Digital communities eased my anxiety
Sophie blogs about how peer support finally made her feel she belonged.
I remember my first day of university like it was yesterday. Even at 18 years old my dad dropped me off and waited until he saw that I had gone inside because he knew what a big day this was for me.
I had agreed to meet a friend from school who was also attending the university, so that I didn't feel so scared and on my own, but I still could not get over the feeling of panic walking through those doors. I chose to study early years education because I love to learn, and I also love helping others learn. I did not anticipate that it would be the hardest three years of my life, and that I would consider quitting every single year (OK, every week).
“Growing up I always felt different, and that I blended into the background because I was introverted.”
I also didn't anticipate having to attend counselling whilst at university due to crippling anxiety, induced by juggling my university assignments, a long-distance relationship and feelings of isolation and loneliness, due to being both a commuter and a placement student.
Growing up I always felt different, and that I blended into the background because I was introverted and kept myself to myself. This made it really challenging to forge genuine friendships. I preferred spending time with the teachers because I felt they were less judgmental and allowed me to be me. I was therefore terrified of starting university and not making friends, especially since I lived at home and it wasn’t easy to attend social events on campus.
I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder when I was 19, and suddenly the world made sense. All of my habits and behaviours such as counting the coins in my hand several times while waiting to pay for my lunch, or physically shaking when I had to look at an assignment mark for fear of failure, were symptoms of my mental health condition. They were not me being “over-sensitive”, “cold” or “uppity” (all of which have been said to me throughout my life by friends, relatives, and strangers).
Isolation and anxiety
The feelings of isolation and anxiety were at their highest in my second year when the placement responsibilities ramped up and I was on my own in the classroom instead of with another student. Also my boyfriend had just moved away to study at a university two hours away after we had spent every waking minute together over summer.
One of my lowest points was just after we had dropped him off at university and I got home and realised nobody was in. I called out for someone until my throat was raw and sat at the top of the stairs feeling both hyperaware and detached at the same time, with an overwhelming need to escape my own body.
I didn’t have any healthy outlets to relieve my feelings at that time, so I banged my head against the wall to try to make those feelings go away. Thankfully, my dad and sister came home just at that moment and were able to calm me down and take my mind off these intrusive thoughts. After that, I sought counselling through the university and pledged to try to forge connections with my fellow peers.
I thought about how to create connections without it needing to be in-person, because this was difficult while on placement. That’s when I saw a poster for a “digital community” (also known as a support group or peer circle) and thought I could create one for the students on my course.
“We were all going through similar experiences, and I wasn’t the only one feeling overwhelmed.”
The university had already set up a digital community focusing on academic content, but this included all teacher training students and it felt too scary engaging in conversation with so many people. I thought a student-led community with a smaller number would work better so I invited the people on my course to join, and the up-take was high.
After speaking to others, it was clear that we were all going through similar experiences, and I wasn’t the only one feeling overwhelmed. It was great to have people to talk to who were “like me”, and I started to feel the sense of connection and belonging that I was missing.
I graduated with a first and went on to study an MA in education at the same university as my boyfriend, and I was able to throw myself into the social side of university life because I felt ready to. If my boyfriend hadn’t pushed me into applying, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to continue on in education, and I’m really thankful for his support.
Looking back, I feel I was perhaps mentally too young to attend university at 18, but despite my struggles I've made lasting friends and learned a lot about myself as a person and what I can accomplish. However, I will never say I had a great university experience because I didn’t. And that’s okay.
Boosting emotional and social wellbeing
I’m now 26 and am currently facilitating a project that focuses on the importance of positive digital communities and how these student-to-student support groups can create a safe and inclusive space. In my experience these communities not only aided my academic success but also positively impacted my emotional and social well-being.
I hope that others can see the benefit in these communities and reach out to people if they’re feeling lonely. Even though we share similar experiences, we don't all think or feel the same but listening is the way we can connect and support each other.
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