By Rick Anderson
Around the two-week mark of my first year at university I decided, quite calmly, that I was going to kill myself.
It was not a cry for help or evacuation from a situation that I could not cope with. It simply seemed like the only option I had, as natural as breathing. I had experienced what many others beginning university discover; the transition to early adulthood and the massive change brought about by coming to uni had awoken something latent in me, and I had fallen into a mental state from which I couldn’t escape.
I didn’t succeed in topping myself (spoilers) – though I did end up an involuntary guest in a psychiatric unit for about six weeks, diagnosed with major clinical depression. It was the start of a struggle against something in my own mind that has continued to this day.
This is not something I have shared often, even with my closest friends. I have never wanted to be defined by mental illness. The label itself seems awful. It suggests a deficiency, – a sickness at the core of what makes us who we are. And, like most long-term conditions, depression and anxiety included, there is often a feeling of resigned hopelessness in the face of telling others.
How can someone who has not felt the choking, absolute blackness of depression, or the unbounded terror of a panic attack, understand someone who has? You fear the worried looks, the sidewards glances, the feelings of others tiptoeing around your emotions as if you were made of glass.
You just want to be normal. ‘Coming out’ as a person with a mental health condition is a seriously scary prospect.
So you shut up and lock off, and withdraw, the whole time feeling you have something to hide, this awful secret. You start missing class. You’re in a downward spiral and you can’t get out, it’s getting worse, you see your future bleak and trapped ahead of you and you can’t take it and you just want it to stop. And that is how suicide happens. Simple and easy and irreversible as that.
So no. Shutting off is not the answer – no matter how tempting it might seem.
Suicide is not an act of volition. It is what happens when a person’s suffering exceeds their ability to cope. It is the endpoint of an illness which has become terminal, often without the knowledge even of the sufferer. And, while suicide levels rise and fall, it is still the chief cause of death for males under the age of 35 in Scotland. Notably, women are particularly at risk of self-harm.
But, there is hope: people who receive the right kind of help for their condition are much, much less likely to harm themselves and much more likely to lead normal, fulfilling lives.
I was lucky. Some others are not. The expectations and pressures of university are huge and the sense of alienation can be overwhelming. Add to this an underlying health condition and you have a situation which can quickly turn into something very serious.
Thankfully our university and Union have extremely good services in place to help you. Use them. With the right support systems in place you can get better, and even flourish. Take this opportunity to become the master of your mental health, rather than have it control you.
In my case, returning to university seemed like an impossible prospect. I was crippled by social anxiety for years, to the point of being unable to speak to my family. But with the right support and with the knowledge of my condition and how to handle it I was able to recover. I’m now in my third year at Strathclyde and I can say I am (relatively) happy. It has been, and continues to be, a bumpy road but I feel optimistic about the future – something I’d never have thought possible during the months and years before.
So talk to your friends. Tell the world. You’ll be pleasantly surprised – I guarantee it. Your condition may make things difficult for you; it may sometimes feel like you’re playing life on hard mode with no one to help you. But perhaps you should be proud; for your achievements come at a cost that few others could know. Do not underestimate yourself, and do not be too hard on yourself when things go wrong – as they will. Above all, never doubt your own resilience, or the power of the people around you to take you out of the darkness. Do not underestimate yourself or be too hard on yourself when things go wrong – as they will.
It is time for the stigma surrounding mental health conditions to end. Many of society’s greatest achievements have been driven by people who suffer in their own heads -people like us. Society owes the mentally ‘ill’ a huge debt of gratitude. I suggest it is time that we take it.