Following the latest, heartbreaking, tragic case of terminal depression at Bristol University (Ben Murray passed away just a few weeks ago, in May), Sam Gyimah MP, speaking at the University of Buckingham’s Festival of Higher Education, reiterated his call for providers to see themselves as being in loco parentis for vulnerable young students who were living away from home for the first time *.
“We need to find a way for universities to be in loco parentis where [there are] these life-threatening situations of care, where we respect people’s rights as adults but make sure we are doing everything in terms of duty of care towards these young people.”*
My Gyimah recognises that this is an urgent problem but a tricky one to handle – he has been accused of “infantalising students”. Of course, if ‘infantalising students’ proved to be the solution, if Universities were to operate like schools, vis a vis the social/mental welfare of students, if confidentiality issues didn’t come into play, great, there’d be no problem ‘infantalising students’ – but, of course, it is not that simple!
I think it’s pretty obvious that if student welfare counsellors were to report to parents on conversations they had with the student ‘children’, if they were to alert parents to concerns, it would cause a lot of students to stay away from the counsellors. What makes it tricky is that, of course, there is an “on the other hand…”, which is that if counsellors have concerns, and they bring them to the attention of parents, it might – it probably would, in some cases – save lives. Furthermore, some students will be going to university welfare counsellors, ‘confiding’ in them, expressing a need for help, and hoping that those counsellors will alert their parents, hoping that the counsellors will do it in circumstances in which they themselves, the students, might not know how to approach the issues with their parents.
‘The system’ is clearly in need of attention. Student suicides at Bristol University are shining a spotlight on the tragic issue but it is not an issue which only affects students at that University – ALL University Vice-Chancellors need to get to grips with the problem – all heads of Higher Education Institutions in the UK need to attend to the issue as a matter of urgency.
Turning to the subject of depression:
Depression is split into two ‘macro’ categories (I write not as a medical/science professional but as someone who has suffered from/with depression for decades – I believe all my life but this is not about me):
Non-clinical depression, that is depression which is caused by a non-medical, an external, influence, eg bereavement;
Clinical depression, which is a mental illness, a physiological condition, eg caused by a lack of serotonin.
Depression (I can only talk about clinical depression) can be extremely hard to spot/identify and that has to be understood and appreciated by those whose job it is to put in place systems/safety nets to ‘catch’ sufferers whose lives might be at risk, whose lives might, away from the public glare, be tormented.
I suffered a cataclysmic depression episode in 2000/2001 which almost killed me. I had been suffering (as had everyone around me – never forget how much loved ones and friends suffer!) from 1999 but I realised, when a psychiatrist got me onto the right meds (I partly blame previous meds and a previous psychiatrist for taking me so close to the brink), only when I was on the right meds could I finally ‘see straight’, only then did it all make sense, only then did I realise that, to a lesser or greater extent, I had been suffering with/from depression pretty well all my life. I also take meds to keep panic attacks at bay.
Life, in terms of depression, is a bit of a rollercoaster these days, it always will be, but I live with it, the lows are nothing like they were in 2001 although they can be rough. I recognise them, I accept them and I just have to sit them out. Some are severe, some take me so low that I lose perspective, that I can’t put them into the context of illness, that I can’t appreciate that it’s the ‘ill me’ and that I’ll come out of it – at these times, I am consumed by the depression and I lose sight of the ‘well me’ but I do come out of it. On the whole, life is MUCH better than it was at its worst, the condition is managed – I’d say I’m 75/80% improved.
Cutting to the chase….it is often the loudest of your friends, the biggest personalities, the most sociable and gregarious, the seemingly most at-ease socially, who are the ones who are suffering with depression. I recently met someone, we got chatting, depression came up in conversation, I mentioned that I suffer with it and the guy was shocked, “YOU???!!!”. He couldn’t reconcile the person he was speaking to – me – this sociable, loud, chat, chat, chat, apparently engaging person with his idea, his visualisation, his understanding of what a depression sufferer is, he didn’t know what to say.
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players…”
I think Shakespeare (or someone) got that right but depression sufferers are ‘players’ more than is the average non-depression sufferer. I guess we are good actors. We wear masks. When we’re out in public, a lot of the time it’s as if we are on a stage, performing. There are times when there isn’t a big gap between the authentic us and the one in public but sometimes there’s a chasm. It’s also important that I point out that we can go through spells, days, weeks, months, of genuinely feeling fine, of feeling happy and that is not oxymoronic – we can be on a lifelong low curve which has, on it, lots of little ups and downs. We can be happy short term whilst being on a long term low.
At my lowest point, in February 2001, my loved ones knew that I was ill – at that point, it was obvious. I was sleeping all day, only getting out of bed at night, I was hardly ever going out of the house, partly because of the depression and partly because I was afraid that I’d get another panic attack. I don’t remember actively planning to take my life but it’s all a bit of a blur now, looking/thinking back to that time, so I can’t be sure. I do remember being at cemeteries (not ghoulishly, for funerals) – probably wasn’t wise to go! – and thinking to myself that the people being buried were lucky, lucky to be ‘out of it’.
My wife (she suffered terribly!) tells me now that our son, who was 2 years old at the time, would run up to me for a cuddle and that he may as well have been running up to a statue made of stone – no reaction. She’d be sitting in front of me, crying, wanting me to just reach out to her but, again, nothing. The lights were on but no one was in. I was numb, detached, disconnected. Even if I wasn’t actively thinking of ending it, I think it’s fair to say that I had lost the will to live.
People at this depth of depression, they are, obviously, in a very dangerous, often fatal, place.
I want to stress to sufferers that there is light at the end of the tunnel – when I was carried on a stretcher or pushed in a wheelchair [I don’t remember which] out of Intensive Care, I was in a pretty sorry state. My wife and I, our daughter arrived one year and two days later – I think that makes my point and, sufferers, remember it!
Moving on to non-clinical depression, it’s not hard to see why/how students can find themselves drowning in a sea of what they perceive to be helplessness and hopelessness. First time away from home, loneliness, the shock to the system that can come with sudden independence, not eating/sleeping properly, work/exam pressures, so many new challenges all arriving at the same time, not knowing what to attend to first (when all of the challenges have to be met simultaneously), it can put students on the canvas. Adding to all the ‘usual’ pressures, there can be money worries, social worries (eg struggles with sexuality), it can all be too much to handle.
It is important to point out that when I’m going through an episode of deep depression, I almost always, despite being surrounded by love and support, almost always feel lonely and alone. Speaking to other sufferers, people with all sorts of depression, it seems that that is a common thread which runs through all of our experiences. It’s crucial that that is appreciated and understood by the loved ones, friends, work/university/school colleagues, teachers, counselors, employers etc of sufferers. Don’t think that just by being around, the sufferer feels your presence.
So, the facts – and they are fact – that depression is often an invisible illness and that the sufferer, regardless of the family/social and medical/professional support, might be feeling desperately lonely, alone and disconnected, they make the illness particularly insidious and dangerous.
However the UK University Vice-Chancellors decide to improve the current student welfare infrastructure, I hope that the counsellors at the coalface are qualified and experienced in, amongst other areas, clinical and non-clinical depression, that they are more than ‘bums on seats’, just there for student confessions, a chat and a cup of coffee – that is not enough!
* quote from ‘www.TimesHigherEducation.com’