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Breaking the Stigma: ‘Groningen’ in the Heart of Students Battling with Mental Disorders.

Groningen has been known as a vibrant university town with a striking population of University students. Despite “mental health” being a trendy buzzword and mental illness awareness becoming more prevalent in our generation, there is still a great deal of stigma surrounding these issues. Perhaps it is because the conventional imagining of a “mentally ill” person is often attributed towards negative stereotypes –such as ‘psycho’, harmful, not doing enough, or merely a special case – there is still distance between such disorders towards the normative everyday life. These negative stigma can be really harmful not only towards the people who suffer from it but also responsible for creating unhealthy ideals in the general population.

It is easy to make assumptions about others –with sayings like “he is so loud and bold” “she is genius” and “they really do party a lot”– based on what we see on the surface, but the reality is that we can never truly know what someone else is going through unless they choose to share it. In this blog, I aim to break the stigma by featuring some stories I gathered through call and text interviews of Groningen’s students who are battling with (diagnosed) mental disorders. It is in collective hope that these stories can be the window into the challenges that they face on a daily basis, as well as the resilience and strength that they demonstrate in the face of adversity. With a more open society, it is hoped that we all can have more compassionate dialogue beyond the mental health paradigm.

Borderline Personality Disorder
“Sometimes I feel like my struggles aren’t as acknowledged as people with, for instance, ADHD or dyslexia. I know it is so wrong to compare struggles with others, but I am craving so much to be understood and recognized. I am academically doing fine, even better than most of my classmates. It is just really sad how nobody talks about how much I cried during the night because I feel very empty despite all of my achievements because I feel lonely or do not matter to anyone, like I am here effortlessly because I am not. I feel like I [mentally] struggle way more than others, because I feel things so deeply, to reach the point where I now stand. This also substantially affects not only my study progress like where I tend to easily give up and just cut off everything, but also juggling with a self-image of striking confidence to emptiness that follows with shame. I am struggling too, very much. So to cover this handicap, I tend to burn myself out so at least when I feel broken it is just not ‘broken’ but good broken that means something for the future, there’s something people can acknowledge.” – Zara (pseudonym)

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a complex and often misunderstood mental health condition that affects a lot of young adults. According to studies, one of the main characteristics of BPD is intense emotional experiences, impulsive behavior, and unstable relationships. One of the most common misconceptions about people with BPD is that they are manipulative or attention-seeking. This is simply not true. As expressed by Zara through text, “I love Groningen and its people so much. I always want to be impactful and become a significant person in a good way. I am an extrovert so I have a lot to share, and I also always crave deep connection. But without the proper interpersonal skills, I have been told a lot that “I am too much” or “such an intense person” and even “overshare a lot to gain sympathy for her benefit.” It saddens me how they might never know how much those words have been haunting me and define several years of life in Groningen. I wish they knew how much I also feel like a victim of myself because I couldn’t control most things, I feel betrayed by myself. I remember before now that I have a loving support system, I used to isolate myself a lot and always felt like a burden to someone else, and I tried a lot of ways to cope, harmfully. And seeing everyone is always a best friend of someone [having dinner together a lot, studying together, going on summer vacation together] it used to make me feel physically sick because I wish I was too.” In fact, people with BPD often struggle with intense emotions and may act impulsively or erratically in order to cope with these feelings. They may also struggle with maintaining stable relationships due to their intense emotions and fear of abandonment. However, this does not mean that they are intentionally trying to manipulate or control others. It is important to recognize that people with BPD are often dealing with deep-seated emotional pain and require understanding, empathy, and appropriate treatment in order to heal and manage their symptoms.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (Body Dysmorphia)
At the same time that Groningen’s community is becoming more healthy by pursuing an active lifestyle, many students are also facing struggles with self-acceptance towards their bodies. Body dysmorphic disorder (Body Dysmorphia) is a mental health condition that is mostly characterized by a preoccupation with perceived flaws or defects in one’s appearance that are not noticeable or only slightly noticeable to others. This preoccupation can lead to significant distress and impairment in daily functioning.

Adam (pseudonym) shares his concern with the gym culture that is rapidly growing in Groningen. He utters “when I first walked to the gym here, I felt unhappy with my body, which is normal, that’s why some or most people go to the gym. I started going, first three times a week, then it became almost every day, even once or so twice a day. The way my muscles felt sore the next day, I enjoyed that, it feels like an accomplishment. But now, it feels like the gym has become my obsession. Now that I am saying this, it’s really irrational but I actually do, like how I measure my self-worth by how much weight I could lift or how toned my abs looked, and it’s never enough. Even though I knew I looked healthy, I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was wrong or missing with my body.”

Some misconceptions about body dysmorphia are that it’s simply a matter of vanity and insecurity, even often mistaken with anorexia nervosa. Adam adds: “Of course, there is a degree of insecurity, especially I feel like in Groningen, or at least within my friend circle, everyone is so fit and goes to the gym a lot. And you know [hahaha] they post it on their Instagram either posing with their muscles flexed or like deadlifting 150kg or something. It is unavoidable to not compare yourself. I thought that’s normal jealousy but looking at the way I treated myself from that is beyond physical concern that I am less and that I can get over it once I reach that point, no. I lost my sense of self-worth beyond my physical appearance. At some point, I also only eat chicken breast or anything that is related to gaining muscle. I miss where food is a blessing and joy.”

Substance Abuse Disorder
Substance abuse disorder (also known as drug addiction) is a chronic and complex disease characterized by the compulsive use of drugs or alcohol either accompanied by its negative consequences or not. It is a mental health disorder that can cause physical, psychological, and social problems, and can lead to addiction and dependence. Unfortunately, many people view addiction as a moral failing or a lack of willpower, rather than a medical condition. Danny (pseudonym) voices that “Everyone talks sh*t and looks down on me so much. Yes, I know my life is messed up because of this. It’s my fault, I know, I am responsible for my own actions. But where were they when I needed them the most, huh? They only judge how badly I cope but nobody asks how I even get here.”

According to studies, the stigma around substance abuse disorder has a high correlation with shame and isolation for individuals struggling with addiction, as well as discrimination in healthcare, employment, and social settings. Subsequently, people who struggle with substance abuse disorder tend to seek with other people who also abuse substances. Danny further added “Of course I know I am not healthy at all but it is really hard to change though I want to. This sh*t is ruining my life, but my life before drugs is ruining me too. But regardless, I feel like I’m generally being judged, so I just tend to stick with people who have the same issue because, you know, they get me and they won’t judge me.” As the internal isolation through stigma experienced by individuals with substance abuse disorder is highlighted, it also brings about attention to how external lack of support may exacerbate substance use and make recovery more difficult.

Struggling with such a disorder while being a student and living in an academic setting makes it even more challenging. Although Vera (pseudonym) does not have a proper diagnosis for the disorder, she also has been struggling to break the loop of substance abuse while also being academically active. She shares: “at first I thought things like waking up feeling muzzy are just signs of burnout. It was very minor because I am a busy student too. My problem is not only this but first I just keep smoking to relieve stress, not even to have some fun with friends though I think in Groningen almost everyone does it or at least has tried it. But then it deteriorates in other aspects too like I skipped classes because I have strong cravings for it. Like seriously there’s a shop in front of my faculty. By the end, I still manage to do it but the [mental] cost to finish it is just beyond how it normally should be.” As pointed out by studies, substance abuse disorder can impact everyone. Bringing it closer to Groningen, they both share the view that substance abuse has been very much too normalized and accessible. Vera adds: “People usually see it like it’s okay a lot of people do it, but not like how this community, at the big scale, is so prone to falling into addiction.” The stigma of people with this abuse –i.e. people with low academic achievement– can be very harmful and counterproductive to actually justly perceive and ultimately combat the issue.

Final Words
All taken together, it is important for us to raise awareness and break the stigma surrounding mental health disorders, it is closer to us than you think. What is important to remember is that mental disorders are not a choice or a weakness, but rather a medical condition that requires support, understanding, and proper treatment. By working together as a Groningen community to remove the stigma, we can create a more inclusive and compassionate space for all.

With much love,
Samara Jetta