Open Book: Mental Health and… Socialising

Everyone’s mental health is different. No two people experience their environment in the same way, and so the pressures and difficulties we face at LSE are as diverse as the student body itself. This blog explores how people from all walks of life approach and understand their mental wellbeing, be it with diagnosable conditions or just dealing with the pressures of university life.

“What’s the social life like at LSE?” is a question asked by almost every prospective student. Posted numerous times on The Student Room and plastered across LSE Love, the answers range from warm and positive (“don’t worry, you’ll have a great time!”) to almost gleefully pessimistic (one-word answers such as “awful.”) The middle-ground we’ve reached is as truthful as it is cliché: “LSE’s social life is what you make of it.”

But how does this affect our mental health?

This is the question I posed to a friend of mine as we sat in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, looking on at the LSE buildings in the background. Extremely charming and affable, his perception of mental health is underpinned by an undeniable emotional awareness. His answer to the question is that we feel the need to conform.

As a student who missed the grades for his first-choice university (not Oxbridge, I hasten to add), my friend came to LSE with doubts about his social life. The heavy workload and off-campus accommodation don’t exactly make things easy. The effect that this expectation has can be damaging in ways which aren’t immediately obvious: being worried about not having a ‘normal’ university experience can lead us to overcompensate. Thoughts like “if I were at another uni I’d be having more fun” can make us to feel obliged to go out even when we don’t want to.

Taken alone, this problem could seem relatively minor. But when piled on top of the other pressures of university life, it can be exhausting.

My friend tells me about the crushing guilt he felt when turning down an invitation to spend some focusing on his mental health – “I felt I was letting people down,” he says. This story could well have been one from my own life: I regularly miss social events due to mental health problems, and it hurts. We regularly tell ourselves that we are being pathetic or weak for needing time off from nights out. Indeed, at times it can feel like we are forced to choose between feeling liked and feeling healthy.

But why aren’t we capable of taking time to ourselves? My friend offers two answers: we need permission, and we seek validation, both of which can be in short supply at LSE.

Social validation is much more complex than just having friends: at universities like ours, we can feel the need to maintain an active and fulfilling social life while also working hard, living healthily and feeling happy. We seem to pride ourselves on our ability to juggle everything, and to make it look easy. It is this high-functioning state that seems praiseworthy on campus, to the point which socialising can feel like checking a box – if you can balance everything, then you fit in, and you feel better.

This need to socialise makes us feel we don’t have permission to be ourselves. Environments that put focus on the frequency of social interaction ignore our individual needs because we feel that we aren’t allowed to take time for ourselves. Is it sensible to be partying when we feel miserable or stressed? No. But our need for validation subjugates this – we don’t have the agency to say no in such a conformist setting.

What individual role do we have in enforcing this? When we mock others as ‘boring’ for turning down nights out, we risk invalidating their emotional needs. When we make excuses for taking the night off, we imply that needing time for our mental health would not be a sufficient explanation.

So why not talk? To stop making excuses is to acknowledge the validity of our mental health and give others permission to do the same. We all need time off sometimes, and no one is always okay. Maybe admitting that is a worthwhile place to start.

Will Banks

If you are struggling with your mental health, LSE has a number of resources available to help you. Visit https://info.lse.ac.uk/current-students/student-wellbeing/mental-health-support for more information.

If you require urgent support, the Samaritans offer free and confidential support UK-wide on 116 123.

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