One anonymous student doesn’t want to be defined by her depression.
I completely agree with James Evans’ belief that Cambridge is just about the worst place to be if you’re depressed. Like him, I’ve suffered from depression at university and similarly, didn’t want to seem weak or attention-seeking by getting medical help at first. Unfortunately, that’s about where our similarities end.
I don’t feel like depression is part of who I am. Depression is an illness which I can’t seem to shake off, and I’m not ready to talk openly about it. I’m writing this piece anonymously because I’m too ashamed and embarrassed to give my name. These days I’m (thankfully) unlikely to get thrown in some Sylvia Plath-esque mental asylum for being depressed, but despite changing views in general society and the attention that mental illness is given in Cambridge, it’s still stigmatised. Admitting you are mentally ill leaves you at risk of being labelled a nutcase, a psycho, or even just ‘that person’.
I’ll take this opportunity to clear up a few myths. Firstly, depression can affect anyone. I know, you’ve heard it all before. But please don’t stop reading. Contrary to what people seem to believe, you don’t have to be a ‘loser’ to get depressed. It’s not an illness that materialises if you’ve spent too much time by yourself, if you don’t put yourself out there and have fun, if you’re unattractive and boring and have no friends. Shock horror – I have friends. I wouldn’t consider myself butt-ugly. Before I suffered from depression (and even during, in attempts to convince my friends and myself that I was capable of ‘manning up’), you’d be just as likely to find me as the next person dancing the night away in Cindies post-swap, a bottle of wine heavier and dressed in a dubious costume.
Secondly, depression is a physical illness. I wasn’t, as one (former) friend kindly put it, being “unnecessarily histrionic” about relationship problems/work stress/life/the weather, etcetera, etcetera. I didn’t have a breakdown in front of half of my year group because I was feeling a bit emotional that day and someone said something mean to me. In the same way that a Type 1 diabetic’s pancreas can’t produce enough insulin to regulate their blood sugar (thanks Wikipedia), my brain was not producing enough serotonin to allow me to deal with life like a ‘normal’, happy person would. In fact, like I used to do quite successfully before I got depressed. Unfortunately for me, being diagnosed with diabetes is far more glamorous than being diagnosed with depression.
College welfare reps do a stellar job of providing peer supporters and information about where to get help, but often the last person you want to talk to is a fellow student. I never even told my DoS or Tutor about being depressed because to be entirely honest, though I respect their academic expertise; their social skills leave much to be desired. The University Counselling Service took six weeks to give me an initial appointment and after two sessions in which I felt patronised and completely misunderstood, I didn’t go back. The only person I could – and still can – talk to completely openly about it is a family member who has also suffered from depression. It takes one to know one, as they say.
Now, nine months after first being diagnosed and having just about weaned myself off antidepressant medication, my appearances at Cindies are ever more frequent. It’s a rough ride at times, but through experience I have developed strategies for coping. My fantastic group of close friends keep an eye out for me, and if I’m having a tough day, I’ll sit it out and try to prepare myself as best as possible so that the next one is better.
What still concerns me is that people suffering from depression in Cambridge still face stigmatisation. That is if their problem is even acknowledged. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be a guy suffering from depression… I’m not sure how many lad points that would earn you. Carrying on as if nothing’s wrong is a guaranteed way to make things worse for yourself so whatever you do, make sure you talk to someone. I speak only from my own experience and I’m sure plenty of people have had positive experiences of the UCS, peer supporters or other welfare networks in Cambridge, but if all of that seems overwhelming, a close friend willing to listen is worth keeping. Those who won’t give you the time of day absolutely aren’t – trust me. And finally, cliché as it is, you’re not alone. Don’t forget it.