[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]
Please note: I know that some people get wearied – ‘fed up’ – of all this talk about mental health. They lack the emotional intelligence to even begin to empathise with things they have not experienced. If this is you – if you think things like depression are talked about ‘too much’, and that these conditions can just be resolved through willpower and people ‘[getting] over themselves’, I regret to inform you that, a) you are suffering from an ailment characterised by deep ignorance, and, b) this article is not for you.
Depression – the ongoing mental health condition, that is (and I refer not to its erroneous conflation with a reactively sad state of being) one of the hardest things a person can ever go through. It is a dark monster that latches onto the mind; it is parasitical and oppressive, and it renders rotten whatever it touches. Depression can ruin your self-image, and it can absolutely annihilate your capacities for joy, as well as your energy and productivity levels. It is certainly the most difficult thing I have ever been through.
The peak of my experience of depression took place in Year Thirteen. Few people really knew what was going on: some people saw the sudden inexplicable spells of tears. I found myself constantly repeating the words, “I’m tired”. I smiled on the outside; I tried to make light of it all. But it was so, so heavy. And I know this weighty experience – of suffering from depression, while having to cope with the natural stresses and pressures of upcoming exams – is so very difficult indeed.
Recently, I heard about a girl from my old school who is going through what I did last year. I have heard about students from Brampton Manor who have been through, or are going through, depression; students from LAE; students from Harris Westminster; Queen Mary, Oxford, City. My aunt’s friend who is a medical student went through it rather intensely, too. All over Twitter, university students attempt to evoke humour out of the fact that they have degrees to achieve while also suffering from depression. All in all, the combination of depression with exam-related stress makes for a very debilitating experience indeed.
Depression makes the simplest activities unbelievably burdensome for individual sufferers: waking up in the morning; showering; eating a full meal. Having heaps of work to do, while, say, finding yourself ideating suicide (a rather common symptom of the mental health condition) is exhausting. Wanting to be productive; wanting to do well; sitting for hours and hours, trying to get your mind to cooperate while all it seems to want to do to itself is rot… this all adds to how terrible the general ordeal is.
It is hard, having, say, once been a top student, and now battling with depression. Deep down, you feel a sense of self-resentment: why couldn’t you be normal? It is hard knowing that you probably could have done amazingly well, if your mind were not currently betraying you. And it is hard feeling all alone during this time; you may even begin to feel guilt at the fact that you are complaining of your depression, because everyone around you is now suffering, with exam-related pressures. You do not want to burden them. You do not want the people around you to see you as a failure, either. But depression makes you feel so down; it makes you let yourself down.
I want to tell you that your grades are not everything. Heck, I missed out on a whole Cambridge offer because of my mental health conditions! But I am very glad I did: I could not pretend anymore. I could not pretend my depression was ‘not there’, for the sake of academic ‘productivity’. For whom was I trying to prove myself? And especially at the detriment of my own mental health…
Those were dark, dark times. I tried everything: eating more, eating less, eating better. Exercising. Breaking my work-related tasks into ‘manageable chunks’. But my depression did not lift; it became worse as the days went by. Mid-summer holidays, before Results’ Day, I was pretty much incapacitated by it. Thankfully, I took a gap year, and managed to heal [Alhamdulillah].
It took some medication (and some trying-out-different-ones); some spiritual practices; a lot of relaxation, and more, to heal. You cannot rush such a process. Moreover, although I will always have a strong affinity for academia, it is liberating to realise that I am human. I am a human being who went through the darkest of depressions, and who has come out on the other side! My academic ‘productivity’ does not define me; any academic qualifications – degrees and the like – are not for me to ‘prove myself’ to anyone. I will not pretend I did not go through depression, either. My qualifications and academic and professional pursuits will not be at the core of my life. I will not let my mental health suffer as a result of them. Health first, always. I do not mind if people saw my academic downturn as a ‘failure’: I am not an academic-success-churning machine, and neither are you.
We are human beings. Depression is a dark, heavy reality for us. But our health and wellbeing means far more than A*s and such ever will. It is okay if ignorant people think you have failed, or whatnot. In actual fact, nobody really cares (unless they care about you). You can let yourself fall, for a little while. Rest, there. Eventually, Insha-Allah, you will get up again.
PS. If you are suffering from depression (and, perhaps, are also about to sit some exams) I am always, always, always, here to talk.
Sadia Ahmed, 2020