As a society, we like to think that we are progressive in relation to our attitude towards mental health and the stigma that so often surrounds it.
We have mental health awareness months and weeks; we have days dedicated to specific mental health conditions (although you may only be aware of those if you have a personal stake in the condition in question). This year alone the government pledged £500 million to fund a mental health recovery plan. So why is it still so difficult to talk about our mental health honestly?
I have completed two degrees in the mental health field and during the course of my second degree, I really struggled. All of the issues that I had suppressed over the years rose to the surface, along with other issues which only became apparent as a result of the subject matter that I was studying. Regularly talking to likeminded individuals, all with a decent base of knowledge surrounding mental health issues, I couldn’t really understand why I couldn’t broach the subject with anyone.
Instead of talking about what I was feeling, my default was to bury, or rebury my feelings. I would look at my classmates each week and try to work out who else could be feeling like I was. The inherent problem with mental health issues, however, is that you can never tell just by looking at someone if they are struggling. I felt incredibly isolated and like I had to just keep trundling along, feeling worse week on week, and losing all interest in what I was studying and aiming for.
The day I finally submitted my dissertation was the day I truly realised the effect that relentlessly pushing on with studying had had on me. Once the weight of studying had been lifted, I felt like I could function better again. I still had my issues that need dealing with, but I could recognise the state that I had let my house get into, I could finally muster the energy to clean and organise my house.
My mind felt clearer as if by magic and, with my newly acquired knowledge knew that I had been incredibly overwhelmed throughout my degree. My brain had shut down all the unnecessary tabs so to speak and was functioning on the bare minimum capacity for almost an entire year.
Since finishing my course, I have felt incredibly relieved to be done with the academic environment. While I am in between finishing and receiving my results, I have the attitude that I don’t care if I did well enough to pass. The thought of having to do the year over again is nauseating and I can feel myself desperately clinging onto my newfound mental capacity. When I am not stressing myself out with the idea of resits and do-overs, I am left with an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.
As adults attending accredited and esteemed universities, surrounding ourselves with intelligent, progressive individuals, it seems absurd to me that in such an environment it still feels impossible to raise any concerns about our mental health. It is an added sting when you are studying a mental health course and the subject continues to feel off limits. This is something that has to change.
University, and schooling in general, is not just a vessel to increase students’ knowledge. It is a place of personal growth, finding out who you are and what your priorities are in life. Schools, whether they are secondary schools, colleges, or universities, should be safe spaces for students to raise any concerns they have, particularly regarding their health.
I feel that I would have had a much better time during my degree had I felt able to raise the concerns I had with my mental health to the institution I was studying with, and I think it is indicative of a wider problem.
For all of the awareness campaigns on social media and on television, particularly during mental health awareness month, there is seemingly very little space for mental health struggles within the real world, whether that be in schools or the workplace. In Britain in particular, the attitude of keeping calm and carrying on prevails, however subconsciously it may be.
If we are to see any real, concrete change in the attitudes towards mental health, and the instances of people being open and honest when they are struggling we need to start young. When thinking about funding mental health services, I think it is important to ensure that there are facilities, services, classes in schools at a compulsory education stage which centre on mental health.
If we can teach our children about the importance of looking after their mental health and get it on a par with looking after our physical health, we normalise the subject for an entire generation and generations to come. When the topic of mental health is normalised, the stigma evaporates.
When the stigma evaporates, talking about stress, depression, anxiety, OCD, BPD, all become as easy as talking about having a cold, or being tired, or breaking your arm. If the stigma evaporates, huge swathes of the population are allowed to feel a freedom that they haven’t felt for the longest time.
Freedom from the stigma and judgement that comes from disclosing your mental health struggles. Freedom from the responsibility of hiding or masking your mental health struggles so as to appear ‘normal’ or fit into social situations without making others feel uncomfortable. Freedom from the added stress of working hard, every day, to regulate your emotions, your facial expressions, your compulsions.
At the end of the day, surely we all want to build a society in which everyone can feel accepted and loved. Mental health issues do not discriminate and anyone of us could be affected at any time. The sooner we take steps to normalise the subject of mental health within academic and professional settings, the better.