Oxford must improve its approach to mental health


“I think you just need to eat,” This is what a GP at the Jericho Health Centre said to me when I told him I was considering killing myself, “Anti-depressants work better with food.”

This occurred summer 2016, following a tumultuous Trinity term that included family illness, harassment and domestic assault, followed by final exams and the start of a dissertation. I had faced depression before, and done everything by the book: the meds, the therapy, the openness and the exercise. I’m strongly of the mind that depression is not an excuse for inaction – and until this year I could not empathize with those who had ‘lost faith’ in the mental health care system, or those that had cited it as a reason to attempt suicide. Candidly, I thought those people were weak and hadn’t tried hard enough.

And then I came to Oxford. Oxford is a magical place to be a student, everyone around you is the smartest person someone in their life knows (including you!), and there is an inherent weight on us to keep it together. We are not good at accepting defeat, especially academically or mentally, it’s not how we got here. This is why when depression comes in, it hits hard and, for me, made me feel like I was failing myself. The depression hit its worst during my summer of research collection. I was in a rural town in Ireland when I ran out of anti-depressants and decided it was time to go off of them; four months was enough time to mourn a yearlong abusive relationship, and everyone knowns someone who has cancer, right? Time to move on.

Cue a week later flying back to Oxford after visiting a suicide prevention wing in rural Ireland, and sitting across from the aforementioned doctor. I was in the process of asking for an extension of my dissertation, and needed to see a number of professionals to compile ‘evidence of distress’. I arranged to see another doctor that I had spoken to earlier in the year, around the time of the ‘depression-triggering’ incidents. I explained how I was feeling, and how I was looking for a note acknowledging I was ‘ill’. She looked at me, remarked that I “wasn’t crying” and that “it made sense why I was sad months ago”, and refused to write me a note. She furthered that depression doesn’t allow a patient to come and speak calmly to a professional, and the act of my being in the clinic meant that I was well enough to finish my paper.

Without a signed letter from a health professional, regardless that I had letters from my Tutor, head of department, supervisor, and suicide- prevention centre, in addition to letters from my family doctor and psychiatrist, my extension was in question and I was told to “be prepared to fail”. My college nurse told me to go to the counsellor offered through the University, which might convince the University to grant the extension. I had been to the counsellor and knew about the process: being that they work under a ‘short-term’ timeline, seeing students about three times in total. My experience had been okay; mostly talking about the necessity of mindfulness and those colouring books. It wasn’t helpful, but I also understand the time constraints these counsellors are under and the sheer mass of students they have.

We are not good at accepting defeat – it’s not how we got here.

Regardless, I went. I explained why I needed an extension, re-contextualizing my depression and the events that led to it, and re-launching into my recent suicidal intent (It is key to say here that I had the intent to commit suicide, never an attempt). She told me she thought I “wasn’t depressed, but that further psychiatric testing was needed”, explaining that I was just sad and possibly bipolar. She refused to sign, but instead allotted me a time five weeks in the future for a psychiatrist, the only one they had on staff, who came into the office once a week.

I booked a flight home that night and was in a doctor’s office in Canada within 24 hours.

Eventually, I got the extension, which was granted two weeks after the thesis was due. However, this isn’t about that, it’s about how I was treated by medical professionals during the lowest lows I had ever experienced. With the doctors and the counsellors, I was made to feel helpless, idiotic and alone. I was lucky to have the support of my department, college nurse and college tutor, but in a moment in which I seriously considered doing myself major damage, I was told I was fine by medical professionals. Suicidal thoughts have you genuinely believe you would be better off gone then alive. It’s illogical for the clear mind, but is a very real state of mind to be in when you are sick. And depression is an illness. If I had walked into these rooms with a broken arm I would have been granted a note instantly, but because I was talking about feelings and emotions, which scared me beyond belief, there was room for interpretation.

This is horrific, and it frightens me to think of the amount of people this has happened to across this University. The process needs to change, and it needs to change fast. Depression is an illness, and suicide is not a decision made by a rational, healthy brain – you shouldn’t need a cough to demonstrate the danger you’re in. Oxford University is known for its intelligence and history in academia – it’s time to apply this knowledge to the biggest threat facing its students today.

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