I love learning. Particularly about the mind and behaviour, in both humans and animals. This was my reason to go to university, to pursue the desire to learn, coming out with a better understanding of a topic I was passionate in. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t know it would be this hard.
Before I started university, I spent my gap year trapped in depression, anxiety, and social anxiety. This unfortunate combination made me only desire to go to learn, keep my head down, and hope that people wouldn’t dislike me. I didn’t consider making friends or growing personally, as I thought this wasn’t obtainable to me. I was wrong.
University has pushed me both positively and negatively. It made me do things that my mind told me I couldn’t do but would have to do for the pursuit of academic success. Sitting in large lecture rooms, having seminars, group projects – all things that seemed impossible I somehow accomplished. I’ve grown a lot in confidence and my social anxiety has lessened, mainly thankful to the wonderful people at university. Opening up to other people about struggling with my mental health and them doing the same has provided me with rich and wonderful relationships.
However, university has been extremely challenging and many times I did not think I’d make it. The stress that results from the pressures of; assignments, finances, the impossible work-life balance has greatly damaged my mental health. Feeling consumed and overwhelmed everyday was awful, while also feeling I was the only one feeling the pressure making things worse. I can’t count the amount of times I have cried endlessly from the pressure or told myself that I have to drop out of university or even life from due to feeling such distress.
Being a perfectionist has made all of the above much harder than it needs to be. Getting good grades, attending every lecture, looking “together” – all aren’t people’s stereotypical view of an individual with mental health problems. If I was struggling, then I should show it behaviourally, or have nothing to worry about as my grades were good. Yet none of this matters when you are feeling so distressed. The fact that I had to be a certain way to be deserving of help made it very hard for me to try and ask for help and has prevented me from asking many times.
What has bothered me the most about my experience of university while living with mental health problems is the ideas that are imposed in academic culture. I distinctly remember being told that “Everyone feels this stressed but you have to learn to manage it to be able to do other things in the future. Everyone feels this way”. Not feeling alone is helpful, yet without the resources, how is anyone meant to cope? Academia seems to suggest that we should be stressed, devoting all our time and energy to studying, working towards burn out. Through any means, focussing on university should be paramount to everything else, regardless of your circumstances.
That should not be the way. For students to do well and be able to manage long-term, mental health must be considered. Not all students have mental health problems, but all of them have mental health, which in such a culture is not prioritised. I have seen on a wide scale how my peers have struggled and been let down. Services at university are overwhelmed, with advocating looking after student mental health rarely being mentioned, when it should be a priority. Feeling like universities don’t care is one of the hardest things to come to terms with, especially as students are dedicating their time and money to these institutions for years.
Regardless, I am somehow nearly finished with my last year at university and I’m not sure how I got here. Things are still extremely hard, I can recall a panic attack that nearly made me pass out when writing my dissertation last month, yet I’m still managing. I am extremely proud of myself for continuing, and only could do so through; therapy, supportive friends/family, and recently medication. I have learnt so much, both academically and personally, and I am glad that I stayed.
What has really pleased me is that my university is participating in University Mental Health Day, which shows me that they do care and are encouraging discussing mental health. To all students that are struggling: You are valid and deserve help regardless of the level of distress that you are in. Be real with yourself and other people, as being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness, but is a
If someone you know at university is struggling with a mental health problem be there for them and encourage them to talk just by asking how they are. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but showing you’re in their corner really makes the difference.