Friends shouldn’t give up on friends

We have a responsibility to look after each other

Cambridge friends mental health Student

Students are the frontline of mental health support at university.

There are many other ways of getting help, such as tutors, the University services, and Linkline, but we are the ones who notice when people don’t turn up to lectures, stop coming to the Buttery and are often the ones friends initially turn to in crisis.

Yet, my experience led me to realise that most students don’t realise how important an effect they can have, and how devastating the consequences can be.

The stigma attached to mental health will not disappear unless some students realise that they are helping to perpetuate certain misconceptions about mental health, specifically, in my case, bipolar disorder.

There is a common misconception that everyone at Cambridge essentially has the same problems in the sense that they are presented with the same challenges. The fact that some are unable to cope is presented as a reflection of weakness and not the responsibility of the people who can manage, as if this would somehow imperil their own mental wellbeing.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say “everyone has their own problems to deal with” as an excuse for drawing a blind eye, or moaning about somebody’s erratic behaviour as “dramatic” or “attention-seeking”.

Yes, sometimes people who are mentally ill can be very annoying but this is not an adequate excuse for turning your back and is a very dangerous attitude.

You shouldn’t have to suffer through mental health issues alone

Mental health illnesses are genuine, neurobiological illnesses that should be recognised as such and we should not just ignore people living with these conditions so that they can “get on with” their recovery.

The end of my first term and the course of my second term at Cambridge was one of the lowest points of my life: unknowingly suffering from the extreme effects of undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

I considered various increasingly radical solutions – from locking myself in my room, to intermitting, quitting entirely and eventually quitting life in general.

Looking back, I didn’t feel this bad solely because of my disorder. I was deeply unhappy and very confused, but my depression would not have been so all-consuming if I had received support from the friends I had made at university.

Instead, they found my behaviour shocking, overly dramatic and attention-seeking, and decided to cut me out of their lives.

This sudden abandonment had pretty much life-changing effects.

I felt devastatingly alone, severely depressed and unable to cope; I started to self-harm, quitting all extra-curriculars I had enthusiastically thrown myself into at the beginning of the year in order to spend more time unravelling the situation in my head, desperately trying to win my friends back, and all the time plummeting into the blackest, most despairing pit of my life.

My old friends aren’t horrible people. They’re not particularly intolerant, conservative or cold-hearted and were not responsible for my mental health condition, but they did make it worse.

They did initially try to understand and accepted my heartfelt apologies for my behaviour at first, but eventually gave up and left me to deal with my issues by myself.

Me trying to deal with my issues by myself

If I didn’t have bipolar disorder I would probably still count them as my closest friends.

This has been said many times before, but I do not think the message has truly hit home.

I am not advocating sacrificing your happiness for others, cancelling your yoga classes to accompany someone to counselling or talking to someone you barely know about their problems. Compromising your own needs and piling somebody else’s problems on top of your own doesn’t help anyone.

Supporting someone with a mental health condition support doesn’t have to be exhausting or distressing.

If you’re close to them, simply supporting them through their decisions makes all the difference in the world.

The Look After Your Mate campaign is an excellent initiative, and the Guide for Friends a particularly good resource.

If you don’t know them that well (particularly important for freshers, who will only have known their uni friends for a few weeks), just being a silent presence in the room, making cups of tea or taking time to ask about their day keeps people feeling there just might be a reason to stick around.

Take responsibility for the effects your actions can have on people suffering from a mental health problem. The consequences can be severe.

There are many students who have been lifelines to their friends, and I would like to extend a heartfelt, emotional tribute to them.

But they shouldn’t be the exception. They should be the rule.