By Tyra Lumber
In my experience, it’s not necessarily going to university that gives people mental health problems, but that university life brings to light underlying problems, causing many people to start seeing their mental health deteriorate. Especially since you may be away from the comfort of a structured home for the first time. I see this most especially in students who moved away, like most of us did, to new university cities.
For many of us, this meant having to look after yourself in the way of cooking and cleaning, to having to attend university lectures and seminars and meet deadlines, to suddenly being expected to party like our life depended on it. You find yourself completely alone in a new city, which can undoubtedly mess with your head. To paraphrase this rather complex combination of factors, it’s a lot. For myself, as someone who had previously thought of themselves as quite well organised and put-together, it was shocking to me how quickly I lost hand of everything I felt I needed to feel good about myself. Of course, I was also struggling with undiagnosed ADHD, but that’s a story for another day.
“I’d been sold a tale of university as the place where you get to find your space and since it hadn’t happened straight away, I felt really lonely.”
It can be really hard when you don’t click with your house immediately as a fresher. I think this happens to most people, but the most stories you hear are of people who loved their first-year housemates and went in immediately on a house together. I did not have this experience. In fact, post-freshers, seven of my ten housemates went to get a house together without telling me. While I wasn’t surprised because these were definitely not my kinds of people, it still hurt a bit.
I felt a bit like a failure because I couldn’t really connect with them too well and I could hear them chatting sh*t about me in the kitchen from my room opposite. I’d been sold a tale of university as the place where you get to find your space and since it hadn’t happened straight away, I felt really lonely. This can be at the heart of mental health problems for many people, and in such an unstable time of your life it really gets the depression ball rolling.
“We don’t learn enough about how to drink safely and alcohol’s consequences”
When you combine this with the pressure to suddenly start drinking more than you ever have before in your life, everything starts to go a bit sideways. I know people that went from never having even touched a drop of alcohol to going out every night of the week. I don’t think that there was nearly enough education in this area from university and its representatives. Hardly anything was said about the consequences of drinking and how to drink safely, despite there being an obvious predisposition of university students to drink often and a lot. I never even considered myself to have anxiety until I started having long periods spent in bed in my first year, dreading having to deal with everything that I had done the night before. Before long, along with the other fresh stresses that had just come into my life, this extended into a deep depression that going home from university didn’t really alleviate.
“On top of this you have to deal with financial pressures”
Amongst these other stresses was money, which I’m aware is also a massive stress for other people as well. My first-year university accommodation was way out of my price range (around £1000 more than my student loan) and while I had a part-time job, first year was hugely stressful for me because of this. My parents made just enough for my student loan to be relatively low, but not really enough to help me out significantly financially.
I had some savings before starting university and I made my way through these pretty quickly; by the end of the year I had almost run dry. I can’t even imagine how stressful it would be for people who got even less than me whose parents weren’t willing to help or weren’t used to managing money before they came. I had thought I could decently manage my money before, but at the end of the year I broke down crying at the thought that I would have to go through a second year just as financially stressful as this one.
University for many, forces you to re-evaluate who you are. It is truly a period of self-discovery; realising who you were and who you wish you were. It isn’t surprising that so many people change so dramatically or come to doubt themselves.
“My advice? Keep drinking to an occasional vice, speak to your friends, family and seek professional help and don’t put pressure on yourself to love every second – university will have ups and downs.”
Having come out the other side feeling like a completely different person who has gone through some of the best and worst times of my life so far, I can say that things get much better post-university. Of course, this doesn’t really help with addressing the problems that people may be having right now. You’ve probably heard it all before, but there is honestly nothing that benefited my mental health more than keeping drinking to an occasional vice rather than a multiple-times-weekly occupancy. Hangover anxiety is real and even drinking a glass of water between drinks can help to reduce it. Consider having an occasional week or two of being teetotal.
If you are experiencing mental health difficulties, there is no end to the benefits that accessing help can bring you. For myself, this process involved going to the doctors and getting a diagnosis that I then took to my university’s disabilities service. With their help, I was given a learning support plan that meant that my department was a lot more understanding of any of the consequences of my anxiety and depression – such as missing lectures, deadlines and getting assignment extensions. Your university has a duty of care to provide these accommodations for you, all you need to do is to be able to admit to the right people that there is a problem.
Although there is still a stigma attached to experiencing and acknowledging difficulties with your mental health, I can honestly say that I would have struggled far more to finish my university education had it not been for this learning support plan. It might not feel like it at the time but there are people out there that want to help you, you just have to let them.
Tyra is a University of Sheffield alumni currently volunteering for the campaign Reclaim the Campus, an initiative started with the aim of addressing sexual assault and harassment on university campuses.
If you have any stories you would be willing to share, please submit them @reclaimthecampus on instagram. Alternatively, you may want to follow Tyra @tyraanosaurus.