Mental health at university: living on a stage

By Steven Williams

Mental health at university almost has a strange, almost paradoxical, existence. The presence of mental health often feels simultaneously stigmatised while also being somehow normalised. Mental health conditions occurring within students at university is a common phenomenon, yet discussions resolving around mental health remain rare, with the subject being almost taboo. With this in mind, I wanted to write about my experience with mental health at university (predominantly with my depression), in particularly focusing upon the pressure I felt to hide my depression.

Living with mental health has been compared to living a double life; you need to balance how you feel and how you want to be perceived feeling, but I’ve always found it to be more complicated than that. You’re pushed into a situation where not only are you balancing how you feel and how you want people to think you’re feeling, but you’re also scared about how people may be interpreting your actions. This sparks an identity crisis; as a person, are you how you feel, or how you try to present yourself? Are you how people actually see you, or something else? Ultimately the problem of living a double (or even a multifaceted life) is that you lose the real you. You feel like you have fractured yourself, some pieces made from truth, some only inspired by truth, and some entirely fictionalised.

This year I have spent a considerable amount of time with student actors. Talking to them about their characters and the choices they make to portray them struck a chord with me. The need to have a deep understanding of the motivation, quirks and the soul of someone other than yourself, heavily reminded me of the early stages of depression. In some sense, living with mental health is theatre, (in the least glamourous of senses). What started as me trying to simply hide my depression developed as the original seed of hiding grew. It became less of “I need to hide my depression” and more “I need to hide”. I saw myself as damaged, and while I may have simply started by hiding my depression, I grew to attempt to hide everything. I tried to grow into someone other: a better version of myself. I began to act like the lie I wanted to be, not who I was.  The world truly became a stage to me, but I was more than an actor. I was directing myself, writing myself and dressing myself according to this new character; I felt as if I were an entire ensemble and crew. I directed myself extraordinary leaps to hide the extent of depression. Essentially creating an entirely new persona with a set of defensive “quirks” to hide the symptoms of depressions.

So why do this? The answer is simple and lies in fear. Society says depression isn’t normal, it says it’s scary and taboo. It feels as if something has been taken from you, that something being the most basic of necessities: the chance to be happy. In the face of fear, it’s easy to become somewhat desperate and fall into one of the most familiar coping mechanisms- pretend it’s not there and it will go away. Words have a sense of power. Before the words “I am depressed” are muttered, it doesn’t feel entirely real yet. It exists somewhere not quite as narrow as your own personal world, but not quite within the wider social conscious. Saying the words are a necessary step to recovery, but are also a frightening step. Due to the absence of mental health from wider social narrative, you often can’t guess how people will react to its entry or intrusion into a social narrative. It felt like running in the dark, never being sure how someone would react to being told about my mental health. Looking back, I was lucky, most of my friends were very supportive, and while that made it easier, it didn’t make it easy.

Society’s unwillingness to discuss issues such as mental health is creating a negative phenomenon; it’s encouraging people with mental health conditions to not only hide their mental health but to also hide themselves. It creates the idea that once diagnosed with depression, you can’t be happy unless you’re someone else, not only robbing people of the support they may need to recover, but also of themselves.

Illustration: Mariam Hayat

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