encouraged me to talk about my problems. Sessions lasted an hour and for the first three, I talked almost non-stop. By being allowed to speak freely and openly without being judged, I was able to identify patterns of thinking that regularly purveyed the cycle of pessimism that had been so hard to break on my own. The benefits were such, that I became able to rationalise my addiction to self-harming. I began to recognise that the external wounds were a mechanism to try and attract attention to the suffering I was experiencing, since, because it was essentially emotional, no one could see it.
Despite continual progress throughout my weekly sessions, I was in no state to sit examinations. I applied for a resit of the year and thankfully received it. Having spent much of my time at the Doctor’s surgery, or in counselling on Uni Park, I decided to go back into halls. That was probably one of the best decisions I made. I had a totally fresh start. Among new friends I began to push myself to get the most out of a University career again. I volunteered to help the Women’s football club, joined URN as a Sports Presenter and became the Sport Secretary of Nightingale Hall. Suddenly, I’d met lots of new people, and had plenty of places to be. I was finally able to have the University life that I had wanted.
Overall, my time at University was something of an emotional roller-coaster ride. I think that ultimately it can be for everyone. It’s part of growing up. The fact is that mental health shouldn’t be a slogan to be afraid of, or something to avoid talking about. The only person I ever harmed throughout the entire time was myself. I never wanted to be defined by having depression; indeed, if you’d brought it up with me I would probably have been at least as embarrassed as you were. However, the fact that someone noticed and appeared to care would still have been important, at a time when I could find no value in myself.
Though there are provisions in place at our university to aid those who are suffering, responsibility should also be divisible between the individual and the wider community. I never sought out help until I was at breaking point, by which time I’d even undergone a hospital analysis to see whether I should be sectioned. Self-harm and feelings of desperation would have all been avoidable, if I’d had the courage to go against convention and admit I was in trouble. But I couldn’t get over the embarrassment.
Was it entirely my fault? I don’t think so. Depression is an illness, not a lifestyle choice. I was a university footballer, something I had aspired to be before I arrived in Nottingham. There is a conception that those who appear to have “nothing to be depressed about” cannot be depressed and to be so is simply self-indulgent. But depression can hit anyone, regardless of how desirable their life appears to be.
With graduation from University come new beginnings. I now have the life I desired. I was able to make the best of my situation and get a 2:1 in Psychology. I live on the Malaysian Campus working as a Sports Development Officer, which is a dream come true. Late last year, I was contacted to be told that I had won a prize for services to the Student Union and that they wanted to make a graduate profile on me, based on my new job. Considering where I’ve been, it still bewilders me that things could turn out this well.
Mental health is not something to be afraid of. If you’re suffering, tell someone. There is help out there but no matter how hard it may seem, you have to be willing to help yourself. If you think someone is suffering, tell them you are worried about them, and refer them to a counsellor. Don’t be afraid of what they will say and don’t be embarrassed. You might just save a life.