September 10, 2013

AlexandraAfter watching ‘Football Suicide Secrets’, I was inspired by Clarke Carlisle’s honesty and bravery to share my own experience. The documentary highlighted the public pressure footballers deal with and I identified with it my experience as an elected student officer for a university students’ union about nine years ago.

As anyone who has gone through an election process and held office would know, the job in itself is incredibly challenging and rewarding. Through that elected term I had the misfortune of going through a multitude of traumatic life events.

At the time I very much felt the pressure of my inexperience and immaturity in dealing with my life properly. Also, at the beginning of the term I fell in love with a person who within the first six months of our relationship had been sectioned twice. I had a 12 hour working day and spent every weekend at a mental health ward in another city.

I encountered first hand stigma of mental health

It was here I encountered first hand stigma of mental health from my well-meaning and supposedly politically astute friendship group. They all, bar two, advised ending the relationship and emphasized that relationships are a selfish option I could willingly get out of. Only two good friends were able to fully understand the situation and gave very heartfelt and useful advice, and this was because they had known good friends who experienced mental illnesses.

The rest of the elected term was incredibly emotionally straining. The job itself was fantastic, it challenged and developed many skills and I am proud to have been part of such interesting times and worked with amazing staff and students. But they do say hell is other people, and my relationships with my elected colleagues were strained to the full.

This is somewhat expected within the student elected sphere, personalities and political agendas are bound to clash. However, my private life continued to be full of drama. I would list all the events but it would read like a black comedy piece. The immense pressure at work came from the perceived expectation to “deal with it”, especially as I was in a “leadership” role. In a way it was flattering that people expected better of me, but I also became viewed as someone who was “always going through something” and the ungraceful way I had dealt with my life had tested everyone’s patience.

I should have talked to staff in my department

Being all of 21 I was blinded by pride and ignorance of the support I could, and should, have sought. Looking back I should have talked to the staff in my department and been open about what I was going through and my limitations. I should also have been honest with myself. It was an age, as well as a sphere (student politics), where I found weakness to be disrespected and the admittance of defeat seen as cowardly.

But I did not seek help, not only because of pride, but because I was unable to concede my weaknesses because of the stigma I had unconsciously attached to mental illness. It wasn’t until two years ago that I could finally admit to myself a history of chronic depression that went all the way back to my childhood and the obvious obstacles that condition has created in my life.

What were my rights?

By the end of the sabbatical year things had become so tense and awful between another elected colleague and me that I was finally motivated to investigate what my rights were. Partly inspired by a behind-the-back labelling of being “mental” I felt obliged to ask the question to myself and other colleagues, “well, what if I am?” what safety nets, procedures, structures are there available for elected officers in times of mental illness?

Leaving this open to interpretation for each elected team to improvise an approach was not an appropriate way to deal with such issues and was/is potentially dangerous. In my experienced head I can now hear the cry of HR managers across the country when I say one of the ways my elected group dealt with me was to sit me down and list all of my foibles, one by one. It was an utterly useless process providing only one constructive criticism and all it achieved was to make me feel more isolated.

I did some research

So I was determined to see what the score was because I wasn’t vain enough to think I was the only person who had and would go through a similar dilemma.

My brief research highlighted that my union came under charitable law, and many charitable organisations, at the time, voluntarily opted for a Dignity at Work Policy. I was surprised to discover that any such policy, whether adopted by my union or not, would not cover elected officers as they are both heads of a union and employees to the student body. This is politically correct in my view, but it leaves a legal black hole where officers are only informally line-managed by each other.

This presents incredible freedom but, considering the vulnerability damaging life events can place anyone under, as well as the fact that 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year, it is surely a cruel situation for anyone who really needs a safety net to protect them. Also, the political and public pressure makes it very difficult for officers to seek or create those mechanisms when they are going through deep emotional distress themselves.

I hope this story will bring positive change

Unfortunately, I went through a deep depression after my elected term and felt unable to chase this up on my own. The best I could do was to highlight the issue and propose solutions to the in-coming sabbatical team during the handover.

The Time to Change campaign has really inspired me to finally share my story. I note that the NUS president has signed up to the Time to Change Pledge and I hope this story will bring about some positive change, change which is crucial if student bodies around the country are to continue to inspire and maintain a diverse range of elected officers.

On a happy note, I am still with that partner, nine years later.

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