Anna, from Wales, blogs about her mental health experiences as a student and how students need to be supported at university to manage the demands of leaving home, becoming independent and the pressure of university life.
I was eighteen and I had arrived at university. This is what I had been waiting for. I unpacked my bags, met my new flatmates and got ready for a night out. I made it as far as the Students’ Union before I had to be honest with myself. I was not OK. I wanted to go home and crawl into bed.
This feeling felt strange and confusing. I had been ready to finish sixth form and leave school behind. The fact that I had opted to study miles from my home was all part of the appeal. I wanted to be somewhere new. I was excited.
But my mental health suffered as soon as I arrived. I lived under a constant dark cloud and I felt really low, all the time. I couldn’t eat, I was overwhelmed and I was exhausted. My Mum persuaded me to book an appointment with the University’s counselling services.
I arrived at the appointment only to be told I should just go home if I wasn’t happy. She described my parents as “harsh” for encouraging me to give it a go. And I was sent away with a CD of relaxation music! It was a complete waste of time.
But by Christmas, I had started feeling better and on top of things. I started to imagine life in my new city for the next few years. I had made a couple of close friends and we talked about getting a house together. But now I was in a good place mentally, I could see clearly that the course just wasn’t right for me.
I had chosen to study Psychology but the content was very science-based. So the following September, I decided to enrol in a university course back home; and the heavy feeling in my chest lifted.
I did worry that studying at home would feel tedious and dull. Would I be a failure for not venturing further? But I wanted my independence and so I lived in Halls of Residence. My parents were just a ten-minute drive away but I didn’t actually go home all that much. But knowing I could go was a huge safety net and made life much easier. And in fact, life at university was nothing like my old life at home. We went to different places and enjoyed different nights out. I made loads of new friends and, meanwhile, my course was much more suited to me.
It wasn’t until my second year at that I started to feel constantly tired again. I had to persuade myself to go to lectures.
The pressure was building up and that all too familiar dark cloud shadowed me again.
In my third year, the weight on my shoulders grew heavier. I would stay in bed all afternoon to try and shut out the work that was piling up. I decided I needed to try counselling again.
I ended up getting support through my university. I had to wait six weeks for an appointment, such was the demand, which is a long time when you are not managing very well. However, it was a great service and it really helped me. As well as counselling, I received support in my studies and I got back on track.
But why do so many students struggle with such high levels of anxiety during university? Students that have never experienced mental health problems before? I personally know of so many people who went for counselling.
My tutors were supportive, they wanted the best for us and most of them were great – but the pressure to get good grades and to get internships every summer never went away. And now when I look back, I can see that it really wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I hadn’t got placements that were so very prized at the time.
I believe that lecturers should be trained in mental health and be mindful of the pressure they may be unintentionally placing on their students.
More needs to be done to understand why mental health services are so sought after by such a large proportion of the student population.
I completed my degree, thanks to the University’s counselling services and I developed my own coping strategies too. I signed up to do a Half Marathon at the beginning of my second year. The training allowed me to focus on something else. Taking myself out and pounding the pavements was a rhythm I needed. I also started working in a pub, away from student life, which gave me a sense of routine. It gave me the chance to meet new friends outside of the student bubble which gave me greater perspective that getting a degree wasn’t everything.
The university experience is certainly built up to be this amazing thing. So when it wasn’t suddenly amazing – I felt lost. Let’s look at how we prepare students for university. Let’s stop piling so much pressure on students to juggle the challenges of leaving home, meeting new people, becoming an adult, securing career placements and – let’s not forget - graduating with a first. Let’s look at how universities can better support their students.
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