It seems that mental health is talked about in the media more and more at the moment, and rightly so. Mental health is undeniably important and, of course, the more we can talk about it, understand it and respect it as the disease it is, the easier it becomes for those dealing with it. But while we see brilliant accounts of mental illness stepping out of the darkness and into the public eye, it is apparent that the issue remains an uneasy taboo for many people.
I stumbled across this issue during my first year at university. It’s a dangerous place for the mind, an already vulnerable part of us, meaning that many of us experience mental health issues as we study. In fact, according to NUS, 20% of students consider themselves to have a mental health problem: a worrying statistic. With this in mind, at some point during our time at university, we are inevitably going to witness students around experiencing mental health problems, if we don’t experience mental health issues ourselves. And while this is almost certain, it is still the case that many of us struggle to approach mental illness at all.
In my experience, I found that my close friend, who battled mental illness, was met with misunderstanding, confusion and even apathy: “can’t you just toughen up?”. If only it were so simple. As you feel your own grip of your self-understanding, self-recognition and self-control becoming weak, it can be incredibly painful to feel your grip on your familiar relationships becoming simultaneously weak, difficult and even straining. And even as I supported her, so too would I, simply as a friend, get bombarded with similar questions: “how can things really be that bad?” and “what’s there really to be sad about?”. Having experienced this, the difficulties with understanding mental health became even more evident.
I’ve heard of so many cases where friends are just simply walking away from the mere prospect of a friend or family member battling mental illness, at the very time they’re needed most. As I began to match these cases with my friend’s responses, that well-known issue became absolutely clear – mental illness still has its stigma. It is undeniably perceived as awkward, uncomfortable and, more importantly, something that we just can’t do anything about.
But this just isn’t the case. There’s so much that we can do. There’s no clear right and wrong with these issues, of course, and with each case of mental illness being so specific and different, so too should each approach be unique. In many cases, although there is no definitive answer, offering the quality that they are ultimately struggling to clutch, whether that’s calm, positivity or reason, is often a constructive approach.
Although mental illness can be extremely difficult to experience, being scared or worried isn’t really productive for anyone. Whether it’s a text each day to let them know you’re thinking of them, or a phone call inviting them to get coffee, it’s always a good thing to reach out. Being strong, positive and understanding will get you a surprisingly long way. But even just being there is the first, most important, step. And ultimately, only when we make this step, can we begin to fight the stigma at all.
For more info on supporting those with a mental illness, visit https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/support-someone-you-know
Rehab 4 Addiction offers a free helpline and intervention service for people suffering from drug addiction, alcohol addiction and mental health problems.