I’ve read so many articles in the past few years about reducing stigmas surrounding mental health. It’s great that so many people feel they want to write about their thoughts or experiences, and even better share them, but the reasoning behind their compulsion is bleaker. Rates of suicide rose by 10.9% in the UK in 2018, and in Scotland specifically, the rate amongst young people increased by 52.7% the same year. I’ve sat down to express some of my own thoughts on the matter, because I no longer feel shock when I hear of another young person taking their life due to mental health issues.
The shock is now replaced by frustration. Frustration that they felt they had no other choice, frustration that our government hasn’t implemented any sufficient measures to tackle the issue, and frustration at what it seems like has been futile attempts to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
I’ve never been diagnosed with a specific mental health issue, and so maybe my ability to talk about it might seem limited to those who have. However, I, like many of you reading this, still have suffered from bouts of crippling anxiety, or overwhelming sadness in my life. Sometimes these bouts are completely unprovoked, and sometimes they’re caused by something that has happened recently. Sometimes they last one night, and other times they have lasted a few months. What has got me through those bouts lately has been the incredible support from my friends. We have amongst ourselves created a culture in which sharing the way we feel about ourselves, others and situations is both incredibly natural and therapeutic. I feel so fortunate to have that system of support in my life, but it saddens me greatly to think that my situation might be unique. Unique because so many men in my life still think that feeling or expressing sadness or anxiety is emasculating. Unique because admitting to needing help is still terrifying to so many. Unique because despite claiming that we want to reduce stigmas around mental health, so many of us still don’t feel empowered to do so.
During the year of my A levels, I began to experience anxiety for the first time. The pressure surrounding university applications, the first glimpse of rejection that came with that and the fear of leaving home for the first time all contributed to the feeling that something, anything could imminently go wrong in my life. Whilst I knew the feelings were reasonable given the circumstance, my anxious mind didn’t allow me to rationalise that. I proceeded to visit my GP to explain the symptoms I had. I told her of the concerns I’d been having and of the physical effects that came with it. I wasn’t sleeping well, my heartrate always felt a little too fast, and I often felt like crying for no apparent reason. She referred me to a counselling service but told me that the waiting list would be long, she also prescribed me a dose of propranolol, a beta blocker that attempts to reduce the physical effects of anxiety. She failed to tell me that the medicine would make me drowsy, tired and weak. I decided they weren’t for me. A few months went on, and I eventually went for an assessment appointment with a counsellor, I also decided I didn’t think counselling was for me. By refusing help, I allowed my anxiety to grow. The effects were not just emotional, but also physical.
My anxiety had begun to permeate my entire life, from my relationships, to my schoolwork. It was only when I felt my anxiety had become debilitating, that I thought I should take up counselling properly.
Initially, I went to my appointments, cried for an hour and left. But as time went on, less tears were shed, and the physical and emotional burden of my anxiety started to dissipate. I was never told I had anxiety, I was never diagnosed as such, but talking to a counsellor about the symptoms I displayed, it was clear that I did. I look back now on that time in my life and think that if I had felt at the time that it was normal to feel the way I did, I wouldn’t have suffered as greatly. I stopped attending counselling when starting university, at Bristol. A few months later, I made the choice to leave. This wasn’t however a product of anxiety, or sadness, but a feeling that after going to counselling for half a year, I knew what I wanted and what I needed in my life. Counselling gave me a sense of perspective on who I was, and who I wanted to become throughout my time at university, and Bristol unfortunately didn’t give me the tools to be that person. I don’t think I would’ve had the courage to make that decision if not for the hours I had spent exploring why I felt the way I did a few months earlier.
I’m writing this article as a second-year university student at Edinburgh, and I know now that the decision to leave was the best I could’ve made. Despite having ups and down at Edinburgh that I’m so certain everyone choosing to read this can relate to, the life I lead now is one that I am prouder of. I now have the tools to be able to look after myself better. I still feel anxious at times, I still feel overwhelmingly sad at times, but the culture that I’ve created amongst my friends has given me an unparalleled source of comfort whenever I am feeling low or anxious. Simply acknowledging that the feelings I experience are normal and reasonable has allowed me to discuss these sorts of issues openly without feeling as though I am being judged. I noticed recently after attending an Open Mic night in aid of Mind, a mental health charity that attempts to support those experiencing mental health issues, that its success was so profound because of the amount of people that either had been directly affected by mental health issues, or know someone in their life who has. It was heart-warming to see how many people came together to support such a good cause. It is these people who should feel obliged to up open the dialogue about mental health.
Reducing a stigma isn’t simple, we’re talking about changing the fundamental way society works. However, as students, we’re incredibly powerful and implementing change is something we pride ourselves on being able to do. Reducing stigmas must be an active process, we need to change the way we talk about mental health. Something I have noticed recently amongst people who I have discussed mental health issues with, is that as soon I am open and honest about my experience, they almost instantly feel they have the courage to do the same. Reducing the stigma boils down to empowering others to feel they can open up about their concerns without judgment. I’m not suggesting this is an easy endeavour, but one that would be incredibly worthwhile. Let’s talk about mental health.
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