STUDYING YOU: STUDENTS WITH GRIEF AND MENTAL ILLNESS

by Candice Nembhard

When I was in my last year of primary school, I experienced the death of a pupil in the year below; her name was Demi. She had epilepsy and was known to have regular fits, but they were often manageable and not entirely life threatening if responded to sufficiently. I distinctly remember one lunch time as I headed towards the playground, that I passed by Demi having another fit. Teachers and paramedics cornered me off, so as not to make a bigger scene and I ran off to the playground to inform others. Of course we were all concerned, but were mostly pacified in the knowledge she was in the best possible care.

The next morning at school, my teacher informed us that Demi had died. She was only 10 years old — they had been unable to restart her heart. In that moment, I felt a level of responsibility.  I saw her in her last moments and passed it off as another episode that would soon rectify itself to see Demi in good health.  Counsellors came into school and assemblies were given, but they did nothing to attend to the hurt and regret I felt for not being able to do more. I know that Demi’s condition was never my immediate concern, but there was always that part of me that took on the blame for witnessing her final moments. For many pupils including myself, it was their first experience with death and consequently grief.

(One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Still © United Artists)

In 2008, my younger sister was diagnosed with cancer. Completely out of left field, the dynamic of all that I knew changed. It was the stereotypical case of ‘it doesn’t matter until it happens to you’. My role as a daughter, sister, and student were inversed. It became increasingly difficult to orchestrate a sense of normalcy and as a result, my friendships and mental/emotional wellbeing suffered. I was subsequently diagnosed with anxiety and underwent a severe case of depression that lasted four years.  Both my sister and I are now in good stead, and so I very rarely feel the need to address this  part of my life, but it’s important to note that I understand the pressure of trying to manage a double life and not succeeding in either on account of the fact you’re not internally balanced.

My only constant in that time, was unfortunately school — its rules, uniform and inherent structure had not changed, despite feeling that everything else around me, had. I started dozing off during lessons, before eventually skipping classes and ultimately missing full blown weeks off school. It was only when my studies were affected, that the school attempted to intervene. With the lack of counselling services, or teacher training in grief and mental health, it’s no wonder that students feel that pastoral care whilst studying is substandard. The approach to my circumstance was illustrated as ‘I was/had a problem’, as opposed to ‘you’re dealing with a problem’. The pressure of still keeping an A*/A grade average had become more than enough and I completely isolated myself.

It was only when my studies were affected, that the school attempted to intervene

I am fortunate that my sister and I are on the road to recovery and had incredible support from family members. For many other students this is not their reality. For many students, they lose a complete sense of themselves and invest in unhealthy coping mechanisms that we accept as part of their characters. I am in awe of students that are stumped by the death of a loved one, or setback by personal issues, and still continue on in their studies. The pressure of formal education is a very real experience irrespective of whether or not you’re dealing with mental/emotional distress. Mental Health services for young people are few and far between, and quite often do not get to the heart of the problem. At university, a 2:1 is priced over feeling mentally sound. It’s too common that one hears “I’m stressed” or “I’m going home for a few days” because the pressure has become overbearing. Students in that sense, are institutionally groomed into stretching themselves beyond their limits, because if you’re not struggling, you’re not on the path to success. They are then demonised and ostracised for taking that time out to better themselves and return to study when they are ready.

(Skins Cast © BBC Pictures/Channel 4 via digitalspyuk)

This mentality should be completely destroyed. Working beyond your means is not smart, it’s a sure fire way to corrupt yourself and inhibit your capacity for personal success.  Students should not be rewarded for their success in overcoming a problem by waylaying themselves with other vices, instead, students and academics alike should be praised for acknowledging that they are with difficulty and would like to seek support/assistance. What helped through my troubles, was not being afraid to admit that I needed help. I took the initiative to speak to someone outside of school and domestic frame; who could be impartial and respect my thoughts.

Students in that sense, are institutionally groomed into stretching themselves beyond their limits

Even now as another loved one is also undergoing cancer, I feel I am well equipped to deal with it, because of the support I was given and healthier attitudes towards mental health among students. Most universities are prepared in catering towards students that have physical as well as mental disabilities. These services aren’t always perfect, but it’s a step forward. My hope is that the issue of mental health will be taken as a separate issue to education, not an expected part of the process. Grief and mental health in that regard is everyone’s concern; whether you’re experiencing it personally or supporting a sufferer; great weight and public information/training is needed in environments such as universities that are already pressure orientated.

If you are a student or someone who is dealing with grief, mental distress or anxiety — support is available.

  • Samaritans (UK): [AREA CODE] 116 123
  • UEA Nightline: 01603 503504
  • UEA Dean of Students: 01603 592761
  • Norwich and Central Norfolk Mind: 01603 432457

Featured image: Prozac Nation Still © Miramax Films

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