We must do more for men’s mental health

Published

Mental health spelt in scrabble tiles

Credit: pixabay @wokandapix

Thomas Shearer
Writer

“The death of Scott Hutchison begs the question: when someone has been so frank and open about their mental health condition, why we do still lose them?”

In the last few weeks, both Tim Bergling (otherwise known as Avicii) and Scott Hutchinson of Frightened Rabbit committed suicide after prolonged battles with mental health issues. The line “I think I’ll save suicide for another year” from the song Floating in the Forth now feels particularly poignant.

I cannot speak about Tim or Scott’s personal circumstances and the thoughts and feelings that lead to their deaths. No two mental health sufferers experience the same battle. I can, however, share my own experience of dealing with mental health issues. I am a 22 year old male student who has suffered from depression and severe anxiety for around four years.

I had little exposure to serious mental health issues prior to my own experiences. After spending the best part of my second year at university struggling to leave my flat, my GP suggested that I might have an anxiety disorder. My main symptom was a feeling that death was imminent. I had considered many other health possibilities, such as low blood sugar or anemia, but blood tests had proven me to be wrong. My doctor prescribed me an anti-anxiety drug and offered me anti-depressants, which I declined as I did not consider myself to be depressed. I googled “anxiety disorder” as soon as I got home, and it perfectly described my symptoms. I felt relieved in a strange way; I finally knew what was “wrong” with me.

The attempts to seek professional help were not easy. My GP did not listen to much of what I said; in the doctor’s note they wrote to the University (which I had to pay £25 to acquire), they described my symptoms as “course-related”. This could not have been further from the truth. Exams and coursework can be an additional strain on any mental health condition, however I knew that my anxiety stemmed from my personal life. A medical professional had arbitrarily decided what was wrong with me and did not think it was urgent for me to get any further assistance, other than the same anti-anxiety drug prescribed to any student who seeks a remedy for exam stress.

Through a prolonged communication with NHS services, I managed to get a few weeks of over-the-phone counselling that kept me afloat. The University waitlist for counselling services is infamously long and I had to wait around four months in order to get the help I needed. In my time using the University counselling service I have seen three different professionals, each of them more helpful than I could ever imagine. They took my problems seriously and understood what I was going through. It is appalling that students have to wait so long in order to receive these services given the wealth of the University. In November the SRC secured £200,000 of funding for mental health services, but why should we stop there? These services should receive constant increases in annual funding in order to cope with the rising amount of students and to address the University of Glasgow’s already discouraging waiting list for these services.

The counselling service provided me with techniques to deal with my anxiety. I got out of my flat and I started to attend a few lectures again. I attended most of my exams despite enduring panic attacks. Two eluded me, but the University were accommodating and told me I could resit them in the summer. I did not go on any nights out that year. I had stopped drinking when the anxiety began and used that as an excuse to stop people from worrying about me when they asked me where I was.

It was back in my parents’ home on the east coast over the summer when I first began to struggle with depression. The NHS mental health services in Edinburgh refused to provide any assistance at the time because I was registered with a GP in Glasgow. I tried to register in Edinburgh but they said I would have to wait a few months in order to be considered for mental health support, at which point I planned to be back at Glasgow. I spent long nights awake resenting myself for reasons I cannot remember. I would lie on the grass listening to podcasts, wishing I could care about the topics people discussed. My whole world consisted of my house and back garden. I realised all the things that anxiety had taken from me: new experiences, spending time with friends, my independence. My life had become a claustrophobic bubble and I struggled to feel happy, or any emotion except fear, about anything. I frequently contemplated suicide but I knew I could not inflict that kind of pain upon my parents, who supported me without question. I know now I am incredibly fortunate to have had my parents and not everyone in my situation has the same support system. They were the only ones I had been truly honest with about my condition, but I wonder if I had been more honest with my friends at the time then those summer nights might have passed easier.

Returning to Glasgow was one of the most difficult things I have experienced; I had missed my summer resits and I was now resitting the whole year. My parents drove me through. I was in a state of absolute panic the entire time and cried for the duration of the journey. My parents set me up on my own in my new flat and then left me. I spent three days trapped in my bedroom and considered suicide more than ever. On the fourth day, I went for a walk and it made things easier. A few days later, my flat mate came back from his summer travels and I found myself telling him about my summer. I cried again, but this time I was crying with one of my friends.

Things gradually improved over the next few years. I was considered as having a disability by the University which meant that lecturers would be accommodating for me when I missed classes. I cannot understate the importance of telling the University about any conditions you are suffering from. Dropping down a year, I made new friends who I am incredibly grateful for. However, living with mental health problems is consistently up and down. I heard things like “you don’t seem like someone who has anxiety at all” quite regularly. A university professor I worked with expressed his surprise as, “but Thomas, I thought you were a big strong man!” when I finally disclosed my struggles to him after months of working together. I may only be 5’8, but I would like to consider myself as “big and strong” as a consequence of my battle with mental health, as opposed to in spite of it.

There is still a heavy stigma surrounding men’s mental health. I’ve felt the benefits of sharing my experience, but it’s not easy to do so. Moreover, mental health problems are not always obvious. People are not always trapped in their bedrooms like I was. Many are still attending lectures and going on nights out while struggling with their own mental health issues. Men account for nearly three quarters of the deaths by suicide in Scotland. Men, like me, who did not understand what was happening to them and found it hard to communicate to people or could not find anyone to turn to.

Sometimes the hardest part is just realising that you need to ask for help. Scotland desperately needs more honest and open discussions about men’s mental health; particularly here in Glasgow where an outdated version of stereotypical masculinity can still inhibit men from admitting any kind of weakness. It is up to all of us to reach out to one another to try and prevent anyone from finding themselves in such a situation. Be kind to one another and check up on your pals – a small effort goes an incredibly long way. If you feel you are unsure of how to approach the issue or you want to improve our attitudes towards men’s mental health, the SRC run a “Mind Your Mate” mental health workshops in order to provide you with skills for you to help yourself and others. These can be booked for your club, society or your classmates.

Mental health is not solely an issue at university level. It is painful that a young man like Tim Bergling felt he had no other option than to take his own life, and we as a community must be proactive in helping those closer to home. The death of Scott Hutchison begs the question: when someone has been so frank and open about their mental health condition, why we do still lose them? Why does our country not have the appropriate framework to prevent and treat these conditions and provide accessible support for anyone who needs it? We can and should do better.

As I write this, my final two exams give me anxiety. However, I do not think I am going to die. It is a light anxiety that is prodding my brain, telling me to go and revise. I’m quite content to know that this is a normal level of anxiety that everyone experiences. It is a good level of anxiety that I can control and use to motivate myself to finally get my degree. Everyone experiences their own battle with mental health. I still struggle with bouts of sadness and I can be prone to panic attacks in some situations. But every year I am making progress. I hope that by having more open discussions with one another, we can make collective progress towards providing the support and facilities needed by those who are struggling with mental health.