My first two years at the University of Cambridge were not fun. Perhaps that’s selfish to say. After all, I was at a world-renowned university, studying a subject I love and earning an education many young people would kill to have. So, why wasn’t I happy?
Why wasn’t I making the most of the opportunity I’d worked so hard to achieve?
I was surrounded by wonder, from the architecture to the academia, but the truth was that I was plagued by my feelings of insecurity.
I was no longer the star student I’d been at school, and I was studying in a place filled with people who had achieved extraordinary things.
I felt completely out of my element. It was only two weeks into my first term when the eating disorder from which I suffered for the two preceding years returned.
By the time I chose to take a year away from university, two years later, I’d also developed severe depression.
In 2011, a survey found that 30 percent of American students reported feeling “too depressed to function.”
Just last year in the UK, a survey found that 20 percent of students believe they have a mental health problem, while 13 percent feel suicidal.
These students worry about stigma, inadequacy, perfection and pressure. But, like me, they live in environments in which these problems flourish.
As any student or graduate will tell you, universities and colleges are environments in which it is perfectly normal to start a conversation with how long it has been since you last slept.
These are environments where it is common to spend 24 hours in a laboratory or library, read the complete works of Shakespeare in a week and subsist on a coffee diet. All the while, you maintain an active social life.
As the 2013 Mental Health Report from Yale University puts it,
We brag about our lack of sleep and the scant number of hours before a due date we began an assignment. We declare our levels of stress, exhaustion, incompetence, and anxiety as if negative self-appraisal were a competitive sport.
The report continues to state, “Sometimes, hyperbole and dark humor make it hard for us to share our sincere mental health concerns.”
In environments where everybody appears to be giving 110 percent and talks nonstop about doing so, it’s easy to feel that because you’re exhausted, stressed and behind on your assignments, you are weak.
Low self-esteem and other serious mental health problems often ensue as a result.
Fortunately, most institutions are now aware that this is a serious problem many students face. And, many schools are attempting to improve their seriously underfunded university counseling services.
But there is only so much the institutions can do to combat this problem. Students also must accept responsibility for this initiative.
Nobody else, it seems, will tackle the excessive competition. Nobody else, it seems, will end the habit to look for excuses to put one another down in order to propel ourselves forward.
We are also uniquely able to combat the stigmatization of mental illness. Stories from those brave enough to share their experiences often make fellow students realize that it’s okay to have difficulties and to get help.
But, would I ever have spoken to anyone about my problems if I hadn’t first spoken to a friend suffering from depression? Not a chance.
Although no sufferer of mental illness should ever feel obligated to speak out about his or her experiences, we can all start to talk more about mental health.
Realistically, we won’t change the high-pressure environments in which students, like me, go about their daily lives. But, we can give more students the confidence they need to speak about how the high-pressure environment impacts them.
By not being afraid to admit our own weaknesses and talk about mental health problems, we can create an environment in which students feel able to admit they are struggling.
If we do that, maybe more students will speak up and seek out the help they so desperately need. All we need to do is accept that it’s okay to be not okay.
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