Stephen Fry’s talk at the Union taught me the importance of discussing mental health

Speaking up about our issues is key

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At the Union last night, Stephen Fry openly discussed his battles with bipolar disorder.

He was by no means the first high profile person to do so, but he is part of a new wave of celebrities using their public platform to encourage the discussion of mental health.

Fry: challenging our stigmas regarding mental health

I was surprised to learn that Fry was expelled three times from school, was in prison at the age of 17, and even tried to kill himself. On the surface, he doesn’t appear to be the kind of person you would expect to suffer with mental health. After all, why would he? He’s one of the most popular and well-loved personalities on television. And I think that is the main point I took from his talk: you can never assume someone isn’t suffering with mental health.

Men in particular are generally tabooed from talking about their feelings and emotions, and this can make identifying mental health issues in ourselves and others difficult. Our relationships can sometimes revolve around casual, superficial conversation about the latest football result and which girls we think are hot. If we do talk about what is bothering us, our peers have a tendency to show either discomfort, or disinterest to our issues. As talking about mental health becomes exclusionary to men, we are less likely to engage with it, and the issues begin to build up and eventually spiral out of control.

Especially at Cambridge, life can often feel overwhelming

The stats concur. According to the ‘Men’s Health Forum’, men accounted for only 36% of those accessing psychological therapy. 42% of men have had a conversation about their mental health with a friend or loved one compared to 58% of women. It is evident from this that something needs to change.

My experience with mental health has been varied. I have never been diagnosed with a mental health issue, nor feel I necessarily have one. However, I have my highs and lows. There are days, hours or minutes where I feel great, and times when I feel vulnerable, isolated and alone. For the first four weeks of Lent term I was struggling mentally and close to pulling out. It was one phone call to my parents that prevented me from doing so. As Fry said last night – ‘one conversation can make all the difference.’

Fry stressed the importance of asking for help, however difficult it may seem (Credit: Chris Williamson/Getty Images)

I am lucky in that I have a stable family, but many of my friends here don’t. So what can we at Cambridge do to improve? I’m no expert on mental health, but surely better awareness of the issues surrounding it goes without saying. From previous experience, talking about my problems puts them in perspective and helps me evaluate what is worth worrying about.

We need to deconstruct the long-engrained ‘stiff upper lip’ culture that means that people feel judged or unable to talk about what’s on their mind. I’m not saying that this is a universal solution. Everyone is different and, as is the case with Fry, certain diagnosed conditions require medical intervention.

However, overall there needs to be a greater recognition that speaking up about what is bothering us –  no matter how small and insignificant we might think they are – is nothing to be ashamed of, and should, in fact, be embraced.