My walk to university unlocks the secrets of the mind

Abstract —

This is a real life story based on my experiences as I walk to university. It focuses on mental health and the issue it poses to society and students. It is particularly prevalent among students in the present generation and in order to be truly well, these students need help with their mental health. It also touches on substance abuse among students. Through the stories of my depressed housemate, suicidal friend, frustrated me and my psychosis affected friend, I hope to highlight the relevance of mental health and the importance of getting help at the right time. These stories show the how the problems started, what the sufferers had to deal with and why knowledge of such problems and support is essential. Mental health problems aren’t just a momentary affliction. They need to be taken care of before they make the person a hazard to themselves and others. They are very real and very dangerous. All we need is a little compassion and support. And for everyone to not treat mental illnesses as a taboo topic or give it less importance. We are all together to promote mental well being.

I stepped out into the cool, crisp morning air; breathing deeply to get rid of the tobacco smell that permeated every inch of the student house I lived in. I grimaced as I walked down the street through the student village, taking care not to step on the shards of glass scattered everywhere. Clearly, the students knew how to party well, at least if the broken bottles and cigarette ends were anything to go by. I stepped gingerly over a broken vodka bottle and sighed as I smelled the sickeningly sweet smell of weed from a house I passed.

This is my experience every day during my walk to university. Substance abuse is a big problem among students. It’s not seen as a problem, though. It’s seen as a means to forget the stress of being a student, to forget the deadlines looming ahead, the exams that needed to be prepared for and the relationships that had to be mended and all other mental problems that needed to be dealt with. I sighed again, as I remembered my talk with my housemate the previous night. She had been very intoxicated and as she sat, sobbing and smelling of cigarette smoke, she told me her story.

The cigarette ends littering my backyard. Apparently, smoking is a good way to puff your worries away. At least, according to my housemate, Amanda.

A young girl of fifteen, Amanda was a bright student. She worked hard and aced her tests. She was all set for a bright future, until she met a man. The man who ruined her mental health forever. He was a married man of thirty-five who she met through a friend. He bought her presents and sympathetically listened to her talk. He took her out and slowly, gained her confidence. He gave her the care she thought she needed and he steadily worked his way into her heart and had her under his control. But soon. it wasn’t a healthy relationship. He dominated every aspect of her life and she was trapped, helpless, as he groomed her according to his desires. She was weary of his abuse but too scared to admit to her family that she was a victim of his schemes. He didn’t let her get help, he had her ensnared. Her teachers at school were annoyed when her grades dropped and she started failing. Her counsellor confronted her and terrified her by saying she needed to go to the police and the court, and her family would be dragged into this and she’d have to testify against her. She was horrified and took the easy way out by telling everyone she’d lied and there was no man.

She was a lost, lonely girl, prey to a man’s pedophilic tendencies and she had no help. She sunk into depression and developed anxiety. She remained so, until he decided to move along to his next victim.

And now, Amanda is at university, drowning her past with alcohol and numbing her pain by smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. She’s not healthy, but is afraid to meet counselors or psychiatrists as her past experience did not leave her with a favorable impression of them. She is stressed, depressed and has a problem trusting people. She doesn’t know how to get help or what to do, and she’s afraid of being judged. So she’s just burying her feelings and turning to alcohol and tobacco to forget them. Amanda is one of many children who have mental health problems, having dealt with abusive relationships or families, but unable to receive the help they deserve.

Alcohol also apparently is a good combination with cigarettes, when it comes to forgetting the past.

I came out of my reverie as I reached a traffic light. I looked at the student beside me, who stood with hunched shoulders and a bowed head. He reminded me of my friend, Mark. Mark was always pushing himself to achieve more, to get the most out of university. His parents put a lot of pressure on him to excel at university, and he was constantly trying to not let them down. He couldn’t match their expectations so he tried as hard as he could. It got to a point that he would skip food and keep working through the day. His confidence had vanished and he tried to prove he was worth something to himself and to others. He still failed to make the mark and his self-esteem shattered. He pushed himself to the limit. It wasn’t good for his wellbeing, to keep pushing himself without a break. And then, he snapped! He broke down, mentally. He stopped working and was in tears very often. He couldn’t deal with expectations anymore and wanted to end it all, to give up his life. His belief is himself had broken and he convinced himself that he was worthless. He couldn’t do anything. It was better to end such a useless life. His depression had become extremely threatening.

He needed help. He needed us, his friends, to help him through the negative thoughts he had. He was too ashamed to say he needed help, but deep within, he so desperately wished to be better. We all saw the change in him. His apathy to work, his self-criticism, his self-hate and his casual comments about death. His thoughts didn’t escape us and we rang his family to tell them about his suicidal thoughts. Finally, his parents had to take him back home, to recuperate and to reevaluate his life choices. He got the help he needed and got another chance at life. He is better now and more well-rounded, at least judging from the last time I spoke to him. His parents support meant everything to him and it was with their love and care that he got his zest for life back.

I smiled as I thought of him, glad he was doing better. I nearly collided into a man as I walked by, wrapped up in my thoughts. As I apologized, I saw that it was a homeless man. He stopped me and rasped “Could you spare a pound?” I fished one out and handed it to him, and his bloodshot eyes widened, “Come on! I can’t get a cup of coffee with that! Give me one more!”

“I’m sorry.” I squeaked. “I haven’t got any more cash.”

He grumbled but walked away. And I resumed my walk to university. But my thoughts had taken a different turn. It was sad to see people on the streets, dressed in rags which probably wouldn’t keep out the bitter cold. But with the population increasing, one could hardly hope that the situation would get better. It wasn’t easy to survive with less money. I knew, I was living it. Every time I saw my housemates order a takeaway meal, or buy an expensive dress, it reminded me of the luxuries I could not have. I was not too poor, thankfully. But seeing people around me spend money without counting each penny like I did, it hurt a little. I cannot treat myself, like others, or afford to buy things I didn’t strictly need. It does take a toll, when I see my friends give me a pitying look as I refused yet another offer to go out for a meal. The money I earn, I spend on daily food. I cannot afford to be frivolous with my money. I get so frustrated, juggling my coursework and jobs, I breakdown into tears very often, which doesn’t help. I try not to complain, but it does feel horrible to work constantly when I see my friends enjoying a nice trip over the weekend. But it is at times like this, when I see someone less fortunate than me, that I understand that I have what I need, even of not what I want. My needs are fulfilled, and I shouldn’t have anything more to desire. My education is my reward and hopefully, I can earn my way through life.

My friend Nazneen bumped into me then, making me forget my worries. She’s a ray of sunshine, always positive, ready to take on anything. She lives to experience different things, and I must confess that some of her wild adventures leave me stupefied. But today, her smile was different. A little off.

“I haven’t done the assignment that’s due today.” She grimaced. “I’m not going to be submitting it.”

What?! Why?” I exclaimed, shocked. She never did anything like this, ever.

“I don’t really care. Its only 30% anyway.” She shrugged.

“That’s a lot!” I shrieked.

“I don’t care. No motivation.”

And I was on the alert. As amazing as she is, I knew her past wasn’t so great. She’d been diagnosed with psychosis a few years back, and had spent months trapped to her bed. Psychosis is a pretty serious disorder that causes the patients to have hallucinations and delusions. No one knows what brought it on, but I think the stress Naz took upon herself, to be the best, is to blame. She beat the disorder once, and I knew it made her the carefree, adventurous person she is now. She believes firmly in ‘Do it today, because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.’ Her fight with psychosis taught her to appreciate life. And second opportunities. Which I how I knew she would never ever blow off an assignment. Unless she was having a relapse.

“Naz,” I gently asked, “Have you been taking your medicines?”

“I think so.” She frowned. “I don’t know, but I feel a little lost. I just can’t get up the motivation to work anymore. I just don’t care about work.”

I took a deep breath. “You need to go see your doctor.” I let the ball drop.

“Why?” She harshly asked. “Do I look crazy to you? Am I mad?”

“No!” I exclaimed, violently, “No, I’m just worried about you. It isn’t like you, to skip doing an assignment. Listen, I know it’s difficult, but I’m here. Talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.” I urged.

“I’m fine.” She yelled. “Look, I’m okay. I just did not want to do my work. Can we forget it?”

“No, you have to talk to someone.”

She looked furious so I revised, “Okay, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have pushed. How about we go talk to someone? I’m really stressed about work and I need some help with planning things. Can you please come with me?”

She huffed but nodded. I was surprised she didn’t say no or see through my ruse. I booked an appointment for the counsellors at university and took her with me when I went to see them. I explained everything to the receptionist and she said she’ll let the counsellor know. As we waited, I saw Naz look very worried.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She looked at me, vulnerably, and said, “I’m scared.” After a pause, she continued, “I’m afraid it’s all happening again. I don’t want it to happen. I want to be okay. I am okay. I’m not mad!” She became progressively agitated and yelled the last words.

“Hush, its okay. I’m here. Nothing is wrong with you. You’re going to be okay.” I soothed. She started crying and I’d never seen her cry before. I could see her fears and her insecurities then, and it was an awful experience, to see my put-together friend falling into pieces. I could see the effort it took for her to overcome psychosis once but she wasn’t sure if she could do it again. As the counsellor ushered her in with a gentle smile, I hoped she would be okay.

She did end up visiting her mental health doctor and he helped her with her problems before they got worse. She’s taking some time off from university and is trying to let go of her stress. I haven’t seen her in a while, because she wants to do this with her family and I respect that. I don’t know what happened with the counsellor that day, but I’m glad I took her there. She needed to get better and I was glad she was taking the first steps for it, before the problem got worse.

Every day, my walk to university shows me different things. I see happy couples, I see friends strolling together and smoking cigarettes, I see puddles of vomit from the day before and I see students like me restlessly striding to university. But now I know, even though each face has a different expression, behind those expressions are stress, anxiety, depression, fear, grief, self-pity, horror, eating disorders, self-hate or suicidal tendencies. Having felt most of those feelings myself, I can empathize. The girl in front of me walking with her head bowed might have social anxiety. The bloke with his clothes hanging off his frame might be anorexic. The girl in the oversized sweater pulled over her hands, dragging her feet in front of me, might have cut herself in her depression. I don’t think alcohol or drugs are the solution. I think accepting that mental health problems need to be addressed is the first step. Second step is identifying that we have a problem. The third is visiting a professional without shame and getting help.

We don’t want a taboo around mental health. We want the freedom to exhibit our problems so we all know we aren’t alone. We want to know that our family and friends know enough about it to realize that if I behave differently, it might be because my mental health isn’t perfect. We want the world to embrace mental health patients, not push them away. We aren’t mad. We just need help. And love.

Mental health isn’t restricted to just some negative feelings. It’s a massive puzzle which has different shaped pieces of so many emotions and experiences, it’s a challenge to fit it all together. The mind is the most important part of us. It’s what makes us human. We cannot be healthy if it isn’t. Our well-being is truly only perfect when the mind is in balance with the body and the environment. The world around me is full of people and each person has a story. Our stories are all connected, as we are. All we need to do is listen. To our hearts and to those of the ones we love. Mental health is important and we deserve to be healthy. We deserve to be happy. We deserve our well-being. Mind, heart, body and soul.