Uni life at Cambridge made me nearly kill myself, calling dad stopped me
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under thirty in the UK
In March 2014, Jonathan was a Mathematics student at Trinity College, Cambridge, going into his last term there. He hoped to graduate onto a Masters course in Systems Biology. He rowed, he went out and got drunk, he studied. He was an entirely normal student.
Less than two months later he nearly took his own life.
Suicide is the single biggest killer of young men under thirty. It’s not a nice subject, nor a conversation that we can avoid. It is a conversation we have to have, despite its difficulty. Jonathan is speaking out about his own experiences in the hope that by raising awareness and by breaking the taboo around suicide and male mental health, we can help more young men stay alive.
Jonathan started at Cambridge in 2011, having never picked up on any mental health issues previously. He says:
“As far as mental health goes, it was never really a major issue in my life before university. In retrospect, it’s now obvious that there was underlying depression etc around, but it was never spotted or in the way of anything. All the way through it, it was never prohibitive to anything.
“In my third year, 2013/14, I’d been rowing for a long time and was something that I intended to do at university level, so I’d had trials for lightweight boat club. I was doing that, and it was obviously quite intense. It was a big commitment, so between that and work, I didn’t have much free time. But it was working – work reports were saying ‘he’s on a similar grade as before, he’ll be fine to get onto fourth year [his masters course]’.
“During that period, it became a bit more obvious to me that something wasn’t quite right with my mental state. There were periods when I was really struggling. But I didn’t really realise what it quite was.”
Seemingly all ok, Jonathan’s life then flipped on its head, when he was hit by a car at a roundabout, while cycling to lectures in early March 2014.
“It suddenly took me from doing loads of sport and work, to being unable to write or do sport for quite a while. Everything suddenly stopped dramatically. At first, everyone thought: ‘he’s taken it surprisingly well – he’s happy, he’s had a break from all the sport, he’s got lots of free time suddenly, and can do what he wants’.”
Jonathan went home for Easter, and by the time he returned to university in April, it became more and more obvious that something was wrong.
“I was basically lying in bed all day. One of my friends became aware of this, and got in touch with my parents. I went and saw the doctor and was diagnosed with textbook depression. ‘Here’s some pills, go and sign up for university counselling service, go to your tutor and academic support, and go from there’.
“At the time I was hopeful – now I can put a label on what this problem has been, I’ve realised something’s not quite right this year, and suddenly it makes a lot more sense.”
Jonathan now thinks that the depression was there before the accident:
“The depression had been there for quite a while, and it wasn’t just something that I’d acknowledged. It was getting in the way of a lot of things, especially relationships. It gets in the way [of relationships], and it had a habit of doing that.
“People are often like: ‘Oh, you’re being weird today’, or something like that. Especially as a guy, it’s like: ‘Oh, it’s this weird feeling but whatever, we’re just going to brush it off’, and you don’t really talk about it.
“It’s only when it really comes to a head, and something drastic happens like in my case, where it becomes very obvious what it is, and you can suddenly put a label on it. It makes a lot more sense. Where it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s just a bit odd today’, and it’s ‘just a thing that happens’, it’s ‘nothing’, ‘whatever’, ‘it’s not something I show people’.
“That was very much the case, especially with doing university sport, where it’s very competitive. I buried a lot, how I felt and didn’t really talk to anyone about it.”
Did sport make it worse, or did he bury it for sport?
“I don’t know. I think it encouraged it, the atmosphere – you were supposed to be tough, it’s a hard thing, it’s going to be difficult, and that’s just how it is. You don’t really notice these things, speaking to a lot of other people who’ve done similar sports – actually, at a lot of high-level university sports you have a lot of people who struggle. It makes it more obvious that [depression] is there, but you also fight it harder, as it’s showing weakness, especially with the macho attitude in sport. I really think it does link in to the whole idea of guys being unwilling to acknowledge that there is an issue.”
Jonathan got in touch with his director of studies, and his personal tutor. While his director of studies was helpful, he says that his personal tutor, who has a pastoral care brief, lacked the knowledge or experience in how to deal with his situation.
His tutor told him about a warning scheme, that let the university know Jonathan’s situation: “What I didn’t realise was that it was completely made up. He didn’t really know what he was talking about.
“He was surprisingly, and still to this day is, oblivious to how things are supposed to be processed in the university. [Personal tutors] are fantastic at their subject, they’re fantastic at knowing how the inner workings of the college systems work, what they don’t know is how to deal with long-term health conditions.”
By this point, late April, Jonathan was already having suicidal thoughts, wondering: “‘What if I was just dead?’ And I was OK with this.”
Now on medication, Jonathan started sleeping badly as well as getting nauseous.
“In the next couple of weeks after getting these pills and the side effects, things spiralled and got worse. My sleep pattern was completely gone by this point. I had started drinking to help sleep, and then because it helped with everything, just numbing, I started drinking quite heavily.
“At first it was five or six drinks a night, but by the time I had the intervention it was nearly a bottle of spirits a night. I was hiding the evidence. We had a shared lounge and separate bedrooms and I kept it hidden away, because I didn’t want to have to explain to people.
“Then I found out that [alcohol] wasn’t really helping, so I started self-harming.”
By early May, Jonathan was using self-harm to keep himself away from thoughts of killing himself. It didn’t help, and he was soon making plans on how he was going to kill himself.
“I start[ed] making very specific plans on how I would take my life, because I had decided this is what’s going to happen now. I’m thinking in my brain: ‘How am I going to do it? When?’ This kind of stuff.”
At this point, Jonathan’s tutor was still trying to get him back into university work and his university counselling appointment was for late May.
“I was sitting there, with these worse thoughts, no-one really understanding, with the only major support at the university stuck on a waiting list. Obviously it’s exam term and they’ve obviously got a huge number of people reporting in, they don’t have the staff to deal with it.
“I start preparing this specific plan, as no-one’s aware of this, it gets worse and worse – I start getting towards this is going to happen now. One night, I was particularly drunk, at about 6am and my brain just goes: ‘That’s it, I’m done now.’ I decided not to follow through with my specific plan.”
Instead Jonathan decided a different means:
“Instead, this will definitely work, I’m not going to try and fail, it’s not an attention-grabbing thing. It’s something I just want to happen – ‘I want to be dead, I can’t deal with this anymore’.
Jonathan had a plan to take his own life, and then realised he needed to leave a message behind.
“I was ready to go, and then thought – ‘Oh I need to write a note or something for family etcetera, I can’t just do this’, so I pick up the phone thinking: ‘I’ll leave them a voicemail, I can just say something’. I think I was intending to leave a message on the voicemail, but I don’t really know because I was so drunk at the time.
“Thankfully, [my dad] picks up the phone, and he realises that something’s up. And because I’m so drunk, keeps me on the phone talking to me. Dad works out what’s going on. I just remember him saying: ‘It’s fine, we’re going to get your mum to you and you’re going to stick with me until you pass out because you’re that drunk’. I wake up the next morning to the sound of banging on my door, as my mum’s arrived and come to collect me.
“Everything was ready to go, so the evidence was quite obvious.”
Jonathan then went home for a week and a half, and had his medication dose upped. He stayed home until: “Even if things weren’t necessarily getting better, I was in a state where the suicidality had passed a bit, where any attempt was a bit more off the radar, and I was at least in a position to head back and try and rebuild.”
“I don’t believe the college were that aware, when I came back I emailed my tutor saying, ‘I’m back now’. He was like, ‘Oh, you’ve been away?’
By now mid-May, Jonathan was no longer suicidal, and his medication had finally started to kick in, and he finally got an appointment with the university counselling service. Beyond a slight manic reactionary phase to the medication, he felt a “gear change.”
“About a week and a half before my exams, I finally picked up a textbook, and went, ‘Right, let’s cram everything I can on these.'”
Although he wasn’t top of the year beforehand, Jonathan had been a very solid 2:1 Maths student beforehand, and despite the cramming, he walked away with a 2:2. It meant he missed his offer for his Masters degree. A year followed of Jonathan ringing university officials dozens of times, trying to sort it out – happily, by April 2015, he did. In his year off, he took accounting qualifications, and took to doing triathlons to raise money for MIND, the mental health charity.
It hasn’t been easy – Jonathan found quickly that despite the support given by his family, friends and director of studies, other friends have been less helpful. Some friends reacted by telling him to ‘man up’, and to ‘pull himself together’. It goes without saying Jonathan is not quite as close to those friends than the ones who supported him.
Jonathan says that the ‘pull yourself together’ attitude was actively unhelpful.
“That kind of attitude, of ‘stop being silly, everyone else has issues too as well, what are you doing’. I very much encountered that with multiple people.”
For Jonathan, the ability to be more aware of himself, and admit that there was something wrong, would have been key in preventing his eventual slide.
“[Awareness] would certainly have helped, as it was something that was there long before the accident happened, the accident accelerated the spiral as it were.
“Knowing the signs, so for example one thing is education at a younger level, not just university, say at school, or at the start of your university career. These are things that a lot of people at university deal with, and you should be aware of the signs, in yourself, and in your friends. Because the first people being able to spot it are usually the people closest to you.
“Another thing is to have better support from universities, in terms of people who are more aware, like mental health advisors.”
Trinity has since brought in a mental health advisor, which Jonathan says has had an immediate impact in helping friends and other students. Jonathan thinks that he is hopefully one of the last to suffer before mental health became a major issue.
“Five, ten years, and the scene will be a lot different, it was just unfortunate that my stuff happened as this tide was turning as it were, rather than the post-awareness era. Because I think that awareness is coming. People are aware of these things now, it’s just about putting the right mechanisms in.”
Yet as university counselling services become ever more over-burdened, and the mental health crisis continues, it’s likely that we are going to see more cases like Jonathan’s, where counselling almost came too late. Awareness is important, but institutional responses like Trinity’s are what needs to be done across the country.
Jonathan started his Masters, and was back to normal in terms of his social life and academic work. He’s been working with Cambridge MIND to help with mental health support and to pressure administrations to keep mental health concerns at the foremost of their minds. Jonathan will graduate at the end of May with a Masters in Systems Biology.