Some more words about mental illness

By Brittney Rigby, Media/Law III

 I tried for about thirty minutes to think of a punny, witty, catchy headline for this blog. A headline that would set my words apart from the countless others that have been written about the importance of mental illness. A headline that acknowledges those words but also signifies that no amount of them will ever be enough until there is change. Change in discussions. Change in perceptions. Change in us.

My experience of mental illness has been like having an army of no in my head. Can I do this? No. Am I good enough? No. Combine one thousand voices whispering, mocking, screaming one thousand no’s into your ear and then add law school. It’s not the best recipe for success. Law school is already hard. It’s demanding and confusing and challenging. I expected that.

What I didn’t expect, when I started law school two years ago, is to have my mental health plummet to startling new lows. I found myself surrounded by people who wanted to boast about their perfect ATARs, question me about what farm life was like (I’m from a country town two hours down the highway that apparently isn’t expected to have electricity or shops) and ask how I managed to get into law school coming from a rural school that “surely doesn’t have many resources.” I didn’t expect to only be spoken to by some people when they wanted to know my marks or ask for my notes. I didn’t expect for mental illness to not be spoken about nearly enough. I didn’t expect for those suffering to have to jump through so many hoops to qualify for special consideration, a process that seems like it could be made far simpler to ensure we don’t have to deal with added anxiety.

I think that we owe it to ourselves to expect more. We shouldn’t be proud to share boastful stories of drunk weekends but ashamed to speak of our down days. We shouldn’t be more okay with wearing our lack of sleep and coffee-count as a badge of honour than we are with addressing why we’re tired all the time. We shouldn’t be eager to ask classmates to compare marks or share notes, but reluctant to send them a quick message to ask how they’re doing. We need to collectively start resisting a culture of competitiveness in a profession that is supposed to be collegiate. We need to say yes to support and togetherness.

And I’ve witnessed the power of that. I’ve had peers offer me help when I didn’t feel like I could finish an assignment, ask if they could print out notes for me when my printer broke down the night before an exam, send me a list of supermarkets that may be open when I ran out of paper for that same printer … also the night before an exam. I’ve felt the power of realising that taking responsibility for each other, our law school and ourselves has a meaningful ripple effect.

That’s why my initial attempt to come up with an interesting headline is part of the problem. It buys into the idea that words about mental illness need to be interesting or funny to be worthwhile reading. And that’s wrong. It’s unfair. The solution to removing stigma around mental illness shouldn’t involve a clever marketing campaign. That suggests that stories of mental illness by themselves are not enough, that suffering by itself is not enough, that we need to convince people to listen, rather than expect them to.  

I’m saying no to that, but saying yes to working together to make UNSW Law a place where we can all feel comfortable enough to admit we’re not doing okay, a place where helping each other comes more naturally than disregarding the plights of those around us in our pursuits to get a HD. We’re in law school because we want to help people, we want to correct power imbalances, we want to make a difference, we want to be a part of ensuring justice prevails. So why isn’t that translating into the way we approach mental health at our uni, in our classes, amongst our friends? Let’s say yes to making that happen.