Following a 2016 study showing that university mental health services are struggling with a 50% increase in demand, a student who would prefer to remain anonymous reflects on her struggles with mental illness at university.
University is hard. Whichever way you look at it, it throws a whole load of firsts at you in a very short space of time. You start living away from home, with new people, in a brand new place, and you have to cook for yourself, in a new kitchen with a brand new set of cooking utensils! On top of that you have to study a new course, with a new style of teaching and a new way of working.
For someone who already struggles with depression and anxiety all this can be a bit too much, even if you feel ready to start this exciting, if nerve wracking, chapter in your life. For me, in my first year the pressure just got far too much. My first result was a very low 3rd and having pushed and pushed to get this place at this university I thought I wasn’t good enough. Over Christmas I had a breakdown and didn’t want to return to study.
I often describe my depression as being like a rucksack: I am always carrying it, but some days it is really heavy and hard – if not impossible – to lift. Some days it is lighter, and on other days, people offer to help me to carry it. It is filled with all those things which are part of my mental illness: self-loathing, loneliness, feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness. This rucksack was heavier than ever when I returned to university after the Christmas break in first year.
What I found hardest about this period was that people were telling me to turn to the Bible, but all I found there were my failings. In Matthew 23:39 it says: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. I wanted to love my neighbour but I absolutely hated myself. I felt like I could not fulfil Jesus’ commandment, because I could not love myself. If I couldn’t love myself, how could I give love to others? Another aspect of the gospel I found hard was the idea of the unconditional love of God. Why did God love me? Why would God choose me? I am damaged goods, not worth his time and bother. Every time I self-harmed, I was scarring the image of God. What could God possibly want with me?
Some Christians I spoke to about this just couldn’t understand why I found these themes hard. They just said it was as a parent loves their child. But in that place I didn’t understand the concept of unconditional love. No-one could love the mess I had become. I had not told my parents about my mental illness and didn’t believe they would continue to love me if I told them.
I don’t really know when I drifted back to the Bible, but one day something struck me. These people in the Bible weren’t the perfect shiny Christians I seemed to see all around me. They were broken and scarred from their journeys of faith! Just look at Jesus’ life. It wasn’t easy, he didn’t walk into a royal house and become a Lord, he bore the scars of rejection and hate, and he was physically scarred from his crucifixion. Even God’s life on this earth wasn’t easy.
This thought did not cure me or really make the weight of my rucksack any lighter, but it did give me hope, a tiny flicker of light that, even in my broken and scarred mind and body, I may be able to find something or some way that I could help to create the kingdom of God. I may not be able to do this now, or in a year’s time or in ten years’ time, but maybe one day that flicker will turn into a bigger flame which I can nurture and grow into a roaring fire of the Holy Spirit in this world.