September 27, 2013

SwanIt’s that time of year again; when universities from all over the UK admit gaggles of students into the exciting (but also rather overwhelming) world of Higher Education.

It’s a challenging time for anybody, but particularly challenging if you are experiencing a mental health problem. Why? Because whilst the majority of Freshers are hoping that they will like their housemates, and questioning whether or not they can handle that boozy Freshers week schedule, those with mental health problems are plagued by a multitude of other, perhaps more concerning questions.

Would my housemates think that I was a freak if they found out about my mental health problem?

Last year I was in this situation. Alongside the usual concerns, I found myself facing a number of additional troubling questions: would my housemates think that I was a freak if they found out about my mental health problem? What if I couldn’t cope and I relapsed?

Before starting University, I had made the decision that I didn’t want anybody to know about my mental health problem. I wanted a fresh start, a blank slate and, most of all, for people to think of me as me and not my mental health problem. I wanted to be known as the fashion lover or the writing enthusiast, not ‘the anorexic’ or ‘the depressed one’. However, hiding my problems became a problem of their own and it was a huge relief when my housemates found out about my problems, as I felt that I no longer had to lie about some of the symptoms of my mental health. Things improved from there, I was enjoying my course and had made some new friends with whom I shared interests. I no longer had to worry about hiding, and I was using the support offered by the University to help prevent any relapses.

I felt furious with myself for ever revealing my problems

A few months later I received a huge blow. Whilst organizing housing for the next year, my housemates revealed that they had decided to continue living together, whilst suggesting that I found another group of people to live with. I understood that I would be happier in the long term if I found a different group with whom I shared more interests, but the rejection was magnified tenfold when they cited one of the reasons for the decision as being my mental health problem.

I felt ashamed and furious with myself for ever revealing my problems. Stronger than this though, was the frustration I felt at their lack of understanding. If somebody suffered from Asthma or Diabetes, you wouldn’t use this as reason to reject somebody, so why should it be different for somebody who experiencing mental health problems? Luckily, I had the support from my family, and the new friends that I had made, who encouraged me that it was lack of understanding that was to blame, and not myself.

I am now living with a new group of friends

I am now living with a new group of friends when the term begins, who I have spoken to about my experiences of mental illness and discrimination. They have been entirely supportive, offering to assist me in any way possible to get the message out there to the (statistical) 900 incoming students at my university that having a mental health problem is nothing to be ashamed of.

My experiences of discrimination haven’t swayed me from talking about mental health; instead, they’ve encouraged me to do anything that I can to improve people’s knowledge. So, if you are starting University this year and have a mental health problem, please know that it’s okay to talk. It can really make things turn out for the better.

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