- Eloise Stark
Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Taking time out from university is a growing occurrence, and is often due to mental health difficulties. At Oxford, the process of taking time out has the intimidating verb “rusticating”, derived from the Latin word rus, which means countryside. This is because students were often sent back to their family in the country.
Taking time out may be compulsory or voluntary, but despite the reasons for why you need to put a pause on university, there are ways to make sure that your time is well spent.
If you have taken time out due to mental health problems, the first priority will be to work towards recovery. This may take different forms depending on your mental health condition and level of functioning, but could include time spent in hospital, outpatient treatment, trips to your GP, trials of medication, or various types of therapy. Trust in the people who are here to help you and be honest and open at appointments. If you don’t feel you are getting the right support, try finding an advocate or writing a letter to explain what you think you need. Don’t give up. The NHS is horribly stretched but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for sub-optimum care.
My experience has been that you will get a degree of help from others, but you also need to learn to help yourself. There is no magic bullet and no one is going to swoop in and save you. But equally, you know yourself best. You are the person who can best learn about your triggers, your unhelpful cognitions, what makes you tick and what your ultimate goals are.
It is important to be realistic about your recovery – it might not happen overnight and you might not be “recovered” when you return to university in a year or two. Indeed, some conditions may be lifelong. What you should aim for is improvement and understanding of how to make life easier. Aim for progress, not perfection, and remember that you can improve your situation, however dire it may feel.
Making your time meaningful
I found during my time out that at first I felt very low because I didn’t feel as if I had any purpose while I wasn’t a student any more. I had nothing to do with my time, and so I felt useless and lazy. I would have liked to find a part-time job but I was not well enough. So I mobilised myself to find things to do that make me feel purposeful and like my life was meaningful.
I found several volunteering opportunities for a couple of hours at a time. For instance, I did some admin for the charity Oxford Hub every Wednesday afternoon and I volunteered at my local village library. I also tried some things that didn’t work out, and that’s okay too. I signed up to volunteer in an Oxfam bookshop, and was left alone on the till after a 30-minute induction. I was so terrified and anxious of getting the till wrong, that I gave my thanks but never returned.
Can you join a local sports team? Do you enjoy going to the gym? Is there a reading group you could join? How about a couple of hours helping in a retirement home, or a charity shop? Is there a local Scouts group you could volunteer with? There are tonnes of opportunities if you look hard enough!
Keeping an eye on the future is an important thing to do. Make goals, even if they are as silly as seeing the S Club 7 reunion band live in concert. What do you want to do as a career? Would you like a family? Would you like to continue to do a PhD? On a shorter timescale, goals could be things like making it to see a friend once a week (social contact is very important during your time out too), or reading a novel every month. Be kind to yourself, don’t set anything too difficult for yourself, but keep the future in mind.
Never give up
I know what it is like when it feels as if you’ll never get back to university. When you see your friend’s photos on Facebook or Instagram and they look like they’re having a great time, and you feel sad that it’s not you. But time out can be a wonderful, healing time if you make the most from it.
You just do it. You force yourself to get up. You force yourself to put one foot before the other, and God damn it, you refuse to let it get to you. You fight. You cry. You curse. Then you go about the business of living. That’s how I’ve done it. There’s no other way.
- Elizabeth Taylor
Hi, my name is Eloise and I am a second year PhD student at Oxford University, studying at the intersection between Neuroscience and Psychiatry. I am passionate about mental health, reducing stigma and increasing empathy for people experiencing distress.