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Anyone who was paying even the slightest attention to the recent Sabb elections will have noticed the dominating presence of mental health across the manifestos. Particularly prominent in the presidential debate, the need to improve and update the wellbeing services at our university was a consensus shared amongst all the candidates, with the subsequent discussions focusing on the different ways this could be achieved. What came out was indeed encouraging, with important issues such as the need for clearer signposting and better accessibility to wellbeing support as a whole. One of the most commonly suggested ideas was the provision of more stress-reducing activities on campus, including the return of animals such as the donkeys which made an appearance at the start of this term.

Such an open discussion of mental health issues and their impact on the student experience was a comforting reminder of the progress made in the fight against mental health stigma. As a student who has suffered from mental illness during university, these focused conversations were a welcome occurrence. I think it’s a case of the more the merrier when it comes to sharing our experiences (yes, I’m that girl talking openly about her therapist in the middle of a house party, don’t mind me); the willingness of the candidates to place emphasis on the need for improved wellbeing services, alongside the recent Guild Mental Health Month, is an encouraging reminder that slowly but surely, we are becoming more comfortable with talking about mental health.

However, the tendency throughout the debates to see mental health issues as a symptom of stress and university pressure can be damaging to those whose condition is defined by a medical diagnosis. The stresses of university certainly create an environment which leaves us vulnerable to mental health issues, but it’s important to acknowledge that there are some individuals whose mental illness was with them before university and will stay with them long after they graduate.

the tendency throughout the debates to see mental health issues as a symptom of stress and university pressure can be damaging to those whose condition is defined by a medical diagnosis

It’s a brilliant idea to make campus a safe space for people to openly talk about and learn how to cope with their stresses and worries, but this shouldn’t be at the expense of isolating from the discussion those whose illnesses are already heavily stigmatised; we can recognise that everyone has their own experience with mental health without creating a division between people who need different kinds of support.

Fundamentally, conversations which treat mental health issues as an umbrella term to describe everything from deadline stress to bipolar disorder risk undermining the severity and impact of these long-term mental illnesses. By presenting animals on campus or nap rooms as wellbeing services, we are in danger of excluding those whose illnesses will not be solved by a simple reduction of stress. It’s important to acknowledge that all experiences of mental illness deserve adequate support, not just those that affect the majority of the student population.

Unfortunately, this problem is much bigger than a misunderstanding amongst the student population. Across the country, there is a clear prejudice towards people who seek professional help with their mental illness, especially those who are prescribed medication or hospitalised as a result. A clear manifestation of this problem was a front-page story published by The Daily Mail on 29 December 2017, whose headline ‘A Nation Hooked on Happy Pills’ sparked anger across social media for its irresponsible trivialisation of anti-depressants. By expressing a negative attitude towards the reported increase in people seeking help for mental health problems, the story only further exacerbated the stigma towards the use of medication in psychiatric treatment.

Across the country, there is a clear prejudice towards people who seek professional help with their mental illness

If we are going to challenge these damaging stereotypes, we first need to acknowledge the different forms of mental health treatment without judging them as more or less socially acceptable. Anti-depressants are not the easy way out of feeling a bit down, but regularly effective medications for many forms of mental illness (including anxiety, depression, OCD, and PTSD) which should be prescribed and monitored by a medical professional. I know that when I was prescribed anti-depressants after being diagnosed with OCD, the stigma surrounding the medication made me feel uncomfortable with taking it as if seeking medical help for my brain was a failure on my part.

The truth is that those anti-depressants gave me the strength I needed to start therapy, and are helping me to find effective coping mechanisms for when I stop taking them. Just as a diabetic uses insulin to regulate their blood sugar levels, I use anti-depressants to balance the serotonin levels in my brain. The only way to challenge the ignorance which society holds towards this form of mental health treatment is by talking openly, discussing medication and inpatient care as legitimate options for those who need it.

The only way to challenge the ignorance which society holds towards this form of mental health treatment is by talking openly

As students, we have the ability to change the way we think by challenging the traditional stereotypes society perpetuates about different ways of managing your mental health. Focusing on providing animals on campus to reduce stress could be a beneficial idea, as long as we also take the time to help and encourage those who need more support. We’ve come a long way in opening the conversation about mental health, but there is still so much to do.

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