On 10 October, the UK celebrated World Mental Health Day, which aims to raise public awareness about mental health issues. This got me thinking – how much do we actually know about mental health at Regent’s College and the stigma that is attached to it?
In June last year I was diagnosed with reactive depression, which developed as a result of my experience of racism and homophobia in my UK Public Sector career over the previous eight years. The whole experience was surreal for me. I had severe stomach pains and headaches after returning from travelling in South East Asia and ended up at hospital. I thought I was going to be told I had malaria or something similar, but the next thing I knew, my General Practitioner was telling me I was severely depressed and unable to work.
I thought at first that she had got it wrong and that depression didn’t happen to people like me. But she hadn’t and it did. It was this which led me to writing and being part of the first cohort of students at LSFMP, on the MA Writing for Screen & Stage. It’s been a good way to express myself. I’ve been able to draw upon my life enriching experiences, which are the seedbed of all creative endeavour.
For the past 18 months, I have been battling my mental illness, which brought me shame and embarrassment, while fighting for my rights as a mixed-race gay person. It has taken me a long time to realise that I shouldn’t have felt how I did and that depression is actually quite normal. More importantly, I now understand that my illness was brought on by the actions of others, so it wasn’t my fault.
At least one in four people experiences a mental health issue at some time in their lives. That’s a quarter of the population – a quarter of the staff and students at Regent’s College. With the British winter fast-approaching and many students being away from their families and friends overseas, I want to send out a clear message: if you’re feeling low, you’re not alone and help is out there.
Growing up, I always thought counsellors were for people who were weak, and couldn’t handle life; I have been re-educated. Talking helps, it really does. I’ve had several counsellors, not because I’m picky, but because it’s about finding the right one for you, someone you connect with and who understands you. Talking can help you feel better, believe me. Through counselling, I’ve found the courage to stand up for myself and be heard; it’s the only way things will change. It’s important that when things are not fair, that we challenge these and empower ourselves.
Regent’s College actually offers eight ‘free’ counselling sessions to staff and students at the Inner-Circle Therapy Centre, which you can contact directly. Philippa Goldsmith, the college’s Disability Officer, is another great source for help and advice and she has an ‘open door’ policy, and naturally everything you discuss with her is confidential.
In September, the college held a lunchtime seminar on Raising Awareness of depression. What surprised me wasn’t that I was the only student at it, but that all of the staff there were present because they wanted to help their students and colleagues who they suspect may be depressed or wanted to look out for the signs.
A female staff member told me over coffee, that it would be unfair to say that depression isn’t really discussed at the college, as, despite being depressed herself, she has never raised it amongst her colleagues. Depression, she says is however still ‘taboo’ in society and I couldn’t agree with her more. None of us knows which of our fellow students or colleagues are depressed, so it’s important that we don’t stigmatise the illness, which may prevent someone from seeking help. There is no sign around a depressed person’s neck and as the staff member tells me, you probably couldn’t pick the depressed person out from a line-up.
There isn’t a typical ‘depression profile,’ although there are some signs of what to look for if you think somebody you know is suffering; they include not sleeping, not eating and low self-esteem. However, some people hide depression exceptionally well. I carried on doing an important public job, never taking a day’s sickness in over eight years, with a good family life and friends, yet it affected me.
Because of this, offering more seminars on depression and other mental health conditions would be a great start at Regent’s, but at times when staff and students can attend. Regent’s needs to continue being at the forefront of mental awareness in education, an emerging world leader. It’s sad but true that you get what you pay for.
Also, it may be good for the college to highlight external sources of support on the college’s intranet. It wasn’t until speaking with the female staff member that I learned that you can visit the Samaritans in person! Organisations like MIND and our own Student Services, who can help those in need, need more promoting by the college. Another consideration might be a monthly get-together for those suffering with a mental illness to chat about things and offer each other support. Make yourselves known if you would like this.
So, my message to you is, if you’re suffering or you’re going down a path you can’t control, speak to someone, family and friends too. Even if you do tell someone and you think they don’t understand or want to listen, find somebody else. Equally, for those who don’t suffer with the illness, do not dismiss it as somebody not being able to cope with life because they are weak or feeling sorry for themselves; the opposite is true.
If you had a physical illness like a broken leg from football, you would expect it to be treated. Just because you can’t see depression, doesn’t mean it isn’t as serious. Remember, depression kills, especially in young men. Men are nearly three times more likely to take their own lives than women. For men under 35, suicide is the second most common cause of death. This is often because many men are reluctant to talk about their feelings or to seek help.
You can follow my own story of depression and how I continue to battle with the illness at my website, www.kevinmaxwell.co.uk which also links to my blog, Living with Depression.
Published by The Regent newspaper Winter 2010.
© 2010 Kevin Maxwell Media & Performance