Student and Graduate Publishing

Managing Mental Health at University

When I put up a status on Facebook asking people to give me their experiences with managing mental health at University, I was overwhelmed by the volume of responses I received. Four years ago, a three-month stint at university fell dramatically short for me. I returned home feeling intensely isolated and convinced that alongside my depression, a degree wouldn’t be achievable. I felt even more estranged from my university peers stranded back at home, friendships nurtured over several months felt snuffed out overnight. The hardest part of my mental health, ultimately felt like the isolation. However, despite mental health’s ability to feel confusing and complex, I assure you one thing, you are not alone.

With the academic climate simmering at an ever growing pace to keep up with expectations and competition, stress and therefore mental health is at a staggering all-time high.  Lately, I’ve seen more viral and digital platforms providing voices to spotlight and de-stigmatise mental health, something that wasn’t happening while I was at university. I recently read that 1 in 4 students will experience mental health while at university, while 54% don’t seek support and almost 70% report feeling lonely. So why are we segregating one another over something that universally unites us?

During my three-month stint at University, I met Alice, an ecology and conservation student from the flat opposite. My flat soon mingled with hers and we shared multiple nights out. Last year, four years after I left Sussex, I bumped into her on a night out. When she reached out to me to share her experience over Facebook recently, surprise soon blended into frustration. I considered how alone we had both felt while being so close. Then I thought about the proximity again and it brought comfort.

Like me, Alice came from a cosseted family life in a rural village and was hit by the contrast of a buzzing student life. She explains, ‘I felt really isolated and lonely and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety’. When I asked what would have helped her, Alice suggested the poor link between pastoral care and the academic team meant she didn’t know about assignment extensions until later in the year - something that would have helped her hugely.
On the other end of the spectrum, I spoke to another student, Rachel who said the pressure of deadlines alleviated any temptation to procrastinate and kept her on course. We all understand deadlines’ ability to creep up on us, combine that with the distraction that mental health brings, extensions can offer a huge relief. If you are like Rachel, deadlines may keep your thoughts from wandering elsewhere and help to prevent the feeling of work building up.
Either way, it’s important when you start University to explore your academic options.

Here are some quick tips for keeping on top of those sneaky deadlines:
1) Speak to your tutor about extensions in case things do become difficult. You don’t need to sacrifice the quality of your work just to get something in. If you need those extra days, just ask.
2) Speak to your tutor about one-to-one support and email contact between lectures. If you feel like you need support or it would simply give you relief knowing your tutor understands your struggles, speak up.
3) Make a clear timetable of your deadline dates, pin it on the back of your door or somewhere you can clearly see it, a constant visual reminder will keep you from those nasty surprises.

While Alice wishes she knew about those extensions, she highlights an important point that ‘passion and experience count far more. And that somewhere out there, there are people like me who have the same interests.’
While I knew there were societies and clubs at University, I didn’t get involved and on retrospect, I wish I had. My feelings of isolation meant more time was spent getting lost in my own thoughts locked away in my room. Having something to look forward to, be a part of and have space for socialising would have made a massive impact. What stood out from my time interweaving between the multitude of stories people reached out to share with me, was the lack of understanding people felt. Taylor explains to me how she was made to feel ‘embarrassed’ and how ‘not even support but just a bit of understanding would have been great’. After all, you can never underestimate the power of understanding.

On reflection of my time at University, I found myself cloaked in a pressure to act normal or obey the societal ‘sweep it under the rug’ technique that felt encouraged by my experiences. Were things to have been different if I was to speak out and be honest? I think so. One thing I do know is the comfort it would have offered Alice and I – an important reminder than she wasn’t alone and neither was I.
 Like many of us who have suffered with mental health, an important part of taking it seriously is about addressing the stigma. Taylor considered the glamorization of mental health, ‘people think it’s glamorous to have a mental illness so it’s quite fashionable, thus people don’t take it seriously. No one wants to talk about it.’ But one thing that stands out to me about Taylor’s story is the message of resilience she stands for.
Despite a diagnosis of bipolar, some severe experiences of bullying, being kicked out of home and potential academic debt,
Taylor achieved a B.A. Hons Degree – a testimony to the ability to achieve.

However, we are most powerful in numbers, so here are my tips to beat the lonely blues.
1) Check out the societies and clubs your University has to offer. There are loads of options available and you are bound to find something to meet your interests. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people who support your passions can be a huge boost.
2) Be open with your tutor that you are struggling with mental health, this removes the pressure from you to feel as though you should ‘hide’ anything and allows them to step up and offer you the additional support you may, or may not need.
3) If you feel you can, speak to your flat mates and let them know if you are having a difficult patch and how they may be able to help. You don’t need to put a label on your issues if you are worried this may put you in a box. For me, in place of having to fully explain my OCD I like to say I have habits. This removes some of the anxiety surrounding what others might think.
4) Get in touch and introduce yourself to your campus GP, if you need to access them then you’ve already set up the communication in which to do so. Consider speaking to the University ahead of commencing your academic year about setting up that support.
5) Ask about on campus counselling. See if your University offers this and what support groups may otherwise be in your area. Never underestimate the power of talking! 
6) Find some online blogs and articles about mental health and university. I was happy to find many bloggers talking about their experiences and tips online. Having that reassurance easily in reach could prove important on those late night blues!

‘To be completely honest, I think I was totally unprepared for uni’, says Rachel. Overwhelmed with the workload demand and the grades that didn’t reach her full potential; Rachel’s motivation tumbled into full blown depression. She’s now taking medication and seeking emergency counselling but despite this, she’s not short of advice. ‘Even for the most prepared people uni is very stressful and hard to balance a lot of the time, especially when personal problems are added into the mix,’ Rachel suggests.
She praises her University for supporting her and like me, recognises the importance of looking after your physical and mental wellbeing.
‘It’s true’, she says, ‘healthy body healthy mind. It’s also a good idea to try not to rely too much on nights out to make you feel better – one drink too many and the hangover can easily put you back to square one.’ While Rachel admits she tried the drinking coping mechanism (and didn’t like it) she encourages a 10 minute walk, lunch with a friend or committing to something physical as a massive help.

In my worse days, I struggled to have the motivation to shower. The little voice telling me to do it would be drowned out and suddenly hours had gone by that I had spent lying in the same spot on the carpet. Then I would be impulsive, force myself up and once I had taken that shower, my mood felt ten times better. As many people recognised including Rachel, the hardest part of cheering yourself up can often be committing to the action. In the wise words of my Mum, there’s no perfect time to do things sometimes, you could wait all day for the perfect day to go out, go to the gym or meet a friend but sometimes that day will never happen unless you make it.

So here are some tips to keep active and keep your mind and body happy:
1) Break up study periods with a walk. Get into the routine of breaking up work with a reward and encourage time for yourself.
2) Check out some mindfulness groups in your area or get online and practice your own.
3) Meditate. I never thought I would find myself meditating but those crucial fifteen minutes concentrating on the pace of my breathing, picturing negative words in my mind and allowing them to vanish makes an incredible impact on my mood.
4) If you understand the power negative self-talk has, practice some positive self-talk. Sometimes, the way in which we describe something informs the way we perceive it. So how are you describing yourself? P.s. I’m hilarious and exceptionally good-looking.
5) Find some local gyms or find out about the on-campus facilities.
6) Make use of route planners online and enjoy making your own running routes.
7) Encourage a friend to take walks with you, get fit and enjoy someone’s company.
8) Consider when you go for nights out, how you are feeling mentally. Sometimes a night out is a great option but other times, not so. Strike a balance between going out and staying in and consider the reasons as to why you are choosing that. If a negative is met with another negative, counteract it with a positive option. 

As Rachel pointed out, it may not always seem like it, but universities really do care about your wellbeing. So what do I wish I had done differently?
Simple, I would have taken a gap year, maybe even two, whatever time it took to find the right course for me. I’m now in the last three weeks of finishing my degree at The Open University and I’ve loved my University experience, I will be sad to see it end. I’ve been mental health free for 3 years; have two internships and soon, a BA hons in Arts and Humanities.

But right now, things are simmering somewhere with voices that are uniting and bringing light to the corners we previously cast shadow. Take my flooded inbox, number of shares and extraordinary resilience of the minds that have overcome all odds as courage.
University is an incredible experience but do it for you, do it when you’re ready and do what you love.
Mental health does not have to dominate your university experience. Reach out to student support; reach out to peers and friends, get active and don’t be ashamed to ask for help or extensions. Let’s talk about the normality of mental health.

• Abandon expectation, be the best you – Maya
• Uni has got to be your own experience and it doesn’t have to be overshadowed by mental health issues – there is always help available if you ask – Rachel
• Accept support – it is okay to need assistance here and there. The faculty have seen it all before… and they may be able to help more than you think’. – Lorna
• I know it’s really cheesy and cliché, but if you just stay on the course, it’s a few years, and it will all be worth it in the end. Moments will feel it’s not worth it and you want to give up, but everyone has chosen to start their course for a reason and it’s totally worth it in the end to get your qualification. – Taylor
• The main quote that has kept me going is “the grass is always greener on the other side unless you take a little time to water your own.” It helped me to stick to my own pace, not judge myself for going slower than others and take pride in looking after myself along the way. – Elspeth


- By Lily Nicole