Now, there are over 200 classified forms of mental illness, so I won’t pretend I understand, or even know of, all of them. I’m not a qualified doctor, I’m not a medical student, in fact, I’m not even a Science student. I study International Relations and Media (they intermingle more than you’d think). So, all I can really do is share my personal experience, and offer some tips that may help young people who have found dealing with mental illnesses such as depression an ongoing battle.
I’ll start off with a little background. I have never been an overly expressive person. My emotions never really reached any extremes on either side of the scale. People have always struggled to read me, and perhaps that’s why nobody really recognized the emotional distress I was facing, and why I coped alone for such a long period of time.
In March 2013, ten days after my father’s 44th birthday, he suddenly passed away. I remember I was just finishing up at my part-time job and my Mum called me and said I had to urgently come home that night (which I remember I wasn’t too happy about because I had already bought my ticket for a student night out that evening). So I got the train home to my Mum’s house instead of going back to my university house with my friends, and the news was broken to me.
The next few days were a blur, I really don’t remember much apart from constantly breaking down into tears and sleeping in my Mum’s bed (don’t judge me). Things were especially hard as the cause of death was unknown, and we all knew my father suffered from depression so every worst-case scenario was running through our heads for a good six weeks.
Finally the coroners got back to us and it turns out the cause of death was bronchial pneumonia, and we were able to get some closure and start planning the funeral. The funeral came and went, and I was receiving a lot of comments like ‘You’re handling this so well’…. ‘Well done for being so strong for your brothers’…. ‘Your father would be so proud of your strength’. The truth was, I wasn’t handling it well at all. Not talking and not grieving after a funeral of a loved one does not equate to you being strong. Now, if I am going to be honest, I had a really strong support system. My Mum, her family and my brothers were amazing. But my Mum knew something wasn’t right: ‘I can arrange a councilor for you, I think it’d be good for you.’ ‘I don’t need a councilor, I’ll be fine’ I used to always tell her.
In the end I decided to move back to my university house, against the will of my family, but I was paying for it, as the lease wasn’t up yet, so I thought why not. I had explained the situation to my tutors at university and they gave me a few extensions on coursework. So I was living away from home, spending most of my time in the library, at work, or looking for the nearest party. Now I know a lot of people were probably quite shocked to see me carrying on as usual, but to me this was my way of coping. Some days I’d want to be around people and I’d spend all day with my friends, then gatecrash their bedrooms and force them to stay up all night with me watching scary movies or trash TV. Then other times I’d spend days locked in my room, ignoring my phone and the knocks on my bedroom door, not communicating with anyone. The truth was I didn’t want to burden my friends, I didn’t feel close enough to any lecturers to talk things through, and my family thought I was being ‘strong’, for the most part.
People, generally, did not see or recognize a change in my behavior, they didn’t see me Googling ‘The easiest way to commit suicide’. They weren’t there to see me breaking down into tears in the middle of ASDA for no apparent reason, or the times I’d spend days at a time in bed, barely moving or doing anything, then springing back into action a few days later, going to clubs, or heading to work, or getting embarrassingly drunk at house parties.
This went on for months. Even after all of this, in my head I was fine. I was coping okay. I was a student; it was fine to be anti-social at times. I’m a girl; it’s okay to get emotional regularly. This was normal behavior, right?
Wrong!! I want students, in fact everyone, to know that you deserve to be happy (as clichéd as it sounds). You deserve to share your story and be heard, no matter how big or small, you deserve to live your life to its full potential. Everyone goes through highs and lows, that’s just life. But when your low points last for weeks or months at a time, and you don’t find pleasure or interest in doing the things you used to, or you sleep too much/not enough, or you have a “death wish,” and find yourself tempting fate by taking risks that could lead to death, such as stepping out in front of cars randomly or driving through red lights, or you have an overwhelming sense of worthlessness, these are all signs of clinical depression.
Two years later, I’ve realized what I was/am coping with. The most important thing is to TALK….talk, talk, talk, to anyone who cares and will listen. Tell people about your trauma, grief, financial troubles, family history, university stress, bereavement etc. A lot of the time you can’t pinpoint one cause for the development of mental illnesses such as depression, but whatever it might be, don’t be embarrassed to share, whether that be with a friend, family member, GP, teacher or councilor. Don’t bottle things up (I know everyone says this) because the effects can be extremely damaging, and sometimes not even recognizable until years later.
Try and get into a routine. I know personally, when I was at my lowest points the thought of getting into a routine seemed unbelievably overwhelming and impossible. As students, we’re not exactly known for sticking to strict regimes. But depression, or any mental illness, can take away all structure from your life. You may find one day just melts into the next. Setting a gentle daily schedule can help get you back on track.
Buy a whiteboard to stick up in your room and set yourself goals. You can set daily as well as long-term goals. Anything from ‘tidy my room’ or ‘edit my CV’ to ‘Aim to get a 2:1 in at least 4 assignments/exams.’ Every tick on the whiteboard once you’ve completed your goal will give you an instant confidence boost.
Alcohol doesn’t help! Please remember that. I know as students we can find it difficult to turn down a drink, but when you’re feeling low already, don’t get into the cycle of thinking that drink helps. It may do for a few hours, but 9 times out of 10 you’ll feel 100 times worse afterwards.
Find the right GP. There is no shame or embarrassment in asking for help. Let’s not forget Depression occurs through chemical imbalance. Find a doctor you feel comfortable with, they will be able to explain thoroughly your many options and offer you the best advice.
Most universities have a university doctor on site, some even offer free of charge counselling services. Find out what your university can do for you. The amount of students seeking help for depression within higher education has more than doubled in the last few years. So remember, you’re never as alone as you think.