The Invisible Illness
By Ruby Burlingham
There is often more people than you think who are suffering from a mental illness. Students are definitely no exception; being away from home and in a completely new environment, mental health issues can begin to creep up on you. For some, it can just make existing problems worse. One of my closest friends, Becky, has just graduated from University of Leicester at the age of twenty-one, while all the time suffering from depression and anxiety. She kindly agreed to share her story with us.
When did you get your diagnosis?
“I wasn’t diagnosed with anything until I was eighteen, but I’ve been suffering since I was eleven.”
How did you feel after getting a diagnosis?
“I felt.. validated. I knew I had been unwell for so long, but annoyingly, people often won’t take you as seriously without a diagnosis, including doctors. It felt like someone telling me that I wasn’t overreacting, I really was suffering. It’s a shame that it took a diagnosis to feel valid, but anxiety is excellent at pumping you with doubt.”
How would friends describe the day to day you? What’s behind the illness?
“I’d consider day to day Becky to be the woman in front of the illness, interrupting it when it tries to be heard. But yeah, my heart, where possible, is worn on my sleeve. Anxiety can tell you to hide the real you, so where I can I will laugh, I will rage, I will cry over someone eating the last packet of rolos, I will feel my feelings unapologetically. I’m [also] quite energetic, I have a lot of nervous energy from anxiety, and I channel it mostly into laughter.”
Would you say that’s a coping mechanism?
“Yeah, coping with difficult times is easier through comedy, especially with topics that make me want to cry. You know, Trump, Brexit, pineapple on pizza, that kind of thing. Dark humour laughs bad thoughts into the ground until they have no power over you anymore… As long as no one is getting hurt, then I will always give myself that right to feel.”
So being at university, how did it affect your studies?
“I honestly can’t think of a way it didn’t affect me. It affected everything. From motivation to concentration, preparation to participation. Asking for help from anyone in classes was out of the question, let alone speaking in seminars. I began to associate my degree with hopelessness. I wondered sometimes if I really belonged at university at all.”
What were the main factors that pushed you forward?
“Honestly? Mainly that I’m stubborn and proud as all hell. Sometimes it is my downfall, but I hate to feel defeated. I’ve always loved education, and I wasn’t ready to let my illness get in the way of getting a degree. But balancing out determination with self-care helped to keep my energy levels up. Burning out is so easy when your brain is already working overtime. I knew it was just my poor mental health trying to drag me down. I always try to imagine mental health disorders as being caused by physical infections. All it wants to do is survive, so of course it wants you to drop out of university.”
What were some of the hardest parts to overcome?
“The worst part about it all was that my university stressed that you are in a constant competition: everyone in your lectures was someone who would take your dream job if you didn’t work harder than them. I ended up comparing myself to everyone else. [Then] I would beat myself up emotionally so often because I wasn’t doing any better than the group average. I would often be too anxious to leave my home, let alone attend lectures in small rooms full of many people. I would also sometimes be so tired that I’d sleep for fourteen hours and never hear my alarm [but] still wouldn’t have the energy to concentrate.”
Was there a turning point?
“It took me right up until the middle of third year to just focus on my own path. But after that point, my self esteem rose and it was easier to be kinder to myself – I finally respected myself.”
How easy was it to get help at university?
“When I applied through UCAS, there was an option to declare that I considered myself to have a mental health disorder. It was under disability which I didn’t personally like, but I understand why. But as soon as I was accepted, I had letters through from the ‘AccessAbility Centre’”.
“A centre for academic help for mental health disorders, autism and learning disorders.”
Did they help?
“I didn’t use the service initially, but when I did, they helped me apply for DSA (Disabled Student Allowance) which paid for many helpful tools. This included a new laptop with programs to help me when I cannot concentrate or read well and a mental health/study advisor who had appointments once a week with me for the rest of my time at university. She gave me tips on managing my mental health struggles while helping me organise my workload. She really pushed the idea of being kind to yourself. I’ll always thank her for that.”
Did you try any self-help methods?
“I did yeah, mainly to soothe my anxiety. I still swear by yoga to send me to sleep. I feel like I’m a towel saturated with stress, and yoga wrings it out of my body. Never all of it, but it helps enough. I’ve also tried mindfulness techniques and meditation. While I was doing it regularly, it really helped to clear my mind and ground myself in reality. However, depression came along and tells me that I’m not worth the effort of trying to feel calm, so I haven’t been practicing it recently. — I’ll get back into it, it’s easier to try to commit to self-help techniques when you’ve felt the evidence of it working. Give everything a go. Usually it’s the cliches that work the best and you sigh at the idea of trying them, but exercise and meditation really do help.”
How do you feel towards the outcome of university for you?
“I won’t lie, I felt like I had let my mental illness defeat me. But now I see that I had it entirely wrong. I managed to stay at university and get a 2:2 without letting myself fall into one of the many dark holes of poor mental health. The 2:2 represents my determination to pass while unwell. After [initial tears,] and a few weeks of thought, I can finally say that I’m genuinely content with my result, but also the person who came out on the other side.”
Do you think it’s shaped you as a person today?
“I think I shaped myself the way I wanted to in spite of having mental health problems. On one hand, I have chronic mental illness which means it has followed me everywhere, so it must have had an impact on every part of who I am. But also, it’s just an experience of adversity like any other. We always have choices, even if our illnesses make it seem like we don’t. My anxiety would have wanted me to drop out of university, but I chose not to. Although if I want to give my illness credit for anything, it has given me the understanding of mental health problems that many people don’t have. All set backs force you to either give up or keep going. I don’t want to be defined by my illness.”
What would you change about the approach to mental health?
“We need to stop stigmatising the issue. There’s the stigma that mental health problems are a choice, and a stigma of mental health sufferers being “the other”. It leads to a lot of victim blaming and accusations of weakness. [Such as with] suicide and addiction; ‘he chose the easy way out’ or ‘she wouldn’t be homeless if she stopped drinking.’ [It’s] harmful ignorance. Mental illness does not discriminate, it will take anyone from any background. It hurts me to think that people think suicide is a cowards choice, or that someone had no right to be mentally ill because their life is ‘too good’. There’s also the extremely irritating belief that mental health sufferers are a different kind of person. I had to do a lot of research into stigmas around mental health and oh my god, don’t do it, it’ll make you angry. The amount of people who think they can point out a mentally unwell person just by looking at them makes me rightfully frustrated. Illnesses take anyone vulnerable to it.”
What’s next for you?
“I’ll be working in the dementia unit of a care home for a year or two. And I’m hoping to eventually apply for a Master’s in Integrated Counselling and Psychotherapy at your very own University of Derby! But [for now], I want hands on experience working with people with various experiences of mental health issues. Obviously, I’d like to go into counselling or psychotherapy, but I’d like to go into schools and speak with pupils about mental health. — We need to start taking children seriously when they speak about their troubles. I’d also like to work with stigma around suicide. Anything could be next for me, as long as I can help people heal.”
Is there anything you wish more people knew about mental health?
“Sometimes loved ones stress out because they can’t do anything to ease our pain. But just having reminders that we are accepted and that we will be listened to can be enough. We’re still Becky, or Manika, Hassan or Charlie; we’re still your loved one, we just need some support and time.”
As Becky has proudly shown, it is possible to persevere through the ups and downs that’s life at university will throw at you, but there will always be someone or something there to help you — even if you’re feeling hopeless. If you find yourself struggling but don’t want to head to a professional just yet, or even our own well-being centre, don’t be afraid to answer the next “how are you?” with an honest answer instead of “I’m fine.” There is always someone to listen to you.