By Mollie Georgiou
CN: Anxiety, weight, GPs
“But you’ve got such a bright future ahead of you”.
The words hung in the air as I stared blankly back at my GP, my stomach twisting into a thousand knots. It was a Thursday afternoon, just weeks after I’d entered my most intense period of anxiety, and it had already become too much. I’d left sixth form early, ringing my mum on the way home to tell her I couldn’t ‘do this’ anymore. Giving up at that moment seemed like the only plausible option, and now I was sitting in front of a doctor who was trying to figure out just exactly why I had snapped.
For some reason, I’ve spent a lot of time feeling as though my mental health isn’t worthy of discussion. Without a disorder or diagnosis, some might not consider me ‘ill’ enough to talk about my very real struggle with anxiety. Without medication, I am ‘healthy’ enough to function adequately. It was only once I’d read Micha’s article on how we all possess mental health that I felt encouraged to openly talk about my own.
For me, the first few months of 2016 were spent living as someone else. I spent most of my time asleep, abandoning responsibilities and social interaction in every way that I could. A physical feeling of nausea permeated my body, meaning I stopped eating properly and quite rapidly lost weight. At the same time, intrusive thoughts began to infiltrate my mind, feeding on my anxiety and growing more powerful with every passing day.
After the conversation with my GP, I was referred to a mental health professional, but no diagnosis was ascribed to what I was experiencing. I was suffering with ‘anxiety’ without having a disorder, functioning highly enough to be considered ‘well’. Filling out a questionnaire every week during therapy and seeing graphical representations of my anxiety levels slowly falling into an area marked ‘recovery’ made me feel positive – I was getting better, even though I hadn’t been ‘sick’ to begin with.
“I just needed a safe space to talk about how I was feeling, and people around me who were patient and would listen.”
At the time I didn’t care so much about a diagnosis. I just needed a safe space to talk about how I was feeling, and people around me who were patient and would listen. Fortunately, I had access to both, and eventually I found a way out of the rut I’d fallen into. However, I still have periods where I struggle with anxiety, some more intense than others. To say it constitutes a ‘disorder’ would be to lie, but to claim that I’m always functioning ‘properly’ would be equally dishonest.
Managing my mental health now I’m at Cambridge is, in many ways, an even more complex task. In an environment where most students appear to put boundless energy into everything they do, it can be difficult to confidently distinguish the line between ‘normal’, adaptive stress, and pathology. Even though I still worry about work, I try to prevent myself from taking it too far, precisely because I’m now aware of the way in which my mind can consume itself under excessive levels of anxiety. For people who may not know their own limits, the pressures of life here could so easily become too much, and whilst a degree is an undeniably important thing, so too is our sanity.
Considering the platform given to figures like Piers Morgan, who insists that we all complain too much and play victim by ‘pretending’ to have mental illnesses, it’s easy to see why so many of us would belittle our own mental health. In fact, we do this a lot. The ‘just get on with it’ attitude still pervades society, and the notion that we cannot or should not discuss mental health unless we have a diagnosable illness to verify our input seems to subtly underpin discourse surrounding the topic. That’s not to trivialise the definition of mental illness by somehow suggesting we all have one, but it is to acknowledge the fact that mental health itself fluctuates and is not static. You may feel fantastic 99% of the time, but there will most definitely be points at which the fragility of your mind becomes apparent.
“The ‘just get on with it’ attitude still pervades society”
As Micha highlights in her article, we all possess mental health. This means that we can and should try to nurture it, just as we do with our bodies. We avoid certain foods that aren’t nutritious and take precautions to safeguard our immune system, but seem to forget about caring for our psychological wellbeing. We aren’t actively taught to prioritise this, and so it’s not surprising that so many of us have to reach breaking point before we actually realise that we have mental health. It is legitimate, valid, and should be treated as such.
We can all probably accept that a more inclusive and open discussion of mental health is something to be aimed for, but if we are being silenced by the fear that our own concerns are illegitimate, how can we achieve this? By explicitly talking about mental health outside of a dialogue purely focused on illness, we can more effectively lay the foundations for a society in which people who need support don’t feel abnormal or ostracised for speaking out, and in which others are better equipped to monitor their own wellbeing, empathise with others’, and most importantly listen.