I’ve always felt that I have a good balance between education and my mental health. I’m not afraid to admit that my academic career has been littered with days wrapped in my duvet (or comforter, if you’re American) and The Office re-runs on TV. I shamelessly accept that there have been days in which I skipped class just to come home and play The Sims. I’m an extroverted-introvert; I can be loud and confident when I need to be, but I’m obsessed with my own time. My favourite company is myself, my dog, my best friends and Netflix. I’m not good at a social life because I insist on doing things at my own time and pace. Some days, your head is just not in it, and there’s no problem in admitting that and heading back to bed. For some reason, though, this went out of the window once I got to University.
Suddenly I was thrown into a completely new city, in a new house with new people, and my seclusion was a couple hundred miles away on the other end of the country. Now, I had done my research before leaving home, hours spent watching “Top 10 Tips for University” videos to prepare myself for Fresher’s Week and the year ahead. There were endless suggestions, telling me to keep my door open at all times so I can make friends, that I should go to all events to ensure I meet people, to bake cakes so my flatmates like me better. I should join as many societies as possible and go to their events. I should read all seven of my English Literature books in the first week so I get ahead in class, highlighting the whole page with in-depth analysis and reasoning. I should re-read my notes from A-LeveI, like I was cramming for an exam. I had filled up my first month with activities, day and night, believing I wasn’t going to burn out despite knowing exactly how I was at home.
I was out late at night, going to clubs which I hated, meeting so many people that it was hard matching faces to names. I had my door open more than it was closed, sitting in the communal kitchen alone waiting for someone to come in and talk, because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? I kept putting off work because suddenly I had this freedom, but I also didn’t have friends, and that’s what I needed more than anything. I needed a big group of friends who had a group chat that didn’t stop talking and as many inside jokes as you would have with someone you’ve known your whole life. And it didn’t happen. Sure I made friends, but normally just for the night; when the hangover fades, you don’t talk again. People didn’t come sit in the kitchen because they were busy with others, or out doing other things, and my door being open did nothing but rid me of my privacy. I got homesick quickly, crying nightly to my mum or my best friend, talking about coming home or dropping out of University because I couldn’t keep up, because my experience wasn’t matching up to what I’d seen in movies and TV. I used to adore my own company, and now every time I was alone, it was intense loneliness. I was spreading myself too thin, pushing myself to match my expectations which I wasn’t even convinced I wanted anyways.
I quickly realised that if I continued to push myself like this, I wouldn’t make it until Christmas. Data shows 1,180 students who experience mental health problems dropped out of university in 2014-15, a 210% increase since 2009-10, and I could have been one of this year’s statistics. I was getting sick; my immune system suffering because I wasn’t eating properly but drinking far too much, I wasn’t sleeping, I was among too many people with all different bacteria in their system. And whilst I was worried I was missing out, ruining my endless social schedule, I spent the week in bed. I was too sick to go to my lectures, so I didn’t. I needed the time to not only get rid of the sickness, get my body back on track, but also focus on my mental health. I caught up on my reading, binge-watched House of Cards and cooked some good food, and I realised that I’m at university for myself. I hadn’t worked so hard in my A-Levels, got the good grades that I did, just to come to university and be unhappy living up to what other people said. I’m at university to get my degree, to make a better life for myself, and I could do that whether I had a big circle or not. As long as I’ve got me, then I’m good. I just have to look out for myself.
I’m not the only student that feels this way. The Guardian’s Student Experience survey shows that 9 in 10 students (87%) “find it difficult to cope with social or academic aspects of university life.” 67% of females find the stress of studying at university challenging, compared to 48% of males – though it’s possible those statistics could be higher, with people-especially guys-hiding the way they feel. 44% of students feel isolated and lonely, regardless of how many people they live with or how close they are to home. Luckily, the stigma surrounding mental health in academia seems to be diminishing: The Institute of Public Policy Research found that 5 times as many students disclose a mental health problem on their record as they did 10 years ago, becoming more open and more likely to get the extra support needed to help them through university. More institutions are becoming equipped to deal with the influx of students asking for help, getting trained counsellors into universities and having closer ties to things like the NHS and therapists.
This doesn’t mean that students’ feelings are going to go away because of the added help. It doesn’t mean that the work done in universities is enough, either. For too long, mental health support has been regarded as an ‘add-on’ to curriculum, rather than being recognized as an essential framework necessary in helping students adapt and fit into an academic world that is so intense and independent. Students, new and old, need to lose expectations and live their university experience for themselves. You don’t need to drink alcohol, or go partying every night, or leave your door open for everyone and their mothers to come talk to you – but if you want to, that’s fine as well. You don’t need to cram your work and spend 17 hours a day working to ensure you’re top of the class – but if you can balance your time and preserve your mental health, and you know when it’s time to shut down Microsoft Word and open up YouTube, then go for it. As young people, students or not, we feel so much pressure nowadays. We’re bombarded with information and people and expectation, but it doesn’t mean we need to subscribe to it. This is your experience, do with it what you want, and don’t feel bad about your choices.
If you feel isolated and lonely, have problems adjusting to your new surroundings, are homesick or overworked, or thinking about dropping out of university, please go talk to your advisor, lecturers or your GP. There’s support out there, and you’re not going through this alone.
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