Things people say to students affected by mental health that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations:
“Yes, I understand that your face is on fire, but do you have a letter from your doctor to prove it?”
“I wish I had cancer so that I could get an extension on my essay”
“Are you sure you’ve got meningitis? Because these days there’s a culture where everyone thinks they do”
“Your neck may be broken but I’m sure you could just make a bit more of an effort to get out of bed”
“Okay. Yes. I get it. Your parachute has failed. Don’t forget you have seminars next week that I expect to see you at”
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig recently became the only thing that kept me from having a panic attack on public transport. London underground is a bad one in particular; the entrapment of privileged people in Moss Bros suits and polished shoes, the masses of shopping bags suddenly pressed against you when you go through Oxford Circus, the general feeling that there simply can’t be enough air to keep all of these people alive. And yet, they’re all there, breathing fine, looking (mostly) perfectly calm, if a little (…very) grumpy. And you’re the only one feeling like your throat’s about to close and the tips of your fingers are on fire. Or so you think.
Matt Haig made me realise it wasn’t just me. He kept me calm, he gave me hope. He helped me suppress the nauseating tickle of fear up your neck and realise that anxiety doesn’t mean you can’t live your normal life. That’s part of the reason I’m so completely and utterly frustrated by the stigma faced by students affected by mental health at university. The notion that it is perfectly normal not to eat or sleep to complete deadlines ridiculously placed within a few days of each other is just a small part of the lack of care for students’ mental health at university. This comes alongside a first year experience where nightclub advertising is thrust at you from every angle, you’re suddenly miles away from home in an intense prison-block flat with a hoard of people you don’t know, and you absolutely have to join every society and sports club possible to consider yourself as having “a great uni experience”. To be frank, there are many ways in which university is absolutely terrible for your mental health.
This is not to say that there aren’t people and services out there to help. I know many people that have had fantastic experiences. I’ve recently become president of an amazing society that works to reduce the stigma faced by students at university. I’ve met amazing people who don’t look at me like I just walked off a spaceship from Mars when I tell them I felt like my spine had turned to jelly and my head was about to fall off during a recent panic attack. My current counsellor cheers me up weekly with philosophical, political, existentialism and ‘what even is the point?’ discussions. I also recently spoke with a seminar tutor who actually asked me how he could help and proceeded to moan with me about how deficient the treatment for mental health is. My family are amazing, my boyfriend buys me the books that my counsellor recommends (Reasons to Stay Alive) and I know many inspiring people I know I can really talk to.
However, it remains the case that all of those things said to students affected by mental health at the beginning of this blog are my own experiences. I was never asked for any proof when I needed an extension because I’d sprained my wrist, and yet extensive evidence was needed when I was dizzy with panic attacks. I genuinely got told by a counsellor at a first appointment that there had been a shift in today’s culture and everyone should just realise that they’re actually fine! The blunt emails informing me of my absences at seminars during periods of intense anxiety were of little comfort at an already hard time. Friends occasionally do find it hard to understand why I’m not more cheery and fun and… well… out of bed before midday. And it is a frequent occurrence to hear course mates complain about wanting an extension, when I desperately want to feel well enough to get that essay in on time.
It is for all of these reasons, and many more, that it is crucial that we continue to talk about mental health and fight for an end to the stigma that prevents it from being treated with an equal priority to physical health. That we continue to add to the reasons to stay a student, when staying at university can often feel so impossible. The panic attacks I face daily at the moment are often in toilets, in my bedroom or by myself somewhere. To many I continue to appear my usual politics-obsessed self, singing along to Taylor Swift and maintaining a well blow-dried fringe every morning. The invisibility of mental ill-health often leads to the perception that people are simply lazy, selfish or weak for struggling. Matt Haig, and I in my altered version, chose to compare mental health to life-threatening situations because it absolutely is a life-threatening situation. Suicide is the second most common cause of death in young adults. The stigma of mental health absolutely needs to be combatted.
Be a part of that fight – campaign for better services, email your MP, protest, share, question things. But most of all, talk to people. It’s the people that send you a message because you looked a little stressed in the corner of that big event, those that call you to check whether you made it to the lecture and if you need the notes, that person you barely knew before that opens up to you that they get it too – it’s those people that get you through. Be the person that gets someone through. In the same way you might visit a friend bed-ridden with the flu, you can absolutely do the same for a friend living with mental illness. You have no idea how much it might mean to them.
“Your mind is a galaxy. More dark than light. But the light makes it worthwhile. Which is to say, don’t kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars.”
- Matt Haig, ‘The Humans’
“You will one day experience joy that matches this pain. You will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys, you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap, you will make great friends, you will eat delicious foods you haven’t tried yet, you will be able to look at a view from a high place and not assess the likelihood of dying from falling. There are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversations and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.”
- Matt Haig, ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’