Why is mental health so taboo for students? Hope Virgo on the stigma surrounding the mental disease

She is more than a mental health author and public speaker. Hope Virgo is an eating disorder survivor herself, currently recovering from the illness that continues to take lives. She knows how anorexia feels—a false friend coaxing the patients into deceptive oblivion.

When she fell ill, Hope could not simply refer herself to a hospital where she’d receive all the necessary help. Instead, Hope had to fend off anorexia and its consequences for four years before finally receiving professional treatment.

Today, she is an ambassador for the Shaw Mind Foundation and a multi-award-winning campaigner who’s dedicated her life to enlightening the globalized society about how mental illnesses work. In this interview, Hope from hopevirgo.com has shared her opinion on protecting students from grievous experiences like suffering silently, being stigmatized, and facing rejection.

Isolation and uncertainty cause most mental health problems in students

What’s your forecast for an increase in mental health issues and their consequences on students for the year to come?

Over the pandemic, we’ve seen more people combating mental health issues, but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that people have been struggling for decades in need of support. However, with the current state of the world, I am fearful that these numbers will keep increasing. That the 1 in 4 statistics will skyrocket. We must also all remember that whilst 1 in 4 students are diagnosed with a mental illness, every single one of us has mental health, and we all need to think proactively about how we can really manage this in ourselves and others.

My prediction is that unless we tackle the core issues being faced across society and start investing in preventative measures, mental illnesses are going to stay on the rise.

What is going to be the largest cause of mental health issues in students?

A mixture of isolation, fear, and uncertainty. But arguably, we have this pot boiling over right now, which in so many cases is creating a society where we normalize the people struggling. This year, we’ve all been faced with a pandemic to some degree, and we’ve all felt a huge range of emotion around it. In recent years, we’ve seen suffering on a wider scale and huge cuts to services across the board. The fact that people are still dying of eating disorders in 2021 is just one appalling thing that we mustn’t stand for.

Having been hospitalized and on the brink of death from anorexia once before, when I relapsed in 2016, I was terrified of ending up in the hospital again. Getting to that point where I would lose control. That relentless anorexic voice nagging at me day in and day out. After four months of battling with that voice in my head, I decided it was time I reached out for help. I referred myself and got an appointment at an Eating Disorder Unit in London, only to be told, “I wasn’t thin enough for support”.

I left the appointment not sure what to do, all I had wanted was someone to talk to, someone to take my relapse seriously and to give me some help. I felt like a fake. The month that followed was a mess. I couldn’t shake that anorexic voice that was slowly destroying me again, making me feel suicidal, taking over my every waking moment. One evening I sat at the train station for hours and just wanted to give up on life altogether. I remember thinking about how much better life would be for everyone if I wasn’t here. Something stopped me that evening from ending my life altogether, and I had this realization that if I wasn’t thin enough for the treatment, I would have to manage this on my own.

My story isn’t unique, it’s a daily occurrence for people with all eating disorders who are seeking treatment. Something that’s happening not just to those with eating disorders, but with all mental illnesses. People are unable to get the support they really need. We know that early intervention is critical in the success of treatment for eating disorders and by the time ‘obvious’ signs of eating disorders have manifested, it’s likely that the illness will have become ingrained in the individual, and therefore much more difficult to treat. If we want to prevent people from getting more unwell, we need to be making sure people can get support.

Arguably, we can’t name one largest cause, but we do know it will be a culmination of a number of things from the pandemic, from the lack of focus on mental illness, from the lack of education to the stigma and the cuts made to services.

An anxious student

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Fear and stigmatization reinforces silence about psychiatric issues

What if fellow students and professors refuse to acknowledge the mental health crisis in students and prefer them to suffer in silence?

All organizations, universities, colleges, and society more broadly need to be normalizing all conversations around mental health. They need to be held accountable for actually talking about this and making the effort to talk about it. We need to be bringing these conversations out in the open and finding ways to do this. I know how hard it is to talk and I know only too well the fear that this might carry for some, but if we aren’t bringing it out, more and more people are going to keep suffering. That is the brutal honesty, perhaps. If you are someone who is finding it hard to talk about things, perhaps identify 4 or 5 people that you can really talk to about what is going on.

Suffering silently means endangering your health and life

What are the preventive steps to take to avoid a mental health crisis? Are there any questions to ask yourself to identify/recognize the problem?

In order to help prevent the mental health crisis, we need to be looking at a number of elements. We need to proactively think about equipping students to manage their wellbeing, helping them to educate themselves on what they need. When thinking of eating disorders, we know they are serving a purpose in that space and because of this, we need to be unpacking what that is about. Helping people to be able to sit with the emotion, sit with those feelings that none of us like. Alongside this, we need a whole society’s vision to end the injustices that people are facing when accessing care and support. The stigma is still there in so many places, calling it out, naming it, sharing stories, and empowering people.

I lived with an eating disorder from the age of 13, and navigating an educational environment felt impossible in places. But with the right skills, coping mechanisms I was able to do it. But this is about what you can do to understand your triggers, your coping mechanisms when it feels harder to navigate.

Students should be able to receive help from their GP and college officials at all times

Where to go if you think you have mental health problems? How not to go wrong with choosing the right mental health professional and find the best care? 

Finding care and support can feel impossible in places, but don’t lose sight that you deserve it.

I always suggest going to your GP as a starter! They might not be able to refer you to services straight away, but getting on the waitlist is key. Go with the facts, write it down if helpful and if you feel able to either go with someone or have someone distract you afterward. I always find it helpful to predict how I might feel around this for example, for me, when I reach out for support, I often feel really guilty about it so knowing that might happen allows me to talk to myself with compassion.

If you are based in the UK, have a look at the Hub of Hope, which will provide you with a heap load of organizations to seek support. Have a look online too, do your own research about the illness.

Practically speaking to friends about their own therapy experiences might also be really helpful. It will help you understand the different types of therapy out there, too.

Through this whole process, I have personally always found it helpful to keep my eyes fixed on why I wanted to get well because when we have those reasons we can keep pushing for the how.

Call for help

Photo by Dustin Belt on Unsplash

Colleges should educate students about mental health issues

How do you know your mental health problems are rooted in academic routine? Are there any signs that indicate the problem is not manageable anymore, and it’s time to give therapy a try? 

I think many people go through life with a mental illness functioning at a high level, and forget that what they are going through isn’t normal and that they deserve support for it. I know I have been there, and it can feel impossible to know how to even start reaching out in those moments. But for me, it becomes an issue when I feel exhausted, when I have been feeling especially low for a few days and when I can barely concentrate on things when I stop washing my hair as much and just not looking after myself as well. It can feel hard again to know when that is, but for me, it is always important to reach out for support before we hit that so-called crisis point.

If you have previously been diagnosed with a mental health issue, it might be worth writing out the signs to look out for in yourself, and for others to spot too. Making people aware helps when you are working out whether you feel you need or want help.

What should be changed or/and incorporated in colleges and universities to improve mental health in the lives of their students?

  • Clear guidance around where to get support.
  • Resources online so that people can start their fact-finding.
  • Monthly tips and advice on internal communications.
  • Education on mental illness for staff and students so that they have a clear understanding of mental health issues, but also, so they know to spot the signs and support those around them.

Conclusion

The COVID19 pandemic has intensified mental health issues, but this danger compels all the affected people to speak up and be heard. College and university students have been extremely hard hit during this time and are a group that faces extreme isolation and uncertainty while the virus rages. Before the crisis, 1 in 4 individuals got diagnosed with psychiatric conditions, and we need to do everything to prevent these alarming statistics from growing.

Today, all communities need to understand and respect psychiatric disorders more than ever. But not only this, we need to be creating a space where people can share what is going on for them. Professors and GPs must provide understandable explanations about receiving the initial support. Creating and sharing online resources that offer scientifically accurate data about mental illnesses is vital.

This information, alongside monthly communication tips, can help the students who hesitate to open up about their troubles gain the necessary confidence. Finally, everyone can learn about anorexia, depression, and other dangerous diseases to notice early signs and ask for help as early as possible.

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Rebecca Jenkins

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Rebecca has been a freelance writer since 2010. She travels often and is constantly learning something new. Also, Rebecca is a true enthusiast of social sciences, especially of psychology. She gladly shares her experience of enjoying life and finding inspiration across the US and abroad.
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