"You don’t look like you’d have depression."

A statement said to me recently.

I laughed it off at the time, merely because I was too stunned to know what to say back to it.

What does depression actually look like?

It doesn’t.

I was contacted today by The Priory Group and informed of their latest campaign to raise awareness for the stigma and disbelief that students with mental health conditions face.
You can read the full article here: Mental Health Stigma on Campus.
The reason why I’m blogging about this? Because it happened to me, on a big scale.
If you’ve read my blog before then you already know some of the extreme hardships I been through both in life and business; and how I suffer heavily from Anxiety, Depression and Borderline Personality Disorder (no it’s not as scary as it sounds.)
University was something I was very excited about, back in 2010 I packed all my bags, and when I say all, I mean ALL THE BAGS IN THE WORLD. I even took an extra chest of drawers with me.
… and I headed of to my new life in Nottingham, studying Photography BA (hons) at Nottingham Trent University.
YEAR ONE 2010/11
My anxiety was triggered instantly by being told by a fellow course mate to “tone myself down incase people don’t like you” – simply because I spoke out in a lecture because I was confident in myself not to care about what others thought about me (to an extent). But being in such a new environment without my usual safety nets, this hit me like a ton of bricks and I developed an Anxiety Disorder.
However I didn’t know this to begin with.
I spent a couple of months avoiding lectures, going into seminars and being unable to hear or see properly – being told off for not concentrating. Even one tutor took me to one side and told me she thought I had “a problem”.
Turns out, those were panic attacks! Who knew?!
So I went off to the GP, she diagnosed me with anxiety and off I went on my merry way with a few pieces of paper and a tiny room in student halls to “hide” in. For those of you who have lived in halls, you cannot hide.
No one believed me that I had anxiety – I’ve always been labelled the happy-go-lucky “good time girl” and people always went on and on about how jealous they are of my confidence etc.
I even had to take my boyfriend back to the GP with me to ask her to explain it to him, partly because so few people believed me that I was even starting to doubt myself!
It’s hard to explain to someone what is wrong with you when you can’t even explain it to yourself.
So, this carried on, I stumbled my way through first year, crying a lot on my own, hiding from social activities and avoiding university deadlines. I came out with 47%, enough to get me on to the second year of my course. Success.
YEAR TWO 2011/12
Determined to make this a better year I took on counselling through the university; this helped, massively. I had a guilt-free place to go for an hour, once a week, to talk about myself and have someone explain to me that I hadn’t done anything wrong and I simply needed to learn how to implement boundaries and say no to people before burning myself out.
I was diagnosed with Post Natal Depression… Without a baby. Just because I was doing so much to try and please every so I didn’t feel guilty that I no longer had time for myself.
I also moved in with 5 other girls. This was amazing, I finally felt like I almost had somewhere to hide and be myself.
Then I was hit with another bombshell.
My Dad was diagnosed with bowel cancer for the second time and he had to go through yet more chemotherapy. This sucked. Big time.
My tutors were patronising and belittling.
I didn’t bother going to one lot of seminars because we were told to bring our camera phones in to take photographs. The second I saw that brief, I would sooner stay in bed with my anxiety than do that.
So, Dad was dying – naturally I then developed Depression. It was a heck of a lot to cope with, I’m surprised my brain didn’t shut down entirely.
I decided I wanted to put together a project on the trickery of photography and how we could fool the viewer, I wanted to do this through SFX makeup and facial disfigurement.
My tutor at the time saw all my research, and in front of an entire group he pulled up a photo of a man from World War One, on an overhead projector, with his face disfigured. And told me that I was “offending this man who fought for us”, and then I was accused of being insulting.
Following this, my tutor tried to claim that I was “channelling my psychological trauma of my father’s cancer through my work”.
A) I wasn’t
B) Even if I was, who is he to say I am?
C) Don’t all artists channel their psychological trauma into their works?
On top of this I was regularly reminded by the university and students around me that if I couldn’t cope with crit sessions now, then how the hell would I cope when I’m working within the fashion industry?
I started to panic, a lot more, depression kicked in further and I retreated into myself.
It was nigh on impossible to explain to my peers why I didn’t want to join them in social activities, and how one simple comment could be taken the wrong way and I could analyse and obsess over it for days, sending myself into oblivion.
One of the major things I struggled with was living in the cliché that is ‘a student flat’. Not because of the girls I lived with at all, but because my idea of cleanliness wasn’t directly to be clean, but it was to keep my head in order and I would obsess over it. I would clean and clean, wash up, hoover, and then become stressed when anyone messed it up.
I could come across completely ridiculously at any time and people would struggle to know where they stood with me as I could fly off the handle about nothing – and I had absolutely no idea why as mental health issues were still so massively taboo in my circle of life that no one could give me any explanation.
People just labelled me as “scary” or “intimidating”, and that was that.
THIRD YEAR 2012/13
Christmas 2012: Dad’s cancer was diagnosed incurable.
I started to rapidly deplete mentally.
I drank more, my anxiety started to slide and the depression made me manic – I was going out and dancing, partying for days without a second thought. No look towards my work.
University started to become even more patronising towards me; they seemed to think I was looking for emotional support from my tutors when in actual fact I wanted academic support and to be given time to finish my projects even though I was falling apart. I needed guidance, some kind of structure. But their version of independent learning is to throw a brief at you and that’s their job done.
My head of year at the time had a meeting with me and tried to encourage me to redo the year next year. I refused because I had already been to uni at Southampton Solent and dropped out so I had no more years of funding available.
I had to take my boyfriend and a member of the Welfare Team along with me to my meeting with the head of year who described my treatment as “inhumane” in the manner that they were talking to me.
This is hard to recollect and explain as I have blackout periods from this time due to extreme stresses put on me.
I went home and posted a status on Facebook about how badly treated I had been.
Some idiot from my course screenshot my status, sent it to the head of THE COURSE, who then took it upon himself to message me directly on Facebook in one particular tone, and then follow that up with one of a more jovial tone through the correct email channels with CC’d tutors in.
I’m still unsure to this day what he thought he would gain from doing that.
But in short, my treatment at university from both peers and tutors was not desirable to say the least.
Apart from a handful of wonderful tutors and an incredible admin lady, I was ignored, belittled and demeaned when it came to trying to deal with my mental health issues and father’s death.
I was fortunate enough to have some fantastic friends around me, and a very VERY supportive boyfriend who is still with me (and regularly picking up the pieces) to this day.
I believe that because illness’ like this are “invisible” then people tend to view others, like myself who often keep on trying as hard as they can and appear happy and jokey, as if there is no way they could ever even be slightly unhappy, least of all suffer from depression.
Universities need more awareness to be brought about regarding mental health, not only because we are in a vulnerable, new position in life, but also because our early 20’s are when we experience a ‘second adolescence’. When we were 13/14 our bodies grew, now our minds are growing. We NEED support, we NEED understanding and most of all, we NEED acknowledgment and awareness.
Elspeth Van Der Hole

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