Illustration by Lisha Zhong for Varsity

Content note: This article contains detailed discussion of anxiety, depression, and mental health recovery, and mention of suicide

If you were to try to graph your recovery from mental illness, you would find that it’s not a straight line with a constant gradient – any line would cut a thousand corners which you didn’t have the luxury of cutting. Recovery can’t be exemplified by any single moment of self-actualisation. You don’t look in the mirror one day, notice your unwashed hair and the bags under your eyes, and then decide that it’s time to be happy again.

Recovery is a deeply painful, deeply personal process which must be undertaken alone. When plotted on a graph, it would look more like a mountain range than a flight of stairs, with yourself and your illness the only constant variables. Even with friends, family, and professionals supporting you every step of the way, the trek to recovery is lonely.

Everyone’s path to recovery is unique, and even superficially similar cases cannot be conflated, especially when we consider factors such as class, race, gender, disability, and sexuality. For example, those who identify as transgender and/or male are much more likely to commit suicide than those who don’t. Painting recovery as one homogenous experience cannot cure the isolation which it induces.

I was diagnosed with mixed anxiety and depressive disorder when I was 17 years old. I’ve taken 200mg of Sertraline, the UK’s most widely prescribed antidepressant, every day since my diagnosis, and have received counselling on and off. Although it took a lot of coaxing from friends to get me to that first GP appointment, since walking out of it armed with a pack of antidepressants, I’ve been pretty proactive about my mental health. Despite this, my recovery has been an uphill battle, in a thunderstorm, with two broken legs.

When plotted on a graph, recovery would look more like a mountain range than a flight of stairs

When applying to Cambridge, a teacher advised that it “might not be the place for me” because of my illness, but this warning only made me crave a place more. I didn’t believe that my application would succeed, so I never fully considered the consequences that attending such an academically rigorous university might have for my health. When I actually got here, excitement and anxiety tied my stomach into knots – I was convinced that my offer was a fluke and terrified of the prospect of my mental health interfering with my studies.

These fears were quickly realised. By week two, I was already struggling to cope; my anxiety prevented me from attending many classes and supervisions. A severe case of impostor syndrome and a prolonged bout of fresher’s flu worsened my depression as term progressed. By November, one of my supervisors emailed my Director of Studies to tell him that they were concerned about the number of supervisions I had missed – in response, I sent him an emotional email finally telling him about my illness.

Cambridge is not an environment that is conducive to recovery. Upon my arrival, I promptly informed my tutor and the college nurse of my condition and registered with a GP. I filled out a pre-counselling form to request an appointment at the University Counselling Service (UCS). I did everything right.

But when you’re in recovery, doing everything right is not always enough to stop yourself from relapsing, especially when the system itself is riddled with cracks that you’re at constant risk of falling through. I had to wait a month and a half to see a counsellor at the UCS. Upon the third session, the counsellor declared that it “felt like a last session”, despite my insistence that I was still experiencing frequent anxiety attacks and depressive episodes. Cycling home, I tried to trick myself into believing that I was better. In reality the only change was that I was suddenly left without support – by the time I got to my room, I was in tears.

My story isn’t an anomaly. We’re all tired of reading articles about the inadequacies of mental health support services, desensitised to complaints of long waiting times for counsellors, and familiar with horror stories of supervisors and tutors who aren’t sympathetic to students facing mental health issues. Yet the ubiquity of this experience is not exaggerated; a 2018 survey of more than 38,000 university students showed that 21.5% had an active diagnosis for a mental health condition, 75.6% of whom reportedly concealed their symptoms from peers.


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Mountain View

Finding a path forward

The stigma around mental health is gradually being lifted, but much more needs to be done. Students still carry the burden of seeking support and managing their own mental health conditions. To make the system work, we need to delegate responsibility for administering treatment to mental health service providers rather than offload it onto patients themselves. Students need to be better informed about services provided by the university, their college, and the NHS, and the university must facilitate better communication between these three providers. Students need to be thoroughly evaluated before they are discharged from counselling, and regularly checked up on afterwards, as a point of procedure.

Most importantly, students need compassion from staff and students alike. I scraped a 2:2 at the end of my first year despite missing over half of my contact hours – some of my peers and supervisors were incredibly understanding during this time, but some were completely indifferent or insensitive to my recovery process.  Others actively impeded my recovery, regarding me as ‘lazy’. We need to see students in recovery from mental illness clearly; they’re doing everything they can to get better, whilst simultaneously juggling incredibly demanding degrees. We’re all on our own paths to recovery, but a bit of compassion from those around us can make us feel a little less alone on the journey.

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