I Kept My Depression a Secret at University Because I Was Scared People Wouldn’t Understand
Mental health issues are a growing problem on university campuses.
Even so, it can be very difficult for others to understand the experiences of those who struggle with them.
We spoke to Jamila Hamze, a recent graduate from the University of York, who has written about her struggles with anxiety and depression throughout her studies. She tells us that talking about depression is like trying to “explain the unexplainable”, but that she feels it’s important to do so to increase awareness of this often invisible illness.
Jamila: If first impressions are important, then the opening to any conversation is paramount. The counsellor from the Open Door Team begins with, “So you’ve been feeling poorly recently.” Poorly is an understatement. She makes a sympathetic joke and I immediately regret being here because my patience is running out at this point. This term at university has been a blur. I have spent most of it bed-bound and wrapped up in a cocoon of self-pity. Deadlines and exams are looming. But how to explain my depression is the hardest test of all.
It’s tricky. Just when I think I understand it, it changes its form. It’s like a companion that picks and chooses when to visit. It’s a bit of a paradox really. There were days when I could not leave my bed for days at a time. Then there were days where I was so productive and packed so much into 24 hours that I forgot to eat. Sometimes I felt on top of the world and sometimes I felt so low or hopeless that I was certain I wouldn’t make it to my final year. I missed home and simultaneously hated it. I wanted to do everything and nothing at the same time.
Having an invisible illness come and go as it pleases is confusing and I think a lot students endure it in silence.
I have been in denial about my depression for years. I am still in denial about it sometimes now. It was only when I came to university and couldn’t understand how everyone else could just hack it while I struggled with practically everything that I realised something was wrong. I remember students sat in the library ploughing through books and getting on with whatever assignments they had while I sat there thinking, “but I can’t do it.”
In a meeting with the Chair of the Board of Studies, he said he was amazed I had gotten so far without any professional help. I wasn’t. I was amazed I had lived 21 years and thought that it was normal. Having an invisible illness come and go as it pleases is confusing and I think a lot students endure it in silence. I’ve found the best way to cope is to keep myself distracted and to avoid what might trigger it.
Of course, the question I dreaded the most at uni was, “How did the essay hand-in go?”
In my head, I knew there were two answers I could reply with.
1. “It was fine.”
2. “I didn’t hand it in, because I have an extension. And I have an extension because I can’t get out of bed or meet deadlines, or do all the normal things that you are doing.”
Usually, I’d pick the former and flash my best smile. That way I could avoid dropping the yellow pages on them.
I have never had my mitigating circumstances claim denied. By the time I was in my final year, in the large box of the form where it states: “Please provide a description of your mitigating circumstances,” I would write one word: depression. How does the list of your symptoms fit in a word limit? It doesn’t. It’s like having to explain the unexplainable. I still don’t fully understand it and I suspect I never will.
There is always someone who will make a judgemental remark or not believe you.
However, I’ve learnt to avoid telling friends and other students about it. There is always someone who will make a judgemental remark or not believe you. Honestly, I don’t blame them. I had a housemate who used to call me a unicorn because I can be so optimistic, energetic and sociable. It’s difficult when you’ve seen someone at their best to understand that there is a very different side to them below the surface. So when I say “I can’t meet, I’ve been super busy,” what I really mean is I’ve been falling asleep to the endless play of a Netflix series.
Being granted an extension or given the opportunity to re-sit an assessment has never put me at an advantage over anyone else. In fact, it has hindered me further in most cases. In reality, it only meant that I was left with the impossible task of catching up with all those seminars or lectures I missed. I had to attempt to research as much as you may have done, to read and write and edit and synthesise information in the space of 7-14 days. It becomes a vicious cycle where you are constantly struggling to catch up.
In meetings with my supervisor, I was told I needed to attend every seminar or I’d have to take a leave of absence. Actually, I’ve been told this every term during my time at university, and each time I became more frustrated at being dismissed like this. Friends and tutors just couldn’t understand why it was so hard for me to attend class. I have walked all the way to seminars and lectures countless times, only to reach the door, turn back, and walk all the way back home. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but this is anxiety – which I also suffer from. For me, anxiety is like depression’s best friend.
On one occasion, a doctor who had met me for barely five minutes told me that I needed to help myself. That was it.
Anxiety gave me no warning when she arrived at the party. That’s the part where all my friends would try and convince me to stay out. There’s not much sense at this point in trying to explain why you are filled with a sense of fear for no apparent reason, because it’s irrational and I know this. But if you’ve ever heard of the fight or flight response, anxiety leaves me with no option. It’s always flight. In an attempt to overcome this problem, I went to see a doctor. Unfortunately, doctors I have seen at the university health clinic are too quick to prescribe medication. I have never taken it. I’ve always been hesitant because I’m unsure how much of how I feel is caused by place and how much is in my mind. On one occasion, a doctor who had met me for barely five minutes told me that I needed to help myself. That was it. I was dismissed seconds later.
I’m proud to say that, despite everything, I graduated this July with a 2:1.
As I sit here, finishing this article in a hotel lounge in Barcelona I am filled with clarity. I managed to turn 58s into 74s in essays and graduated with a 2:1 this year. But when it comes to mental illnesses, especially for those still suffering at university, more needs to be done. A misunderstanding of mental health issues amongst lecturers, tutors and students remains. I am not saying universities don’t take student mental health seriously, but I think it is important to discuss how frustrating it is trying to explain something that is invisible or imaginary to some. I’m not asking for sympathy, and I think those who have had similar experiences would agree, that we are just looking to be understood.
If you have a story about university life you’d like to share, email your idea to email@example.com.