The Invisible Illness

University of York students talk to about their experiences with mental health problems and what they feel needs to be done next in the mental health sector

October 10th 2014 saw the first time the University of York marked World Mental Health Day. It is believed that mental health problems affect one in four adults in the UK but they are still regarded to an extent as an obscure topic. The event aimed to make mental health more visible on campus – literally – by covering university buildings with paper butterflies that had students’ anonymous advice on how they cope with psychological struggles written on them. Nonetheless it’s still easy to overlook the fact that for many students mental health problems have a huge impact on their lives.

We spoke to a handful of students about their experiences with mental health problems. What we found, unsurprisingly, is that mental health issues come in a lot of different shapes and sizes.

Maria*, for example, has had trouble with self-harm, as well as depression. “I was diagnosed with depression when I was 19, and bipolar disorder earlier this year. Though I think my problems go back to my early teens. I began self-harming when I was 12, and generally found it very difficult to control my emotions and impulses. Between the ages of 13 and 18 I had one or two major low periods a year during which I’d entirely shut myself off and resort to self-harm as a way to externalise what I was suffering internally.”

Elena similarly has suffered from more than one issue due to mental health. “From the time I started university until May this year my condition spiralled from one mental health problem to the next and it was gradually consuming my whole life. I couldn’t function on a day to day basis, to the point where I didn’t know where the line between reality and imagination was. It was a terrifying place to be in, and at one stage I didn’t think any of the world I was seeing was real. I was angry and upset and I had awful episodes that I almost didn’t make it out of. If it wasn’t for my friends and family I don’t think I would have made it to my twentieth birthday.”

Nick* recalls “I was an extremely insular child and young adult who didn’t let anyone know the real me. I did have people at school I called friends, but in reality, there were always walls I would build to stop them getting too close. Groups always intimidated me, and I would attach myself to one or two people at a time, hoping that they would hang around with me more than anyone else. I always hated kids or youth clubs because everyone else had their grouped interests which I could never truly join in with. I may have worn a mask of being happy that fooled everyone, but few times was I really content among my peers.”

And for Alex* “My depression was something that crept up on me. I didn’t even admit it to myself until I realised that being in bed and not wanting to move for months on end was a serious problem.”

There is also the worrying fact that many people facing mental health problems also have to contend with misconceptions that have been associated with their conditions such as that they’re weak, violent, or lying about their situation. Attitudes like these were evident in a recent survey by the Scottish government in which 47% of those asked said they wouldn’t want anyone to know if they had a mental health problem.

Maria believes that positive misconceptions are just as harmful as negative ones. “I’ve been called a crazy psycho b*tch by numerous people,” she says, “but there’s also a large number of people who see bipolarity almost as a quirky personality trait: ‘Oh, she’s bipolar, she’s so wild and kooky!’ Both views are equally damaging, and leave me feeling equally inadequate and insufficient as a human being.”

She’s also concerned about how the stigma against mental illness could affect her employment prospects: “The reason I’m using a pseudonym for this is that I would never get the kind of jobs I want if I declared my mental health problems. I feel very torn between wanting to make a stand and prove that being bipolar does not by necessity make someone a bad employee at all but I also know full well that if I was honest and open on application forms I would struggle to find work.”

Alex agrees: “I feel that certain employers, from a certain generation, would be less understanding of depression and therefore I’m a bit apprehensive about my employability prospects after graduating.”
The many stresses facing students today – including the economic strain of £9,000 a year tuition fees and an unemployment rate of 16% for 16-24 years olds, high-pressure courses, the difficulties of friendships and relationships and the strain of being away from home for the first time or, in some cases, coming from a home that is not a safe refuge, but a place of traumatic abuse – can exacerbate mental health problems, and can have devastating consequences such as self-harm, drug and alcohol addiction and suicide; the number of students who killed themselves in England and Wales rose by roughly 50% between 2007 and 2011.

Despite the serious nature of the problem, there is a lack of funding and awareness of mental health care in the NHS. A survey last month by the charity Mind found that on average just 1.4% of public health budgets are spent on mental health by local councils, and Britain’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, has reported that mental illness funding has been cut since 2011 and called for the NHS to make it a higher priority.

This patchy system of support sometimes means that these already vulnerable people are thrust into a confusing system that feels more like another obstacle than an ally.

The first time Maria saw a doctor, “She spoke to me for all of five minutes before prescribing me antidepressants and sending me on my way. That was all I had for three years. I tried to get myself put on waiting lists for therapy, but was repeatedly told not to bother because the waiting lists were so long.”

“During those three years I was taken to hospital twice, once by the Open Door team, who felt I was at risk, and once by a group of friends who were very concerned, and both times I was turned away, with the rationale being that they couldn’t really do anything unless I had actually hurt myself. My problems, unsurprisingly, simmered away and built up over the years to the point that I had a massive breakdown early in 2014, resulting in me attempting to take my own life. I was hospitalised for a few days to make sure I was medically okay, and was promised an emergency referral to the Community Mental Healthcare Team. It’s been six months, and despite constantly chasing up the referral, I’m yet to hear back from them.”

She definitely links this to the lack of funding for mental health care: “I don’t blame the individual psychiatrists or mental health nurses I’ve seen, other than the one psychiatrist who told me I was an angsty and emotional teenage girl and it was normal for me to have the feelings I was having. I think there’s a problem far more inherent in the attitude taken towards mental health by society and those who allocate funding. York is one of the better places in the country for mental health care, but it’s still so incredibly underfunded. It would be excellent if waiting lists were shorter, CMHT referrals came through when they’re supposed to rather than leaving people to fend for themselves at very vulnerable times, and if the various people one has to deal with would actually talk to each other and make sure all professionals concerned are aware of the current situation and any plans of action, but that’s never going to happen unless there’s more funding or, if possible, a more efficient use of the money already allocated to mental health in the UK.”

Alex also struggled to find support for her depression, made worse because she was on an Erasmus exchange at the time: “My host university did not seem to have any adequate support staff in place, unlike York. I thought I would be able to manage it – moving away from home in first year did not really affect me at all. In fact, I never got homesick. But in my host country on Erasmus, I was not only away from home and my family, but away from my friends, department and boyfriend. I kept seeing all my friends back home in York have an amazing time, in photos on Facebook or on Skype, and I felt like I was a failure. The pressure to make an Erasmus the ‘best time of your life’ forced me into lying not only to my friends and my family, but to myself. It was only until I began feeling suicidal that I decided to email the university Open Door team and beg for help. I was aware that I didn’t want to die, and locked myself into my room and had counselling sessions via email for a couple of months.”

She credits the Open Door team’s help as crucial in battling her depression: “Every so often I’ll slip back into my ‘wobbly stages’, as I call them, but I now know what to do and what not to do.”

The interviewees also agree that a helpful change would be if mental health was talked about openly and formed part of the school curriculum. “Mental health isn’t on the agenda like physical education is,” Elena says. “I think this is a serious flaw in our education system.”

Alex agrees: “If we educate people from a young age that it is not something we should be so ashamed to have, more people can seek the appropriate professional help, before it’s too late.
For the students profiled in this article they believe that accepting it has been the first step to finding a balance in their lives that works for them. Nick, for instance, has never been formally diagnosed, but a crucial breakthrough for him was realising that the reason for his loneliness was that he fit the symptoms of schizoid personality disorder: “It was liberating. It helped me to understand myself better and I was ready to carry it around as a statement of my individuality rather than my shame.”

Similarly, Elena, who’s running the London Marathon this year to raise money for Mind, says “I have to recognise how I feel and if it’s a way I don’t want to feel, I have learnt how to sit through it and let it pass – a bit like meditation, I suppose. You aren’t less of a person because you have a mental illness. It isn’t weak to be mentally ill. What you need to do is find a way of coping with it day to day, to be able to enjoy and experience life.”
*Some names have been changed