This World Mental Health Day, KCL Students’ Union President Ben Hunt shares his own experience of mental health problems. According to mental health charity Mind, one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. However, by reaching out to others when we’re experiencing difficult times and by providing a listening ear and support to a friend, family member or colleague in need, we can help each other through.
It’s 9 am on a Friday. I come into work with a filter coffee and a Tupperware box with leftovers from the dinner I cooked from scratch the night before and go into a College Committee about the yearly intake of students. The senior academic staff say how good it is to have such an astute student who has an eye for detail on these Committees to hold them accountable. I smile and sip my coffee in between interrogating the data of student numbers I read in detail overnight, just before I had an anxiety attack and called the Samaritans at 3 am for forty minutes because I couldn’t sleep. I come back to the office after the meeting and see I’ve received a thank you card from a student, and another student comments later in the day that they don’t know how I juggle so much, and that I seem to be doing so well.
I want to tell you that the perception of someone who seems high functioning is not always a reality. There have been a lot of times as a student when I’ve considered dropping out because of my mental health, or quitting my role as your Student Officer. Sometimes when all you want to do is lay in bed and not speak to anyone, paying bills, doing extra jobs, studying and going to the library can be impossible, as can getting out of bed to brush your teeth or go into the outside world. Daily interactions can be at best a challenge and at worst impossible. Your Union President has mental health problems.
Today is World Mental Health Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness around mental health issues around the world and combining efforts to support mental health. Perception and reality can be two different things when it comes to mental health. I’m writing this as an open letter to the student body because I’m hoping that by talking about some of my experiences, you can start to think about your own and help others in theirs.
I suffer from both depression and anxiety, as well as some physical disabilities which can make it a challenge to do day to day tasks. I have attended counselling, and taken medication. When I’ve been too anxious to speak to people, often I can think that my closest friends or family don’t care or don’t want to offer their support to me, and that partners will want to leave me. A few days ago I was messaging my current partner, and when there was a gap of twelve hours in the response my anxiety made me think that they were hurt or had left me. It turned out (as it always does) their phone ran out of charge. I don’t open up enough about my illness now, and didn’t at all in the past, because I thought I was being a burden.
One of the most important things highlighted in many mental health campaigns like Time to Talk, a campaign dedicated to people talking about mental health openly, is how difficult it can be to talk about mental health. Approaching someone about your mental health when already worried about what those closest to you are thinking, (will they think I’m a burden? Do they even care? Will they leave me if I talk about this) is challenging.
I spent years not opening up about my illness until I had to talk. Earlier this year I visited a close friend of mine in Surrey after an extremely intense six months, and he told me that I looked grey in the face and that I needed help, and that people were worried about how I had been working to compensate for my personal problems. He said he would support me in whatever I did. That was the catalyst that I needed: someone closest to me recognising that I had a problem and offering their support to help me through. He saw through the high-functioning person who was sociable and didn’t want to talk about their problems, and he saw how ill and scared I was. So if you think a close friend of yours might need support, even if they are working dozens of hours a week, even if they don’t seem like they need it, or won’t ask you for it, reach out to them.
I was worried, after this conversation and starting counselling, that my health was actually nothing to worry about, that I was being a burden and I just needed to ‘get over myself’. One thing that has helped me through has been living with close friends who I know regardless of what happens will stay by me. Being able to tell them anything, whether it’s on a celebratory occasion where I’ve had anxiety problems and needed to go home early, or at 3am in the morning when I can’t sleep due to worrying about things, having that openness and trust has made me able to go forward with gaining support. Even if they can’t always understand, they always listen.
I’ve encountered so many wonderful students and staff in my four years at King’s, both as a Philosophy student and in my two years as a Student Officer at the Union, many of whom are friends for life. Because of my busy work life, the fact that I can cook and I’m always (reasonably!) presentable and responsive, people have been surprised that I have these issues. Many students will be able to juggle several extra-curricular activities as well as their studies, and work as well, but then go home late at night feeling profoundly lonely and down. Many others find it difficult to overcome daily tasks, to attend lectures, to keep to commitments or get out of bed, and I’ve definitely experienced both sides of this. If you do know someone who you think needs help but you haven’t offered it yet, I would ask you, today, message them or talk to them. Ask them if they need anything, or say that you’re always there for them. If you’re struggling with some things yourself, there is support out there for you. Rely on those close to you, they are there through better and worse, and book an appointment with a support service if you can. In the last year, almost 80% of students reported having mental health problems. This message is a call to action around mental health and for us as a community to be proactive in supporting each other, and by talking about my own health, I hope you can do it yourself, or help someone in finding a way to talk about theirs.
If you would like to get in touch with Ben, your KCLSU President about this or any other matter, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you need confidential help or advice, there are both internal and external resources available:
The quickest way to contact the Samaritans and get a response is by phone on 116 123, this number is FREE to call. You can also contact them via email or on the web.
Call the Mind infoline on 0300 123 3393 or Text 86463. Alternatively visit the web.
Resources at King’s
Your personal tutor will be able to offer support in relation to your studies. If you don’t know who that is then please get in touch with your departmental office.
You can contact our counselling service on 020 7848 7017 or email them at email@example.com.
The Chaplains are also available to have an informal discussion with you if you wish to, regardless of faith. Their contact details are published on the website.
Please note also that the chapels and prayer rooms across King’s are always available to people for private reflection and prayer.