As I pulled in to the car park of my halls in first year, I was filled with an all-consuming, sickening dread. How could I begin the new challenge of uni life when I was still exhausted from the battles I’d faced since my GCSEs? Was I allowed a fresh start in my new environment? And ultimately, how long could I keep up the charade of being ‘normal’?
Much to my surprise, I did manage to create a new persona in those tentative first few weeks. I made close friends, starting eating normally again and felt the weight of depression begin to be lifted by genuine contentment. However, this didn’t last forever and when second year arrived, the pressure of academic expectations coupled with new health challenges meant my mental health problems came back with a vengeance. My weight plummeted, my anxiety grew and most terrifyingly, I began to have panic attacks so severe I felt unable to leave the house. I focused what energy remained on academia, resulting in good grades but a non-existent social life.
Fortunately, I was not left to fight through this on my own. With support from my department, disability services and mental health professionals I was able to persevere and take back the power that my fear had taken from me. In many ways, my past has even been of benefit to me, providing a personal relevance to the science I study and enabling me to support friends through their own difficult times.
Statistics show that I am not alone in my experience at university. In a study conducted by the NUS, 20 per cent of students considered themselves to have experienced mental illness and over 1 in 10 students felt suicidal at some point during their studies. Most shockingly, 90 per cent of these students did not utilise university support services despite their feelings of distress. This needs to change. As well as the potential for great personal growth and enjoyment, university life comes with a whole host of pressures – from finance to academic work – which may be detrimental to one’s wellbeing. Coupled with lack of sleep, poor diet and excessive alcohol consumption, it’s little wonder that students are feeling the strain.
So what can we do about it? My advice to you is simple. If you can relate in any way to my story, don’t be afraid to ask for help from your GP or personal tutor. Whether this involves cognitive behavioural therapy to modify unhelpful thinking patterns or a change in exam venue to reduce stress, the support is available if you ask for it. And if you are a friend of someone who’s struggling, just being there to listen over a cup of tea will mean more to them then you realise.
Mental health problems are nothing to be ashamed of, and I hope you’ll join me in helping to break down stigma, one conversation at a time.