Depression: beyond stigmatisation and stereotyping

My first up-close view of depression was from the plastic seat of my sixth-form classroom. Psychology IB offered me a bullet-point guide to what this mental illness involved: mood, sleep, appetite etcetera. Although this clinical course did give an insight into the nature of the condition, my true understanding of it was still somewhat stinted before I arrived at university.

This comprehension however was not one provided by the academic opportunities of Oxford. As the Royal College of Psychiatry dictates in their report Mental health of students in higher education the geographical and social displacement that going to university involves often leaves young people in their transition from adolescence to adulthood more vulnerable, and at times more susceptible to mental health problems. On top of this, with Oxford being one of the world’s leading universities, not to mention the detrimental effects of the competitive atmosphere, there is also evidence to suggest that outstanding intellectual capabilities could be associated with mental health issues. A study conducted by MacCabe et al in 2010 for example, suggests that individuals with high-achieving academic results were fourfold more likely to develop bi-polar disorder than those with average academic results. With this in mind, simply belonging to the Oxford University student population made me more at risk of being exposed to mental health problems; whether they were my own or of those around me.

Statistics and speculations aside however, it was through the latter that my experience of depression took form. With a person close to me being diagnosed with depression early on in their academic career, as an emotionally involved observer, I was also slowly dragged through the snares within the Oxford system. It wasn’t however the lack of support opportunities that struck me as the major problem; it was, bearing in mind the effects depression has on both will power and motivation, the difficulty with which an individual could even begin to address the issue. First and foremost making use of the collegiate referral systems: Welfare officers and peer supporters; all of which as peers within your niche college community, would require a large degree of confidence and self-awareness of the problem to be able to confide in them. Perhaps even if they were in some way involved in the system themselves. Secondly, the option of the college Chaplain which although a detached figure from college life, would have neither the expertise nor the authority to manageably aid the individual. Lastly, and most importantly, the college doctors, nurses, and counselling service, which either work limited hours a week, that with difficulty comply with the density of the Oxford timetable, or that making an appointment is in itself a lengthy and stressful task that can take up to weeks to come to fruition.

With the constant pressures and hurdles of the Oxford lifestyle it is not the ideal environment for a student to deal with, accept and recover from mental health problems. What needs to be done is to tackle the problem at its root, as well as improving the facility with which people can seek help. This means aiding individuals in recognising that they should not feel in any way stigmatised by their condition, as Joe Miles admirably and bravely states in his pioneering article written for the Cherwell in April 2013. Just as importantly however is teaching the people around them not to misunderstand them, and this is the purpose of this article. That the recognition of mental illness goes deeper than simply rejecting the stigma that the label wrongly implies, it means fully acknowledging the mental and physical struggle that the condition incurs: from the journey of personal acceptance of the issue to the problematic practicalities of the side-effects of psychotropic medication. As someone who has witnessed this toil, I would like this article to push the importance of tackling perception and provisions for mental health into the limelight, offering my own hope and support for both the student body, and the individual I am writing this for.