It’s ok to not be ok.
It has been estimated that during any one year, 23% of adults experience a mental health disorder, and students are no exception. In fact, statistics suggest that the problem is even more severe within a University setting. All the more concerning is the finding that 26% of students who claim they are experiencing mental health problems, do not get treatment. The overwhelmingly obvious conclusion reached is that something needs to be done.
As a psychology student, I have listened to many a lecture dedicated to explaining the topical mental health issues within modern society. Despite the course, which focuses on this area, being entitled ‘abnormal psychology’, week after week, across a variety of different disorders, the same message is hammered home – that these problems are not uncommon and are more ‘normal’ than is typically thought. This message is often coupled with a more familiar one – a point concerning the significant ‘stigma’ that continues to surround mental health. I am sure you have all already read articles and listened to talks, in which the drive to demolish this stigma is presented and accepted by audiences with eagerness. Yet, more often that not, this drive is inconsistently applied – we are regularly quick to adopt an attitude of sympathy to any individual who is experiencing mental health issues, unless that individual is ourself. We do not think twice about caring for a friend if she wants to have a chat about how she is feeling, but punish ourselves for being so needy when we are in her shoes. As much as we deny it, these shoes remain the kind of footwear we would never admit to wearing – the scruffy pair of converse we throw on when having an ‘off day’. And as a result, there is no chance that we will be able to replace the unwanted converse for a shiny new pair because we refuse to admit that those converse, and in turn, that particular mental health issue, even existed in the first place.
Most of us are quick to provide advice, but often we are hesitant to disclose our own experience, fearful that others will judge us while simultaneously providing a completely non-judgmental environment for that other person in need. And I think that is, in part, where the problem lies: we are all kinder and more accepting that we give ourselves credit for. The fear to disclose, to share mental health experience has little grounds on which to exist. This is particularly important to note given the potentially extensive utility of disclosure. It’s no news that, when struggling with something, to hear that others have been through the same thing (and made it out the other end) is one of the most comforting gifts anyone can give as a friend. And, to use a particularly familiar yet often overlooked analogy, mental health is just like physical health – it is but a different aspect of our wellbeing. Yet this difference creates a stigma, one that we cannot even dream of circulating in relation to physical health. It is inconceivable that we would gossip about someone, after they have been diagnosed with leukemia, saying that that person ought to ‘pull themselves together’. We cannot possibly imagine ostracising a friend or colleague simply because they have had a stroke. Discrimination on the basis of physical health is not tolerated in our society, yet mental illness is often a trigger for prejudice against the sufferer. Equally, it is hard to imagine being diagnosed with a life threatening condition, such as cancer, and not telling many of your close friends or colleagues. What we are able to imagine is being diagnosed with any kind of mental illness and keeping this to ourselves. What is frustrating is that mental health, just like physical health, is often beyond human control – it is not something we can be blamed for.
It is true, however, that a lack of self-disclosure is characteristic of many mental health disorders: a fact, which renders the analogy made with physical health useless. Nevertheless, it seems that society is exacerbating this issue by stigmatising mental health issues. Not only this, but the ever-growing presence of social media is making self-disclosure a rather unnatural act. We are constantly surrounded by self-disclosures of success: Instagram photos, Facebook statuses and tweets. We are also likely to share important aspects of our lives with thousands of ‘friends’ but, at the same time, feel unable to inform those few most close to us, about mental health issues, which are undoubtedly equally important. While these new forms of communication do have an overwhelmingly positive impact upon us, their extensive reach means that measures need to be put in place for when the grasp becomes too tight. The inability to escape that reach, to forget about how many likes our recent Instagram photo has or how infrequently our wall is posted on, understandably worsens and to some degree, lays the foundation upon which poor mental health is built.
It seems logical, therefore, to teach and prepare children and young adults to avoid mental illness. Something that is so integral to wellbeing throughout our lifetime should surely be given sufficient coverage in the education system. We would not expect a thirteen year old to have learnt that physical exercise is necessary to stay healthy if they have not received this message several times throughout their young life as part of the school curriculum. Yet, we do expect a thirteen year old to know how to stay ‘happy’ as they grow up after being given little, if any, guidance about mental health throughout their school career. Children are expected to battle through the wars of exams, leaving home and finding their identity, without being given the necessary armor required to do so. So often, it is during these wars, that the battle against mental illness begins: with insufficient defenses, the fact that this battle can continue for many years in total stalemate is completely predictable.
With all this in mind, it is not surprising that students make up such a large proportion of those suffering from mental health issues. Yet despite this, University, you are told by so many, is guaranteed to be “the best years of your life”: a time in which you find yourself, free from the constraints of the ‘outside world’. But when time is taken to truly consider the pressures of University living, the picture painted is much different to what is often anticipated by freshers. New students are no longer surrounded by their family – support that they have relied on day to day for eighteen years is suddenly gone. This is not to say that new relationships will not blossom at university, but even so, the safety blanket of family and a totally non-judgmental source of support are suddenly removed. In its place – a new community, one in which the significant pressure to fit in is undeniable. On top of this concern for forming close friendships, is the burden of justifying your existence at University – getting the grades. Stress is often increased by the independent learning structure that freshers are likely to be unfamiliar with: a lack of reassurance from teachers and novel concepts make first year particularly challenging. But, obviously, to admit such worries is considered to be somewhat unacceptable – those that surround you are deemed to be coping well and you will not allow yourself to be the exception. The problem is clearly circular – no one is willing to confess, so inevitably, problems are never shared. This willingness is decreased even further, by the photos you scroll through online, in which your friends from back home also seem to be coping just fine.
But the situation we are faced with is not entirely gloomy. More and more recognition is being given to the issues surrounding mental health. I was extremely reassured to recently hear Kate Middleton express her views about such issues: “A child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health and deserves the same quality of support. No one would feel embarrassed about seeking help for a child if they broke their arm — and we really should be equally ready to support a child coping with emotional difficulties.” It could not be said better but I believe that this message needs to be continually propagated throughout a student community as well. And the starting point for such propagation surely is the recognition within yourself that a healthy mind and a healthy body are of the same importance and that to not be ok, is ok.