Coming to university, I thought I was well prepared. Having had to take a year out due to mental health problems, I came to university with the wisdom from my friends who had already survived first year. I was armed with tips about breaking the ice, meeting new people, coping with freshers, joining societies and dealing with work stress. I had no doubt that I was 100% prepared and ready, albeit terrified.
How wrong could I be? As it turns out, very wrong. Despite being surrounded by thousands of equally overwhelmed and lost students in the same boat as myself, I had never felt more alone. Freshers came and went, a drunken blur. I had been encouraged to really push against my anxiety and join in, get out of my comfort zone and get to know people. So I did. I joined in, I drank to excess, I looked normal. No one would of guessed the torment going on inside. However as soon as freshers was over, my attempts to join in were also over. I alienated my flatmates. This was my first mistake. One week sociable and happy, the next week isolated and quiet with no explanation. There is only so long someone can fake a personality. And in hindsight I should have explained my situation. I wasn't a going out sort of person. I didn’t like drinking every night. That just wasn't me. I am naturally an introvert who likes staying in drinking tea and watching films. I liked knitting and other creative things. I like to study and do well, for me first year wasn't about scraping a pass. I wanted to push myself and do well. But I felt too ashamed to say anything. I didn’t think I would be accepted for being different. I didn’t think they’d understand the depression and anxiety I felt. I was ashamed and scared which only drove me further into isolation. I stayed in my room, often crying and contemplating leaving university. I would ring home in floods of tears desperate to leave. Nearing the end of the year, I had reached my lowest point.
In first year I undeniably hit rock bottom. But looking back I learnt a lot:
1. Be open: You’re stuck with your flat mates for a year. Randomly assigned to a group of people, it’s inevitable there will be arguments and falling outs. That’s ok. I had such a fear of telling my flat mates about my mental health problems that I pushed myself into isolation. If I had told them, even only slightly hinted to the problem, I have no doubt that they would have been more understanding and caring. When I opened up to other people, I often found out that they too had experience of struggling. Mental illness is sadly very common. But it means you are not alone. Everyone has their guards up when coming to university - everyone wants to look ‘normal’. But if you take down your facade, you’ll find others do too. And you’ll quickly learn that normal doesn’t even exist.
2. Be open with university: Explain to your tutor about your problems, let them help you. As I said, mental health is common and they are used to students having a wide range of issues. Universities have a well-structured support service in place for students with a wide variety of difficulties. It ranges from university therapy sessions to extra support during exams and extended deadlines. If your tutor doesn’t know there is a problem, they cannot help. There is no shame in asking for help and at the end of the day, as a tutor, that is their job. They want to support you and they know about the challenges students face. They don’t judge. They support and guide you.
3. Get help: Register with a doctor, find a GP you find comfortable seeing and be honest. This is probably the hardest thing to do but so worth it. I was referred to the community mental health service where I was assigned a psychiatrist and community psychiatric nurse (CPN). It sounds scary and it was at first but I was able to get my medication sorted which helped make the depression easier to deal with. Before, the depression completely consumed me, I felt like I had no control over it at all. But the medication helped ease it so that I regained more control. Seeing the CPN helped me challenge some of my fears and beliefs. But above all, it was incredibly liberating to talk honestly and not be judged.
4. Be yourself: There are thousands of students at university, all unique and different so don’t feel you have to act a certain way to fit the mould. Fitting the mould is just an illusion - there is no mould and there is no normal. It is a chance to explore new activities, join societies and clubs and try something new or just do something you already enjoy. I joined the ski society in second year and that is one of the best things I did. I love skiing and it was great to be with other like-minded people. It was something I looked forward to and I felt able to be more like myself. Also opening up to people and being honest that I hated going out and drinking every night lead to me find other people who felt the same way. It was with these people that I could really bond with and from friendships. One friend in particular really helped me through first year. Having opened up about my difficulties she made a huge effort to help me. We had very similar interests so she’d come to my halls armed with tea, films and crafty things. She understood my struggles and helped me to challenge them but also understood my limitations.
5. Don’t be ashamed: Mental health is something we all have, be it good or poor. Just like physical health issues, we shouldn't be ashamed or embarrassed when our mental health isn't right. Part of the problem is fearing the stigma attached to mental health. But by hiding our problems we inadvertently strengthen the stigma. During second year I joined a mental health society and got involved in a number of awareness events - it really is amazing how many people have been touched my mental health illnesses. It was liberating to be open and to help break down the misunderstandings surrounding mental health.
4 years on, I am now studying for a masters in medical science. Last year I graduated with a first class degree in physiology despite my struggle with depression and other illnesses. Having depression doesn’t mean you cannot achieve your goals. Your illness and struggles do not define you. It has been a learning curve and I am still on my journey to recovery. I have learnt from my mistakes and I have learnt from my past experiences. I have learnt not to be ashamed. I have learnt to be myself and do the things I want to do. As a result I have developed real friendships with people who are similar to me. I have learnt my limitations and learnt that it’s ok to ask for help - this is not a sign of weakness or failure. It takes strength and courage to know when you need help and to overcome the fear of asking for it.
Be yourself, ask for help, don’t be ashamed. These would be my 3 top tips.