In my second year at university, I became aware that one of my friends was spending an inordinate amount of time in the college computer room. Increasingly bleary eyed and dishevelled, he cut a sad and lonely figure. Introverted and monosyllabic, it was clear that this once dynamic and witty young man was undergoing an extraordinarily difficult time. I remember plates with congealed gravy, the remnants of half eaten meals mounting up beside his computer and, in hindsight, I do not think that he returned to his room to sleep at night time.
In 1996, I had not even sent my first email. I had concluded quite emphatically that such a system was never likely to catch on, especially given the wonderful efficiency of college porters and pigeonholes. It seemed like a pointless gimmick, a pleasing distraction for geekish minds. Consequently, the thought that my friend had become addicted to internet chat rooms never even crossed my mind.
The internet was a foreign world to me, though a year or two before, a sixteen year old boy I knew through music circles had been arrested by the Metropolitan Police for hacking into the Pentagon. Nicknamed the ‘Datastream Cowboy’ he had evaded the Pentagon’s security system having hacked a staggering number of military systems around the world. I did not really understand the finer details of the case against him though I was secretly and, perhaps a little shamefully, impressed by his audacity and intellectual brilliance. I was quietly thrilled to read that ‘his actions caused alarm in the Pentagon’ and he had been accused in the US Senate of ‘causing more harm than the KGB’. He seemed ineffably cool and he was, and still is, a great double bass player to boot. These days, I guess that I might take a slightly different view!
Anyway, I digress, the point is that my friend at college had slumped into a depression and was living in a twilight world of chat rooms. I had casually presumed that he too might be involved in exciting escapades in an online world of espionage and military networks, but I was dismally wrong; the truth was much more prosaic. He was talking to other lonely people and seeking a virtual connection that was proving elusive in real life.
The previous year, the university newspaper had run an excoriating article that was so unkind about my friend that, almost twenty five years on, I struggle to believe that such a cruel headline could ever have been published. He had done little wrong other than become involved in some ill-advised youthful foray into university politics. His actions had aroused the wrath of some self-righteous student hack and he was left to face the humiliation of public censure at an age when compassion and understanding would have been so much more appropriate.
Sadly, I feel that I was an incredibly ineffective friend. I was pleasant enough and concerned for him but I have come to realise that I did not comprehend the fact that he was so seriously unwell and depressed. I consider myself to be emotionally intelligent but I viewed my friend with little more than concern, pity and confusion.
Perhaps this is not surprising because no one ever spoke of mental health and I had absolutely no idea how to identify the signs that someone was suffering from depression. What seems so obvious to me now appears to have totally bewildered me back then. It is difficult to comprehend the extent of my ignorance and I do look back on that episode with a sense of sadness. I wish that I had been a better friend.
The world I grew up in valued stoicism and interpreted any concern regarding mental health as a sign of weakness. The expectation was that one should just ‘get on with it’ and that was exemplified by the stiff upper-lipped approach of the generation that had fought during the Second World War. The teenage me found it difficult to imagine teachers like Major Brown or Wing Commander Harrison having experienced mental health issues.
They roared around School as if they were still strifing the enemy from their cockpits. Indeed, I suppose they were. The enemy and weapons may have changed but they were still ‘doing battle’ in their minds. The thought that my School might have taught PSHE or offered counselling would have seemed absurd. The School nurse only seemed to dispense aspirin and we used to joke that she would have sent us away with a couple of tablets even if we were facing imminent death.
I would never have recognised that the recurrent symptoms I experienced in my early twenties, such as loss of appetite, insomnia or acute anxiety amounted to anything constituting a mental health issue. I just thought that I needed to be stronger or tougher. It never occurred to me to imagine that the bereavement I had suffered as a child had never been addressed.
No wonder I could not help my friend when I understood myself so poorly. Over time, I learned to cope with the symptoms of anxiety and a tendency towards depression without ever really owning the situation. It was not until I was in my mid-twenties that I decided to seek help from a cognitive behavioural therapist who was a friend of a friend. He provided me with all sorts of excellent strategies to employ for times when I felt those crushing feelings of doom and gloom approaching.
Since then, I consider myself to have been incredibly fortunate insomuch as I have become acutely aware of how to manage those feelings or tendencies. In many regards, I lead a blessed life but many of us have had additional stresses with which to contend with during the pandemic.
Playing the piano, going for a walk with the dog, spending time with our children or going for a run all serve to bring me back to a good place. I am a much happier person now than I was then and I cannot help but think that it would have been so much better for me if I had found help earlier. Had I been taught about wellbeing and mental health during my school years then I would have had the self-knowledge to recognise my own problems. More importantly, I would have been much more useful to those of my friends who had much more serious problems than me.
On Sunday, it was World Mental Health Day. Traditionally people wear yellow to raise vital funds for charities such as Young Minds. Raising awareness about mental health issues is still very important given that there is still a taboo in terms of discussing such issues honestly and openly.
Of course, things have moved on since my school days and we work extremely hard to ensure that all within our community are supported. The strength of our medical provision and the focus of our PSHE programme are often commended by children, parents and external agencies
However, we feel that we have so much more to do in this regard, for the mental health and wellbeing of our children remains our greatest preoccupation – both as parents and as teachers. It is the one thing above all else that we must get right. I do believe that children need to know that it is perfectly normal to experience mental health issues at different stages in one’s life.
We should not catastrophize such situations or rush to put labels on everything. However, we should focus our efforts on ensuring that we promote positive mental health and this means providing children with a toolbox of strategies to utilise in different situations. It means talking openly about mental health issues and ensuring a culture within which children feel comfortable expressing themselves. It means ensuring that all children have access to an excellent quality of counselling.
Finally, it is important that those who lead communities have the courage to admit that life is not always easy. It is OK not to be OK. Being open about this is not a sign of weakness but an honest recognition of what it means to be human.
My failure to provide the support that my friend needed some twenty five years ago only serves to strengthen my resolve to ensure that we do everything within our power to provide an outstanding level of support to our children here at Rossall.
Headmaster of Rossall School