In the media, nothing is represented in so variable manner as mental health. We have the frighteningly dippy ‘I didn’t eat for 3 days so I could be perfect for you’ Cassie from Skins, the figure of the ‘nutter at a bus stop’ rocking backwards and forwards, and, of course, the psychotic criminal who might murder a whole school (see We Need to talk about Kevin for more info). These people are not you or I, they are ‘crazy’, ‘mad’, ‘deranged’ freaks who are a million miles away from being compos mentis.
The anorexic Cassie is depicted as Skins' 'Madwoman in the Attic' Credit: YouTube
At one level, it’s understandable. As the list shows, mental illnesses come in many different shapes and guises and yes, there are eating disorder sufferers who won’t eat for 3 days to be perfect or criminals who hear voices in their heads. But it’s not that simple. There are few definitive distinctions when it comes to mental health. You may not be walking around in an orange jumpsuit – which last year’s Tesco Halloween costumes seemed to suggest were sufferers’ principal forms of attire – but you may be somewhere on the spectrum.
Of course, the overall theme of this column is the need for Cambridge students to ‘Keep Calm’; but in some cases Cambridge really needs to ‘Sod Calm and Get Angry’. Starting with our perception of mental health.
While suffering from severe bulimia and depression in my first year – after which I intermitted – I was called ‘psychotic’, ‘attention-seeking’, ‘lacking in self-control’ and just this week, a friend told me I was behaving like ‘a spoilt child’ when I point-blank refused to buy yoghurt that was not fat-free. Mentally ill students (including myself) can be socially exiled by some friends, forced into intermitting by over-anxious Directors of Studies and, worst of all, avidly discussed behind closed doors as if the illness that may or may not be ruining their lives are somehow an important piece of gossip.
We need to take a long hard look at ourselves. Yes, things have improved wondrously since my first year (people actually know what mental illness is) but our attitudes towards it have barely altered at all.
For all our protesting, ‘sympathising’ and awareness-raising, Cambridge’s view of mental illness is still starkly marked by pity, or lack thereof. On the one-hand, self-defining do-gooders attempt to interfere in a way that invariably makes things worse. Even now, catching up with old friends from before I intermitted, I’m still asked ‘so how is…you know…all that?’ Immediately alienated, I am the centre of attention as I mumble about how I’d really like to forget it all. Then, inevitably, one of them will pipe up “But you know you shouldn’t be doing X” or ask “don’t you think you’re pushing yourself too hard for now?”
Of course, they’re trying to help, which is lovely. But, suffering from a mental illness, you don’t need sympathy or empathy. You need support. You need your friends to encourage you to try and eat at least one meal a day or drag you out of bed, but you don’t need them to tell you how to cope or reprimand you for failing to get dressed that day. You just need them to be there.
Sometimes all you need is a friend to help you round Sainsbury's Credit: Elliott Brown
Thankfully, these interfering friends are by far the lesser of two evils. At least they care about you and believe that you are a capable, intelligent, wonderful human being who just happens to be struggling. The alternative is far worse.
The alternative is accusations of being ‘a spoilt child’; suggestions that you are ‘being ridiculous’; demands that you ‘get over yourself’, ‘man-up’, ‘deal with it’ or stop ‘making excuses’. The alternative is the result of complete ignorance, which leads to the appalling belief that anyone with a mental illness is inherently weak, pathetic and cannot cope with life. And we wonder why most sufferers of mental illness wait until their condition has gone too far before they seek help.
I hope that, one day, having a mental illness will be stigma-free. I hope that, one day, friends won’t interfere with how I live my life, but they’ll be there if I need them to hold my hand and tell me not to be scared. I hope that, one day, students at this university will feel as confident as they deserve to feel and will speak out about their problems without fear of being misunderstood, ostracized or perceived as weaker than any of their peers.
In short, I have hope. This here is something we can change.