Global Health Society on Mental Health: A Student Perspective

My name is Anna. I am currently in my third year of studying medicine at the University of Manchester. I was diagnosed with depression in my first year at university.

What did you understand about mental health before coming to university?

Mental health has always been of academic interest to me, and I had already read several related books before embarking on my medical studies. I had devoured titles such as the classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, by Oliver Sacks; The Tell-Tale Brain, by V.S.Ramachandran; Thin, by Grace Bowman; and The Skeleton Cupboard, by Tanya Byron. I was fascinated with disorders of the mind, but my understanding of  “mental health” never stretched beyond a collection of disorders that I could name. I certainly didn’t appreciate that everyone has to look after their own mental health, even if they do not have a “disorder”, to keep themselves happy and healthy.

How has university culture impacted your mental health?

Coming to university is stressful for everyone! That much is certain. It forces you to work out what is important to you. With so much to do and so many activities to get involved in and people to meet, it becomes easy to get swept up in it all and to believe the hype that you can “work hard, play hard” 24/7. For me, trying to do so much was very draining, both physically and mentally. It’s easy to say to yourself “well all of my friends seem to be doing a lot, there must be something wrong with me that I can’t seem to keep up with them”.  This can leave you feeling inadequate and exhausted as you try to match the people around you.

However, firstly it’s rare that people are actually doing as much as they say they are. And secondly, everyone is very different in their limits of both what they can do and how much of it they can handle. I’m quite an introverted person at heart, and so going out would wipe me out for days, whereas I know people who are perfectly happy going out three times a week and would still have the mental energy to get all of their work done. Conversely, I have a greater tolerance for exercise and can happily play hockey twice a week, run and swim on other days, and cycle each day to university without too many problems. So knowing my own strengths and limitations, and accepting that they are probably different from “the norm” (or what people claim is the norm), is a huge part of coping with university culture for me.

On a separate but related note, university can be hard if you don’t drink much alcohol. I have felt isolated and left out because everyone talks so much about an activity that I don’t always enjoy, and I have felt pressured into joining in. This took a big bite out of my self confidence when I first arrived in Manchester, but now I’m much better at being honest about how I’d rather spend my evening, and I’ve made friends with people who feel the same way. It’s all a lot more relaxed!

What does mental health mean to you now? Have your own experiences of mental health disorders altered your attitudes in this area?

Because of my diagnosis and experience with depression, mental health is now a lot more real to me than it ever was when I was reading all of those books. Looking after my mental health has had to become my number one priority, taking precedence over academic work and societies, and for a perfectionist and a medical student that was quite a hard transition to make!

However, my experiences have also made me aware of how huge an issue mental health is today. We are constantly shown what we should be doing, thinking, and looking like through medias such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. Never mind that my friend probably spent ages getting exactly the right angle of selfie and choosing the right filter, she looks so perfect; I should look like that. Everyone seems so busy on Facebook, all of the parties and pretty photographs; I should be doing that. Our sense of self and of self-worth are constantly being challenged today in a way that they simply weren’t before the digital age. And it’s all the time; with mobile phones it’s become almost impossible to maintain distance from social media, advertising and information overload.

But, importantly, through the filter of a screen, everyone looks happy. And so getting the message across that it’s ok not to be ok is challenging. But it’s so important to keep trying, to reach out and to question the status quo. Suicide is the number one killer of young men my age. Men who have been told that it’s not ok to reach out and get help. That mental health problems are taboo, even a sign of weakness and lack of masculinity. That’s not ok with me. I know how crushing even moderate depression is, and so I will continue to use my experiences to shout about mental health until I no longer need to.


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