Dear Cambridge, please take care of yourselves

Elsa Maishman 25 April 2016

This week is, apparently, 'Depression Awareness week'. I'm not sure according to whom, but it seems as good a reason as any to issue a plea to the students of Cambridge, on the subject of an affliction unfortunately close to my heart.

I read an article in the Guardian this morning that attempted to describe the feeling of being depressed, which in many ways was excruciatingly accurate. Of course, everyone’s experience is different, but generalisations can sometimes be helpful in making one feel less alone. The author made the saliant observation that most people equate depression with misery or unhappinness, which is, in my experience at least, a gross misconception.

Depression isn't about feeling sad; it's about something far, far more terrifying: feeling nothing. Like a weight, like a fog, like walking through sludge or having your soul sucked out, it's a hell which all too often feels almost inescapable.

The first time that a doctor prescribed me anti-depressants he told me my condition was ‘‘not normal…. but normal for Cambridge’’. There is an alarmingly high rate of mental illness in this University: both, I suspect, because the kind of people who go to Cambridge are the kind of intense perfectionists most likely to develop a mental illness, and because such an extreme and competitive work environment is not conducive to good mental health.

Since my diagnosis, I have become increasingly comfortable with being open about my sickness. It took a while to navigate the language that I wanted to use – should I say that I ‘‘have depression’’ that I ‘‘am depressed’’ or that I ‘‘struggle’’ with depression?

The latter is my least favourite. I don’t struggle with depression; I am paralysed by it.

The most comfortable language, for me, is that of a sickness. Depression takes over your life, your existence and your personality, leaving you grieving for the productive, happy person that you can hardly believe that you used to be. It’s an ugly affliction, which has the power to make you so intensely unpleasant that you start to believe that the hatred you feel for everything and everyone around you is actually your true character.

To any other Cambridge students with depression, or any other mental illness: I have no helpful solution. I cannot tell you to hang in there because one day it’ll get better and everything will be rosy because you know what? It might not. All I can tell you is that you are not alone, and that there may one day be a time when you don’t feel like the world has descended into shades of grey. 

I am becoming increasingly doubtful of the existence of Cambridge students with pristine mental health records, but if there are any of you out there, I would recommend making an effort to stay that way. My depression began its spiral out of control during exam term, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past year, it’s that exams are not worth losing your health, your personality, and quite nearly your life over.

My depression only began to ease off a little when I accepted that a First, an impressive summer job and my name in at least five national bylines was a cocktail of expectations which, rather than gliding towards the glitteringly successful career I imagined for myself, had become a one-way ticket to an empty shell incapable of getting out of bed in the morning. 

I know some of you will be too far gone for my words to have any effect – I've been there, I know. But to those of you who are still this side of hell: look after yourselves this exam term. Please. 

If you think you may be suffering from depression (even if you're not sure) please seek advice. Talk to your friends, talk to Linkline or Samaritans, talk to a college or university counsellor, talk to a doctor, join an online support group. It helps, I promise.