After Flora Carr’s article, “Diagnosed with Depression” (available to read here), a second year Humanities student provides Exeposé Features with their personal experience of depression.
In Exeposé issue 618, Flora Carr gave the perspective of having to deal with the news that a close friend had been diagnosed with depression. As someone who has lived with the illness for the last six years, and with the recent influx of patients to the Wellbeing Centre, I thought I might offer a view from the other side.
Depression is perhaps semantically insufficient for the condition it describes. The word’s usage in a different context is associated with economic collapse or change in a weather front. Typically, such occurrences are sudden. Depression is rarely as swift and, more importantly, not as objectively observable; the manifestation of the condition varies from person to person, and that it can be submerged under the smiles of normalcy can be confusing for people on the outside. Someone does not have to be visibly weeping to be suffering.
Winston Churchill used the metaphor of a black dog to describe his bouts of desperation, a symbol for the creeping bleakness that is the pits experienced in manic depression. It is an internal and highly personal struggle, and as such there is no one-size-fits-all cure. What might help one person may be anathema to the next; as a friend or relative, this puts one in a difficult situation, where rationality holds little power of persuasion over the irrational and powerful illness.
Consequently, this may leave someone with good intentions confused as to why their offer of help- be it chocolate and cuddles or otherwise- fails to lift the shroud from the shoulders of their friend. If misery loves company, depression actively seeks it; similarly complex mental conditions are commonly experienced alongside depression, from anxiety to addiction and disorders. This adds further difficulty for someone trying to offer help when they are unsure of precisely what they are trying to help.
Such is the illness’s prevalence, I have, fortunately, never found it to hold a significant stigma amongst people I know; there is a general acceptance and attempt to understand by people of all ages. There may be some who are dismissive of mental illness as not akin to a ‘real’ disease, the symptoms attributed to a flaw in moral fibre. Yet with the revelation that one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem at some point, this is an increasingly marginalised view, and revelation of one’s condition to caring friends and family members can be a weight off the shoulders and the beginning of help from those closest to you. Equally, it can cause friction and withdrawal from those closest to you. Depression is excruciatingly personal and isolating, at times a tarred and embarrassing secret, and the fear of being ‘found out’ is very real.
Whilst there may be the temptation – especially whilst at University and surrounded by new friends who you have bonded with – to try and come to the aid of a flatmate you suspect to be struggling with depression, one must be sympathetic to the situation and the possibility that you may be confronting someone who would be horrified by the public revelation of information on their mental wellbeing.
It is also precarious as some take the opportunity of University – leaving home, family and friends – to forge a new identity. With the expectations of Freshers’ Week, the person you were greeted with through the haze of booze may begin to fade as the term progresses and the realities of student living become apparent. Common clues can be found in the everyday: irregular sleeping patterns, poor diet, difficulties with organisation and prioritising, and of course with the coursework itself. Again, however, there could be no external or noticeable signs that your friend has depression. There may be only hints of a new distance, a sense that the person is no longer displaying the same level of fulfilment from activities or situations they initially did.
I am speaking from my own experience; both from suffering personally and witnessing friends and family members deal with depression. Though having a ‘cloud over one’s head’ is a useful image for translating something felt into something understandable, the symbolic cloud does not have the same kind of comprehensible genesis as the aforementioned literal vapour. I honestly cannot pinpoint when and how I began to slide into clinical depression, even after much rumination on the subject: a common pastime of the depressive.
To begin with, real things set off the lows; events and relationships, the jarring of reality against expectations. It is very easy, especially as a teenager, to dismiss such feelings as ‘hormones’ or ‘mood swings’, which they may well be. With the lows came wonderful highs, a phenomena experienced to its extremes by those with bipolar. This behaviour might be a psychological growing pain, a necessary part of maturing which is seamlessly left behind with time. For others it is not so simple.
When or how this was replaced by genuine, clinical depression is unclear; it no longer even matters to me. It seems trivial to say that something as simple as the toothpaste falling off the brush or the indecision of what to wear can begin a day badly and set the black dog barking, but it does. Indeed, it does not even require real occurrences to trigger negativity, as so much of it is in the mind. Judgement and lack of self-worth are common indicators, internalised negativity which impacts concentration and memory, and even the ability to perform the most mundane of tasks.
Eventually, the ‘blackness’ encompasses everything and becomes inescapable. There are no more highs, no enjoyment is derived from previously loved hobbies, and you turn away from friends and family, or push them away. Having destroyed everything once dear to you, the depression creates a plateau of feeling that is best described as an absence of emotion. This is not the January Blues. It is far better to describe it as Churchill’s black dog which becomes an absence of shade or colour. In less abstract terms, it is feeling fucking awful every second of every day until you no longer care about anything or anyone, and are left only with anger, anxiety, desperation and, sometimes, coping mechanisms which can be highly destructive to the mind and body.
What depression is not is mood. The investigation published in the last issue by Exeposé revealed exams and coursework deadlines as triggers for distress. Whilst you should let no one try to explicitly define what constitutes a mental illness, nor allow someone to dismiss the validity or importance of what you feel, there is a difference between the inevitable stress of a deadline, and that deadline being the straw that breaks the camel’s heavily laden back. Undoubtedly there is a variance in the severity of mental illnesses, and perhaps the high percentages recorded in the investigation is indicative of the societal pressures young people now find themselves under, but clinical depression does not stop and start with the seasons. If you can snap yourself out of low mood in a few hours or days, do not feel worried about having depression, as the likelihood is you do not.
It may sound facetious, but there is no cure for life. That societal and lifestyle factors play such an important part in the number of cases of clinical depression, it seems, to me, too easy to create a binary of ‘mentally healthy’ and ‘mentally unwell’; the scale of despair is too great to dismiss as not pertaining to the wider values and ordering of our society. That said, this supposition does little to treat the symptoms, and that is what the Health and Wellbeing Centre offers, a service which many more are turning to, with a variety of treatment options available. Having waited for five years before accepting external, professional support, I recommend it if you are unable to help yourself.
I cannot give concrete advice on what to do if you are concerned that someone you know has a mental illness; it is down to individual intuition and discretion as to how to act. The nature of student living means that living in such close proximity with your peers creates a bond between people rarely found elsewhere. If you feel there is a very real possibility of self-harm or a threat to the safety of others, the need to seek help from official sources is obvious. In my opinion, I would advise listening without undue probing, whilst keeping in mind you cannot cure them with your concern. Sometimes ‘hugs and chocolate’ may be all you can offer, and that is enough.
If you’re feeling stressed or affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can book an appointment, or find out more information, with the University’s Wellbeing centre here. You can also talk to Voice, who offer a confidential service run by students, for students, here.bookmark me