When you begin applying to university, all you ever hear being echoed left, right and centre by teachers, university students and lecturers is: “You’ll love it” and “It’ll be the best time of your life“. This may be the case for the majority, but it is simply not the case for everyone. Mental health at university exists in a whole different realm to mental health anywhere else and it’s time that it is acknowledged, by everyone – not just students and university staff. Mental health doesn’t play by the rules and everything can change in an instant, and people’s dreams of having “the best time ever” at university can be entirely misconstrued.
A few years ago, on results day, I was given the most exciting news: I was accepted into my first-choice university and I was thrilled to be enrolling as a History and Politics undergraduate student at Newcastle University. I was so excited and eager to start as soon as possible. It was a dream come true; I felt over the moon and immensely proud of myself for achieving something I never thought was possible.
Heading to university in September, full of happiness and a new-found confidence; I began Freshers Week. I had my first taste of student life and met a number of other like-minded students who were just as nervous as me. From that week, I can remember so vividly my first meeting with my tutor. She was telling me about who I could talk to if I ever felt stressed, depressed, anxious or simply just needed a chat. But I was quick to pass it off, thinking it won’t be something I’d need – perhaps even changing the subject in the hope that if we don’t speak about it, it won’t affect me. Naive of me, I know. No one expects it to happen to them – ever – and it can just hit you when you least expect it. I should know.
Four in five people at university suffered from mental health issues last year, according to a recent NUS study
My experience of mental health at university was a difficult one. I must admit, it was one of the hardest times of my life thus far. Completely out of the blue (or that’s what it felt like), my world was turned upside-down. I went from being an excited, positive and happy student to one that tried to avoid contact with other people as much as possible and sat in their room crying multiple times a day.
There’s a culture at university that it is supposed to be the best time of your life. Well, it wasn’t for me. In some instances, I even felt guilty for not enjoying myself. Especially when seeing classmates from school partying and surrounded by friends, and people on your course huddling around in groups discussing how much fun they’d had the night before. I didn’t have that experience. I had never felt so alone. Even though I was in constant contact with my boyfriend and my family, no matter what, I felt lonely. The countless times I tried to make friends it just never seemed to work, and I was just left questioning myself: what is wrong with me?
The countless hours of isolation had a negative impact on my mental health. When it dawned on me that university life isn’t quite how I expected, or how I was told it would be, I was distraught. All I ever wanted was to go to university, make friends, go on nights out in the Toon and pass with flying colours. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I virtually had no social life (unless you count being in bed by 7 o’clock and FaceTiming my family and boyfriend a ‘social life’) and became overwhelmed with the million-and-one deadlines. It never helped that we were constantly being reminded that every piece of work we produced, despite being in our first year, assisted in deciding how we spend the rest of our lives. It was incredibly overwhelming, and sometimes created unbearable pressure.
It’s even more tough with the added pressure students receive today. All you ever hear from teachers and lecturers is that “university can change your life” and gaining a degree is what all employers want to see on your CV. Added to the fact that there is an unspoken view that anyone who doesn’t go to university, or drops out, is a failure. Even though there was absolutely no pressure for me to attend university, and gain a first-class honour, I wanted to make my family and boyfriend proud. Even though, deep down, I knew I wasn’t happy, I had to persevere because quitting is not my forte.
I have always been a workaholic, because all I’ve ever wanted in life is to do well. I feel I achieved my goals and made my family proud up until then, but nothing was going to plan. My mental health problems affected my performance, despite the hundreds of hours I continuously put in to ensure I could succeed. But each day was a struggle, and I was getting worse every 24-hours that passed. I was beginning to fear that the only way to help myself was to leave, and all I could think about was: “What will everyone think?”
Trying to explain your emotions to family and friends is difficult. It is so easy to pretend you’re fine, instead of trying to put into words the million-and-one feelings and emotions flying around your head. I did try, multiple times, but I just didn’t make any sense to anyone. I felt like I was going mad and as if my mind was turning against me. Consequently, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t okay and needed to confide in someone other than my family and boyfriend for their own sake, as well as my own. Again, I tried explaining how I was feeling, only to be met with the response: “Everyone is in the same boat” and “University isn’t easy…your degree is hard”. Yes, I am aware of that, but I know for a fact that no one else was feeling the same way as me. And if they were, they were putting on an exceptional Oscar-winning act.
Everyone knows that university isn’t a walk in the park, but I didn’t expect to be feeling so low, negative, emotional and rough all the time. Nobody thinks mental health problems will affect them until it hits you straight in the face – hard – and even then, it can be tough to be honest with yourself, admit that you’re not okay and seek help. No one wants to admit to anyone that the perfect university life they dreamed of is crumbling around them by the second, especially when everyone else seems to be having the time of their life. All I could think about was going home, and each day I ticked off my calendar meant I was one step closer to being with my loved ones. It was the only thing that kept me going – a light at the end of the tunnel per se.
No one wants to admit that the perfect university life they dreamed of is crumbling around them by the second, especially when everyone else seems to be having the time of their life
Last year, according to a recent NUS study, four in five people at university suffered from mental health issues – whether that be depression, anxiety, an eating disorder or something less spoken about. Mental health can completely ruin your university experience – it ruined mine. In January 2017, after an awful lot of deliberation, research and sleepless nights, I stood my ground and decided to leave Newcastle. I was a mess, and there was nothing my family, my boyfriend or the university student well-being service could do. After seeking help from the university, I was left feeling down-trodden and depressed – even mad as they insinuated I was making everything up. Just what a student suffering from mental health problems wanted to hear…
However, now, I am the happiest I have ever been, and stronger than ever thanks to the ongoing support of my boyfriend and my family. The thing that helped me the most through my time at university was, this (my blog) and writing for the university newspaper. Writing is my passion, and I believe it is what truly saved me whilst enduring some difficult and challenging months.
My advice to anyone who was in my situation is to find something to take your mind off the lows – a passion, such as writing – and don’t be afraid to speak about how you feel. I know now that there is no shame in admitting that you’re not okay, and the faster you come to terms with it, the better you will feel. I promise. And if you ever do decide to leave, there is no failure in that, at all.
Remember, at the end of the day, do what makes you happy.