Disclaimer: The article is directed at general issues of mental well-being, and is not restricted solely to mental health illnesses. To clarify, counsellors and psychologists help individuals with general mental well-being issues, while psychiatrists carry out the diagnosis and medical treatment of mental illnesses.
My mum is the go-to person in my life for honest advice. Though she sometimes makes frankly unsubstantiated claims (“eating chicken feet will turn you into a bad student”), I assure you for the most part she has an ability, cultivated by years of experience, to dispense biting wisdom packed in little aphorisms. Last weekend, I was particularly stressed and tired. “You need to talk about it,” she decided.
Talk about it? Well where do I start? Or more accurately, how should I start?
There were a number of reasons why I felt lingering stress and anxiety. Most prominently, the reality of looming deadlines and there being only 24 hours in a day. Needing to rewrite my WCT Paper 2. Snacking too much and exercising too little. These are all problems I already vocalise to my suitemates.
Then there are the more difficult stressors. The real problems, the problems that matter. The things that scare me, that make me doubt my self-worth and ability to succeed, the things we hide from people and sometimes even ourselves. They might not present themselves in the everyday, but these hard issues occupy an enduring space at the back of our heads. For me, for example, they are the shameful episodes of an utter lack of motivation; the existential questions of why I am living, why I am in university and whether I made a mistake picking this vocationally-aware degree. Or the fear that I suppress so much of my feelings I am no longer in touch with them.
In a place like USP or university in general, life moves very fast. It’s hard to talk about real stressors, either because we lack the time, we don’t have the vocabulary and culture of doing so, or we feel like we have to keep up the image of having it ‘figured out’.
There isn’t enough honest discussion because we fail to willingly bring these issues up. We might be haunted by the prospect of appearing sad and boring. Or we feel uncomfortable being vulnerable about our insecurities. Discomfort arises in large part because we place unreasonable expectations on ourselves and each other in academics, activities and social life. But we’ve all struggled. So why not talk to each other about it?
Conversations matter. When I was at my lowest last year, I felt like I couldn’t find time and space to rest and heal. Talking to my close friends helped create a space for clarity. It granted me time to reflect deeply and, in the presence of much-needed company, speak honestly about things that would have otherwise have eaten me from the inside.
To be sure, talking about it is not the magical antidote to issues of mental well-being that we all wrestle with in varying degrees. Institutional support is important, and our pressure-cooker meritocracy is also problematic. I think USP does a pretty good job of making everyone aware of its counselling services. Yet stigma still precludes people from formally seeking help. Which is why the most effective transformation might still begin from us.
This October, we as a community need to learn to talk about it. Talking about it reduces stigma. It brings us all to the recognition that you don’t need a clinical diagnosis to seek mental support. And it reminds us that we don’t have to fight alone.
October, with its last spat of midterms, onset of papers, presentations and the journey towards finals, is a long month. Any desire to extend a helping hand or listening ear might be quickly squashed by weight of our own commitments. But instead of retreating to our rooms, escaping these stressors and binging on Netflix, we might do better opening up to one another and have mutually healing conversations.
This requires us to feel. Reflect. Purge. I like that USP is so comfortable in its nerdiness, but would love to see us engaging more emotionally. And I doubt this is beyond us: Ask a friend how he or she is feeling. Ask again. It starts with conscious effort on our parts.
I am immensely proud to see initiatives like Love, USP taking the lead. But still too many of us in USP feel alienated in our own struggles. As students in this community with an active stake in its flourishing, we should take a leap of faith and talk about it with friends. You might provide someone a powerful incentive to persevere, and will help USP thrive emotionally, as it does intellectually.
Written by: Chuan Limin