In 2017, I had something of a mental breakdown. I could not afford to go travelling after finishing my A Levels, so it seemed like the next best thing. The term ‘breakdown’ implies something of a spectacle in the context of mental health, but in reality, mine was neither dramatic nor sudden. It was not so much a car crash as an increasing awareness that the wheels were about to come off, along with the doors, brakes and engine. I had hoped completing that year’s exam diet would alleviate the stress and inner turmoil I was experiencing, but it was not to be. Having decided to take a year off before going to university, finishing sixth form left me devoid of purpose. I no longer had any pressing deadlines or particular goals to work towards. The very thing I had identified as the cause of my poor mental health was, in fact, keeping a far greater amount of suppressed negativity at bay. With mandatory education completed, I suddenly had a lot more time alone with my thoughts. This was not a good thing. The underlying issue I was forced to confront was that I had not adequately confronted many of my underlying mental health issues. Having struggled with mental health since I was 10, I had grown accustomed to just living with anxiety. As much as I may have struggled, there was always something related to school I had to be getting on with. But in July of that year, with the luxury of so much unstructured time, things began to get worse. I will spare you the details, dear reader, but at my lowest point that year I was struggling to function.
One realisation I had recently was that my day to day routine then was not overly dissimilar to the one I practised in lockdown. Wake up, do not much of anything, go for a walk, come back, do not much of anything, struggle to sleep, sleep. I struggled to keep in contact with many of my friends and found myself unable to attend most social events. The reasons then and now obviously differ, but the similarity is striking. I sympathise with those left feeling directionless and isolated as a result of COVID-19 and the restrictions required to overcome it. The pandemic has disrupted everything, and demands ongoing sacrifice, particularly in the social sphere. Plans, strategies and goals have all had to change to accommodate the recovery program, and we should not underestimate the toll this virus has had and will take on our collective mental wellbeing. A recent survey by mental health charity Mind suggests ‘prolonged worsening of wellbeing and continued inadequate access to NHS mental health services will see a marked increase in the numbers of people experiencing longer-term health problems’. Similarly, a recent entry in Lancet Psychiatry warned that the combination of increased anxiety and economic hardship could lead to ‘an increase in mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and a rise in problem behaviours such as alcohol and drug addiction […] or social consequences such as homelessness’.
The sensation of gnawing emptiness arising from the absence of purpose is awful and challenging to overcome. It can be self-perpetuating; you feel devoid of any passion, so you stop participating in things that might interest you. You are not participating in things that might interest you, and subsequently feel devoid of any passion. It is a nasty cycle that drags you down. I am still working on breaking it to this day. I worry about others experiencing it, particularly those that have to rely on an underfunded and overstretched NHS. A 2017 Education Policy Institute report found that ‘young people in many areas [of the UK] are still waiting an unacceptably long time for treatment’. Additionally, the report noted that ‘specialist mental health services are, on average, turning away over a quarter (26.3 per cent) of the children and young people referred to them for treatment’, citing issues with the referral process and ‘high thresholds to access specialist services’ as explanations. A House of Commons Briefing Paper from 2016 found that Scotland had yet to meet its target of 90% of patients commencing psychological therapy based treatment ‘within 18 weeks of referral’, meaning some people had to wait over four months for assistance. Even when people can get an appointment, young people are not guaranteed good treatment. Although anecdotal, I sincerely believe that my treatment from CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) left me worse than it found me, and I have seen others express similar sentiments on social media. Look, it would not pass as a citation in an essay but I am counting it as lived experience.
Regrettably, I do not have any especially stirring words to leave you with, only these sincere ones. This year, perhaps more than any other year we have experienced, we will rely on the support of those around us to get through. The university motto may be ‘ever to excel’, but this year it might as well be ‘strive to survive’. I got through my personal mental health crisis with the help of a therapist, my family, friends and medication. It was a very difficult period personally, but it was nothing like this. This pandemic has and will continue to test our resolve and demands continued excellence from us all in a moment where it would be easier to crumple. It is going to be difficult, but I wholeheartedly believe we can get through this. With this in mind, we must try and look after one another upon our return to St Andrews. We owe it to each other. In the words of Leslie Nielsen: ‘Good luck. We’re all counting on you’.