Anxiety and OCD suck. Having anxiety and OCD as a student away from home sucks even more. Yes, dear reader, the sufferer is me. But I won’t narrate a tale of hope lost or wisdom found, but voice a plea to dispel the belief that anxiety is cute, and illnesses like OCD are adjectives.
The ‘independent student life’ may look perfect from afar, but one cannot presume to be aware of anyone’s internal struggles. I study a thought-provoking course at Shiv Nadar University. Beautiful flora and fauna surround the campus. Yet, I get anxious all the damn time. I get anxious about trivial things, about the trivial things that make big things – about everything, really.
College can be horrible and lonely. There is academic as well as social pressure – to excel, live the dream college life, and discover yourself. While trying to accomplish it all, one doesn’t dwell on idiosyncrasies that could be symptoms of a larger problem. In secluded campuses and college towns, deteriorating mental health is likely as it takes time for people around you to understand you and vice versa.
Procrastinating too much, not eating adequately, staying up all night, and having ‘mild’ panic attacks seem like par for the course. If you do speak out, those closest to you may dismiss your problems as ‘generational’ or ‘adjustment’ issues, and you might believe them. Some might just tell you they aren’t even issues but a manifestation of plain overthinking, resulting in you being even more anxious.
But this isn’t just college students; almost everyone has similar reactions as there is a specific image of mental illnesses. People believe that depression is like those photoshopped pictures of a girl with tears in her eyes (not that there’s anything wrong with girls or tears). People believe that OCD is Monica Geller’s ‘cute’ habit of frantically cleaning her house. I can assure you that it’s not as adorkable as TV shows make it out to be.
These are horrible and toxic illnesses, not quirky personality traits. OCD is obsessively arranging every object in your vicinity till you tire out, it’s compulsive hoarding and overthinking. Anxiety is annoying, cloying and severely hampers attempts at living your life. It also means hearing the phrase ‘you need to chill’ on a daily basis.
Such insensitive comments stem from a flawed understanding of mental health problems because no one talks about the reality. College students, who are supposed to be aware of the reality thanks to the internet, aren’t because pop culture has repeatedly showcased mental illness in a problematic manner. A ‘groundbreaking’ novel such as “Looking For Alaska” by John Green endorses the age-old trope of a beautiful, popular girl succumbing to mental illness and a boy ‘finding’ himself through her suicide.
Not just that, movies and TV shows often perpetrate stereotypical notions of how ‘men and women’ are affected by these illnesses, thereby affecting the way society treats people such problems. For instance, men dealing with mental health issues are portrayed villainously. When we think about ‘psychopath’ we don’t picture a person who has a mental illness, but the culprit of a “Criminal Minds” episode. A woman’s emotional or mental struggles are pinned to inherent sensitivity or limited to ‘PMS’, and are thus, not taken seriously.
Thankfully, things are changing. Famous personalities, both in India and abroad, like Anushka Sharma, Deepika Padukone, Ryan Reynolds and Wentworth Miller have spoken up about their struggles with mental illness. The same is also being portrayed in increasingly delicate ways on television and in movies, and adding more nuances to our understanding of these issues as well. “BoJack Horseman”, “Jessica Jones”, and “To The Bone” are a few examples of a much larger movement to show mental illness as real and harrowing, rather than something that breeds violence and ends in suicide.
Being unable to understand a person’s struggle is alright, but not attempting to understand it is a problem. Making assumptions about why a person is suffering (“you aren’t sleeping properly”, “you overthink too much”, etc.) leads the individual who is suffering to doubt themselves more. Irrespective of your intention, your comments can discourage them to seek help. If a person is struggling with mental illness, acknowledging the struggle and hearing them out is the best thing to do.
The one thing I have learnt through my experiences and those of others is this – there are always people who care, who are willing to listen. At Shiv Nadar, we have a psychiatrist available, free of charge. Manipal has free health insurance. If mental health resources are lacking on campus, you can check out betterhealth.org or mighty.com.
However, many colleges in India do not have adequate mental health resources, especially government colleges. Recognizing and admitting that you may have a mental illness thus becomes all the more difficult. Many suffer from OCD and anxiety and think that they are part and parcel of student life. A doctor at Fortis told me, 1 in 5 people suffer from panic disorder. This dispelled any assumptions about me being alone in my causeless suffering, and made me work towards getting a better hold over my condition.
I’ve often sat shaking in bed, terrified at the thought of going out, and obsessively arranging objects to cope with the fear. I try to take deep breaths and repeat a mantra – I cannot be anxious about that which I cannot control.
I am listening to “Perfect Places” by Lorde as I conclude this article. The lyrics are wistful and talk of the nature of youth – there are no perfect places, but there are safe spaces. Keep your chins up, talk to someone who you think understands and carry on.