My Own Bell Jar

JAMES EVANS explores his experiences of suffering from depression in Cambridge.

coping with depression coping with self harm depression pastoral care self harm ucs university counselling service

In retrospect, it’s incredible that for so long I managed to normalise my depression and convince myself that this was a natural symptom of Cambridge life. People suffering from depression frequently admit that they avoid seeking medical help for fear of it being misconstrued as attention-seeking or a sign of weakness. This was definitely the case for me.

In an environment where ‘Week 5 Blues’ are the norm and all-nighters are fashionable, I managed to convince myself that every other person felt the way I did and that I simply needed to ‘man’ up and get on with it. In the competitive world that is Cambridge, I felt that revealing my illness would make me seem weak and that I would somehow be demonised because of it.

With an illness like depression that has no visible symptoms, I didn’t know how to get help. Within the bubble that is Cambridge, I was stuck within my own bubble, or rather, my own glass bell jar. No matter where I went or what I did, I was trapped inside it “stewing in my own sour air”. People could see through it but they couldn’t smell the air and so they just assumed that I was fine.

Harming myself was my way of screaming at the world that I wasn’t okay. It was a way of expressing my depression but it was ultimately part of one big, vicious cycle. I would cut myself to feel better, but the cuts made me feel guilty and ashamed and I would ultimately feel worse. When it got to the point that I couldn’t sleep at night because I was in so much pain I knew I had to do something.

I spoke to my DoS and he was incredibly supportive. He revealed that he too suffered from depression and suggested that I make an appointment at my local clinic. I was prescribed a course of antidepressants but my GP stressed that medical treatment was only half the battle. I was encouraged to get in touch with the University Counselling Service, to see a counsellor and try to pinpoint when and how my depression worsened and develop ways of trying to deal with it.

The speed at which UCS worked was astonishing. I sent them an email one evening and the following morning I received a reply and I had my first appointment the very next day. Over time, and through a combination of counselling and medication, I have managed to control my depression. It’s a long road ahead and my depression will never just disappear, but at least now I understand it and I know how to control it.

Cambridge can be a bizarre amalgamation of contradictions. My room is both my sanctuary and my prison. I’m surrounded by people and yet I am alone. However, UCS helped me realised that this loneliness can be re-appropriated as something really quite empowering. I am my own, autonomous being in control of my life and my illness. I characterise depression as my own monster, but it is a monster that I can ultimately tame.

If you’re suffering from depression, you – and only you – can do something about it. Make an appointment with the UCS as soon as possible. Please. Cambridge is just about the worst place to be if you’re suffering from depression but there is an effective, accessible, free support network for you.

The work counsellors do is literally life-saving but they are unfortunately overwhelmed. I was lucky enough to speak to someone almost immediately but I acknowledge I am in the minority. For most people, a two week waiting list or more is not unusual, although this is not intended to discourage: it is well worth the wait. Likewise, I was lucky enough to have a sympathetic DoS, but I have heard many a horror story of students with mental illnesses whose Directors of Studies have been worse than useless.

Ever since Freshers’ Week, it was drilled into me that I should speak to my DoS if I was ever feeling ‘low’ but they are ultimately academics hired because of their intellectual prowess rather than their social skills. When one friend of mine had a breakdown, his DoS’ first response was: “But will you get your essay in on time this week?” I hope that there will eventually be a dedicated counsellor in every college and every DoS will have a basic understanding of what to do if their student is suffering from a mental illness. But maybe this is wishful thinking on my part.

When I was asked to write this piece, I was given the chance to publish it anonymously. However, I believe that if I did that, I would be doing myself and other sufferers of depression a disservice. I embrace that fact that Cambridge has given me the platform to talk openly and frankly about my illness. I suffer from depression and that’s part of who I am.