A personal guide to mental illness

Trust me, feeling down isn’t confined to Fifth Week

TW: discussion of mental illness, suicide and surrounding issues

Everyone knows the Fifth Week Blues isn’t really a thing and of course mental illness is much bigger than feeling “blue”.  Even so, it brings a certain awareness of misery, which makes this week a good time to talk about mental health in Oxford.

I write this guide to mental illness as someone who’s experienced depression, and who is familiar with Oxford support systems.

I’m not speaking on behalf of anyone else, and nothing I’ll say here is infallible.

Medical leave at Oxford

There is a very real problem with mental illness in Oxford especially, as a result of the stress and workload we all experience, but the university’s attitude to this is in many ways outdated and insulting.

The words we use

“Suspended status students” is the unfortunate term used most often to describe students who take medical leaves of absence. This is apparently an improvement on “rustication”, a term literally meaning, “to be sent into the country.”

But even “suspension” is a distinctly blamey word, and removes agency from the person, giving it instead to the unspecified, frightening body doing the suspending.

Students themselves take suspended status or take medical leave – they are not the suspended, or the medical leaved.

The rules in place

While OUSU has done good (if overdue) work in granting suspended students access to university libraries, Oxford colleges haven’t caught up.

Very few College handbooks describe suspension or medical leave compassionately and transparently (it’s one or the other, or neither), and no College’s rules fully respond to the issues surrounding the exclusion of already vulnerable students.

Educate yourselves about what your College actually believes, and scrutinize their guidelines in their handbook, because they’re probably badly written and they’re probably bullshit.


Suicide is the single biggest taboo surrounding mental illness. If this is because suicide is so resoundingly unpleasant and difficult to talk about, this is the very reason we should be talking about it.

It’s scarily common

Not everyone with mental illness thinks about suicide, but many people, and more than we’d like to think, do – suicide is the single commonest cause of death of men between the ages of twenty and forty-nine.

In 1998, Sell and Robson’s study of an Oxford college revealed that 31% of its male and 35% of its female population had contemplated suicide at some point in their lives.

In 2013, an NUS survey showed that more than one in ten students have suicidal thoughts at least once a year.

How to talk about suicide

As with every aspect of mental illness, the way we talk about suicide is extremely important. People don’t “commit” suicide, because this isn’t the 1960s anymore, and suicide is no longer a crime.

People die by suicide, or take their own lives, or kill themselves.

Agency in suicide

Some people think it’s right to remove the agency of people who kill themselves, instead resting all the “blame” on the illness that led to the suicide as Tom Clempson explains in this article.

While I agree that people who take their own lives are not at “fault”, as someone who has considered and attempted suicide, I find this position extremely patronizing and generally shitty.

While I absolutely don’t believe that suicide is a solution to mental illness (if I did, I wouldn’t be writing this article), we should never suppose that what mentally ill people do is not a reasonable response to the way they feel.

There is no “fault” because “fault” implies a moral judgement, which is one nobody except that person is in a position to understand. After all, we can’t know how they feel, and can’t speak on their behalf.

What you should do to support people with mental illness

Don’t be a dickhead

The key point here is that how much you can do depends on how much a mentally unwell person wants you to do.

A good starting point is just not being an arsehole in general or making assumptions about how a person is feeling.

Unless you have a very good reason to express your opinion, you should never pass judgement on what steps a mentally unwell person is taking to get better.

When you’re feeling shit, there’s nothing more unhelpful than being judged: nobody cares if you think, like Peter Hitchens that taking antidepressants heralds the advent of the antichrist, or if you’ve had bad experiences of counseling yourself.

Look out for people

Be sympathetic to and aware of circumstances that might be related to how a person is feeling.

This can include just about anything, from doing lots of sleeping or not very much sleeping, to doing lots or not very much eating, to feeling nauseous or grumpy or just about anything.

This is especially important because these circumstances can often be the direct or indirect cause of medication the person might be taking.

But know your limits

Try not to be offended if a mentally unwell person doesn’t want your help: that might well be the best thing for them and, while any reasonable person wants to do everything they can, you’re not in a position to know what helping actually involves.

And if you can help, know your limits. Friends can offer incredible support, and have offered me incredible support, but you’re never going to be able completely to solve people’s problems. Don’t be disappointed when you can’t.

Educate yourself

Educate yourself as much as you can about what mental illness means to different people. This includes being in control of your language: stop thoughtlessly saying things are “insane”, “crazy”, “mental” or “nuts”, because by saying these things you’re perpetuating pejorative beliefs about what mental illness means.

Talk about it

The most important thing I believe everyone can do to help people with mental illness is smash the taboo by talking about it.

The longer we keep quiet about what is a very real but surmountable problem, the more harm it does to those who experience it, first- and second-hand, the sooner we smash the taboo, the sooner we help people.