Talk to Tim about Depression

It’s Mental Health Week and TIM SQUIRRELL wants to get us all talking about depression.

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There have been a few articles recently which have dealt with the subject of mental health. As someone who has suffered from depression for a fairly decent amount of time and also loves the sound of their own voice, I’d like to share my own experiences of living with mental illness. It’s Mental Health Week, after all.

Cambridge is, as has been said so many times before, an almost unique environment. Many of us feel the need to pack as much into our eight week terms as possible, which means we often end up pushing ourselves to our physical, mental and emotional limits for weeks at a time.

Student societies thrive here because so many people are so interested in doing as much as possible with the extremely limited time that they have. The fact that our courses generally only last for three years and that we’re only here for twenty four weeks a year (and a good eight of those are spent in the library in a haze of caffeine-fuelled revision panic) means that we feel an immense amount of pressure to do as much as we can with that time.

These factors inevitably lead to a large number of students having a lot of problems with mental health. I don’t have access to any concrete statistics, but I don’t think it would be unreasonable to say that Cambridge as a whole has a much higher rate of mental illness than average, with depression probably being the number one illness students are likely to encounter during their time here.

Yet we’re afraid to talk about it publically. There’s still a huge stigma attached to mental illness here: many people don’t understand how it works, or how to handle people who suffer from it. Those who have it generally seek out others who have also suffered from it in order to talk about it and attempt to deal with it, and attempt as far as possible to keep it a secret from everybody else for fear of the reaction they would get.

There’s something of an underground network of mentally ill people in Cambridge. I was in Kenya last summer and ended up first getting malaria (which was pretty bad) and then depression (which was awful). I wrote a blog about it. When I published my final entry, the response was pretty overwhelming. All kinds of people I barely knew came out of the woodwork to wish me well, or to talk about their own experiences with depression. Since I published that post, a number of people have approached me to talk about their own mental health problems. This is something that I find both wonderful and terrible: it makes me incredibly happy to know that people feel that they are able to talk to other people about their issues. But it’s intensely problematic that we are keeping it, as it were, in the family.

When I cut myself, for weeks I felt the need to wear long sleeves to cover up the marks. If anyone saw them, I would just laugh it off and say I had a pretty vicious encounter with a college cat, but most people didn’t even notice. The ones who did were generally those who had themselves suffered from depression. They knew what to look for. I think we feel that most people wouldn’t understand. Most people still think cutting is simply a plea for attention, which is only about a quarter of the truth: for me (and for many others), it’s a coping mechanism, one just as legitimate as drinking, smoking, eating too much or too little, or any other form of mildly self-destructive behaviour.

I’m pretty open about my depression. I like to think that this goes some way to breaking down the stigma by bringing it into the light. However, I can completely sympathise with the majority of sufferers who choose to keep it firmly to themselves. To quote a friend of mine, “we live in a liberal bubble and even a lot of you people are shits.” Whilst many people in Cambridge might well react positively to their friends if they were to come out and say they were depressed, this is far from the case in the rest of the country. When we go home, pretty much nobody understands.

And the university itself isn’t helping. Whilst the counselling service generally gets very good reports, at college level the systemic lack of understanding of mental illness is another contributing factor to the misery of many students. When I had a particularly bad period last term, I was told by the higher-ups in my college that I shouldn’t talk to my friends about it because it would burden them. You’ll forgive me for asking, but if you can’t talk to your friends about your problems, what the fuck are they for?

Giving this edict to depressed students only serves to solidify the idea that you are alone, that you have to deal with this on your own, and that none of your peers could – or should – understand you. I find this notion offensive and I believe that propagating it is simply irresponsible. It’s simply another hurdle in a system which – whether by will or by accident – serves to keep the stigma intact, to tell people that what they are feeling cannot and should not be talked about because people won’t understand.

If you prevent us from even talking about it, of course people aren’t going to understand. You would think that in an institution which purports to be full of very clever people and in which depression and other mental illnesses appear to be, if not endemic, then at least extremely common, someone would eventually stand up and say ‘hey, maybe it would be a good idea to talk about this’. The fact that this has not happened is a shame and has contributed – and will continue to contribute – to the long-term unhappiness of a large number of people.

Being at Cambridge is tough, and is made tougher for many of us by our refusal to talk about mental illness. That said, it’s probably not that easy for people who’ve never had to deal with it themselves to understand it, and they may not feel comfortable simply asking someone why they’re depressed.

In that case, I’ll start:

Hi, I’m Tim, and I have depression. Ask me anything.