For mental health in lockdown, Oxford privilege means nothing

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Image description: Scrabble pieces spelling out “mental health”

Oxford privilege exists. But that doesn’t change the fact that lockdown has played havoc with students’ mental health.

Students at Oxford have a lot to be grateful for. We have been able to attend a university that will undoubtedly improve our employability, we have been given some of the best resources and facilities in the world to conduct our studies, and we generally live in circumstances that most in the world will never enjoy. As has been said before, it is almost impossible to complain about our lost lives at Oxford without sounding privileged and self-centred.

Mental wellness is impossible to quantify, but what feels so debilitating about mental illness is its very indefinite period of existence.

And yet, for many whose struggles with mental health issues have been dealt a serious blow by the implications of lockdown, assurances of Oxford privilege have done little to help. Having had to remove ourselves from the friends and city we called home with almost no chance to say goodbye or even a date of return, students around the country are feeling a grief that has a very real possibility of morphing into something darker.

Mental wellness is impossible to quantify, but what feels so debilitating about mental illness is its very indefinite period of existence. Much like a virus-induced lockdown, extended for “at least” weeks at a time, and with no definite end date or clear light at the end of this particularly dark tunnel, a state of mental illness appears an eternal sensation.

As the rest of the world adjusts to the new normal of reduced freedoms and social distancing, so too do people struggling have to adjust to a feeling of prolonged uneasiness. How can one have the energy for life when the life we enjoy has been so disrupted and disturbed?

Far more than mourning our Oxford pleasures, though, we are mourning our loss of routine and loss of control. Many coping mechanisms, such as going out for a coffee or a walk have been rendered simply impossible. While exercise once a day is a welcome respite, the constant social media discourse of questioning and surveilling one’s every move can make staying inside feel a far safer option.

For every news article that flashes ever-more-dire projections in front of our screens, that feeling of loss and helplessness affirms its strong grip on your imagined future.

Those we care about most have also been torn from us, across the country or the world, connected by Zoom or Skype but nothing more substantial. With these stripped away, and the University’s wellbeing services reduced to limited, delayed and online-only appointments, it feels all someone can do is to sit it out and wait. While GPs are still operating, and anyone who finds themselves in need should definitely still seek help, non-medical options are becoming much harder to access.

A propensity to focus on the negatives, which is what many common mental illnesses force our brains to do, combines with news coverage to create a monstrous reality. For every news article that flashes ever-more-dire projections in front of our screens, that feeling of loss and helplessness affirms its strong grip on your imagined future.

The reality of the world’s greater problems do nothing to help someone when life as they know it is falling down around them.

While we at Oxford are privileged and lucky, we are still entering a job market that even before COVID-19 was struggling to fit us all in. Anxiety for the future can only have been strengthened with all the time we now have to think.

Yes, we are lucky. Necessary lockdowns across the world are destroying people’s lives and livelihoods. They are paving the way for authoritarian government overreach or ineptitude and wreaking havoc on a global economy whose main victims will not be us, sitting pretty in our ivory towers and stone castle walls. This should never be forgotten. However, the reality of the world’s greater problems does nothing to help someone when life as they know it is falling apart around them.

We like to think, as a society, that steps have been made to destigmatise mental illness – and undoubtedly progress has been made  – but social media often tells a different story. Images and posts circulate that mock struggling young people, languishing in false comparisons between our generation and that of the world wars. Such comparisons, designed as they are to denigrate our generation for daring to be open about mental health, just add to the deafening cacophony of hopelessness.

Lockdown is hard for everyone, and though we should always remember it will be harder for some and be grateful for our privilege, mental health struggles should never be downplayed.

Image credit: Today Testing (CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

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