A letter to my Samaritans saviour

It took a stranger on the end of the phone to keep me alive: why Cambridge needs to do more about mental health.

cam students Cambridge cambridge students mental health mental health provision suicide

You answered the phone to be confronted by a 21-year old university student, sobbing somewhat hysterically, who told you she’d just downed a considerable amount of alcohol to make herself sick, as a way of trying to stop herself from doing something worse. That ‘something worse’ is the big S word: Suicide.

Thank you for not hearing the word ‘suicide’ and panicking. Thank you for continuing to listen, continuing to talk. There is no other way I can talk about what’s going on. The NHS knows I’m suicidal, yet I’ve been on a waiting list for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for 16 weeks so far. In the meantime apart from a couple of appointments with the GP (which are not allowed to last for more than 10 minutes under NHS rules) to pick up my anti-depressant prescription, I’ve been left with no contact whatsoever.

In January, they made me promise to go to A&E if I wanted to kill myself, and seemed happy to leave it at that. Ironically, the suggested time I’ll get an appointment will be the week after I graduate, and am no longer in Cambridge. I’m sure then I’ll start at the bottom of the waiting list in my local area and face another few months’ wait. It’s a thrilling prospect.

The waiting lists at Addenbrookes mean I can’t get the help I need.

I’m in a catch-22 position. If college realises the extent of my problem, that I have days where I can’t be certain I’ll make it through to the next morning, that I have, on several occasions, gone out at night with the intention of not coming back to college, their policy is likely to result in a forced intermission. And the prospect of spending a year at home, where there are many problems, and not being able to graduate with my friends is something that would make me more likely to end my life. So I don’t admit the full extent of the problem. I don’t seek the help I so desperately need. I’m lucky in that I have a particularly brilliant DoS and wonderful friends, but even then I know I have to tread carefully.

The NHS has left me in limbo, the university doesn’t really want someone like me here (and their solution is to send me home to access the apparently non-existent NHS treatment), and admitting the extent of my suicidal feelings is likely to panic those around me and I’m scared they won’t be able to hear anything else once that horrible S word is mentioned.

In exam term, where the pressure is piled on by the university, no-one needs the additional pressure of being fully responsible for my wellbeing. That’s not what friends are supposed to do, and it’s not something I want them to do. So instead I plaster a smile on my face to hide the self-harming and panic attacks that go on behind closed doors. And still the university expects me to get a 2:1.

The university doesn’t seem to care about my mental health, as long as I get a 2:i.

So thank you for being there at the end of the phone on a Friday evening. Thank you for listening, continuing to listen, and treating me with so much respect. An open conversation was all I needed. You didn’t make me feel like a monster, you didn’t immediately panic when suicide was mentioned. You told me you hoped I didn’t end my life, but that ultimately it had to be my choice. And then you helped me to make the right choice that evening.

I’m not sure I would have made it through that night had it not been for our conversation. It’s wrong that a stranger volunteer should have to sit and listen to my hysterics. The fact I had to call at all shows how much is wrong with mental health provision here, but thank goodness you and the Samaritans have got it so right.

You literally saved my life.