David Armstrong (Fast Streamer, Year 1 EFS)
The first few months at university were a whirlwind - we had been moving in, meeting dozens of new people, diving headfirst into our courses and generally not having a moment to pause for breath – and that’s not to mention starting a new relationship!
Once we had settled into university, just a short while into our relationship, my girlfriend’s mental health suddenly deteriorated. She started having panic attacks, became so weighed down with depression she couldn’t get out of bed and would spend most days in a state of either extreme anxiety or deep depression.
I was completely blindsided and confused by what was happening. I responded by treading water - I would cook, do our washing and keep our rooms tidy. I spent hours every day trying to wake her up so she could do the minimum amount of work necessary not to fail her degree, and would cram in my own work after she had gone to bed.
This was my first experience of mental illness – viewing it from the outside. It was upsetting and confusing – how do you understand someone’s thoughts and emotions when they aren’t rational? And how do you help someone you love when they’re in the grip of something so horrible and seemingly uncontrollable?
Her condition overshadowed everything. She couldn’t face social events and was so suicidal that she couldn’t be left alone, so our social lives disappeared. She was so exhausted by her illness that a trip to Tesco was a rare triumph. Our friends didn’t know how to talk to us about what was happening, and we ended up completely isolated. We would spend our days trying to find distractions – watching TV shows or YouTube videos, trying to find things to enjoy that could take her mind off her illness. Some of it did help, but the relief was always short-lived.
Meanwhile, I was burning myself out caring for her, but what right did I have to complain? I wasn’t the one feeling suicidal, so I prioritised looking after her and neglected my own wellbeing.
Eventually, we reached the end of our tethers. We had been trying to cope by ourselves, but after several months her condition was getting worse and I could no longer ignore my own deteriorating mental health. We knew we had to get help. We read about mental illness online and eventually we mustered the courage to seek medical help and reach out to university support staff.
Looking back at that period, I realise how much time we wasted due to our own lack of understanding about mental illness, and our reluctance to talk openly to anyone about what was happening for fear of how they would respond. By the time we asked for help, the situation was far worse than it would have been had we asked earlier, and there were now two people needing support.
Thanks to online resources and professional help, my girlfriend was able to use CBT and medication to manage her mental illness. I was able to take steps to safeguard my own wellbeing so I could care for her more effectively and sustainably. Gradually my girlfriend got better and things improved.
The truth is that it was a horrible time and the road to recovery was far from straightforward. Over the course of that period, I learned a few simple lessons that have stuck with me.
I learned that even the most basic conversation can make a big difference to someone who is struggling with mental health problems, or someone who is caring for them. A simple ‘how are you?’ was often the difference between us feeling completely isolated or feeling like someone cared.
I also learned that you don’t have to understand someone’s mental illness to support them. When faced with my girlfriend’s mental illness I found myself trying to rationalise it, to identify what might be causing her to feel sad or anxious. I engaged with the superficial details of her condition to shield myself from the more difficult emotional reality, which I didn’t know how to respond to. Eventually I learned that it was better to simply listen and try to empathise with how crap she felt than to shut the conversation down by ‘looking for a solution’.
But the biggest lesson I learned from that period was to ask for help. At the time we felt so much shame around what was happening that reaching out to someone felt inconceivable, yet in the end just a few short conversations helped set my girlfriend on the road to recovery. Overcoming this shame was a key step in her recovery, and remains a vital aspect of how she manages her illness by allowing her to be open about her needs and to respond to them.
So go; ask people how they are, listen, and create the space for them to ask for help.