I have survived my first year at university. Despite my ever-precarious mental health, I’ve done it. It’s done.
I want to talk about my experiences of mental health at university in order to enlighten other sufferers that might be starting university in September, or perhaps going back into their second or third year. So many people suffer in silence, and so many people are unaware of services that are available. Although I attend the University of Nottingham (woo), I’ve tried to write this in a general way in line with how mental health services work across the country.
DO try to set up help before you arrive. You can do this through several means. You can contact the university mental health service, the university counselling service, disability and academic support services, the disability liaison officer in your school or your hall warden. By making people aware of your mental health issues, they will be able to work out how to support you the best. If you had a Community Care Team in your home area, put yourself on the transfer waiting list immediately, because this can take a long time.
DO find out where the local GP, walk in centre and emergency department is. Have basic First Aid equipment in your room. Have crisis numbers to hand. Use the taxi firms approved as ‘safe’ by the university. Write down important numbers and put them in your purse. Know the university night line number. Find out about free counselling services in the local area. For example, Harmless and Let’s Talk in Nottingham provide many free, useful services for people struggling with mental health.
DO bring relevant paperwork about any mental health conditions. This might be needed in order to access certain levels of support, to apply for funding to help you with specialist equipment (Disabled Students Allowance often allows for support workers, recording devices or other equipment), and to allow for special circumstances in exams or with coursework. For example, you could be entitled to have a exam room on your own, or to have rest breaks.
DO arrange to see your new GP as soon as you have registered with the university health service. My GP has become a great point of contact for other services, and it’s really useful to have a Doctor that knows you and can help you specifically. Even if you only check in with this Doctor every few months, it can be beneficial to have someone else in the ‘know’.
DO find safe and quiet places where you can come to when you’re feeling anxious or low. For me, this is in one of the small gardens around the university, or in the Disability/Chaplaincy office where a cup of tea and a chat is always available for those who need it. Having found these spaces means that I always have somewhere I know to go when I’m on campus and feeling like I’m about to blow a fuse.
DO make your own room also into a safe and positive space. In my room I have positive postcards and notes all over the walls, photos of my family and friends, posters, reminders stuck on the mirror and wardrobe, lots of fluffy blankets, and of course, teddies. Whether I’m studying, relaxing or even pre-drinking with my friends in my room, I’m constantly reminded of the power of POSITIVE THINKING. Cheesy, I know. But it helps. It’s my space.
DO approach members of academic staff if you have missed something or feel like you have fallen behind because of your mental health issues. This isn’t sixth form anymore and tutors are unlikely to contact you first. But, if you approach them, they will be more than happy to help you. You don’t have to be on your own, and your illness doesn’t have to stop you from achieving. Don’t lose your passion for your subject.
DO continue to take your medication. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my first semester was stopping my anti-depressant medication. With the buzz of Freshers and a new start, I felt like I didn’t need it anymore and that this energy would drive me through. Wrong. It’s incredibly dangerous to just stop taking medication, and it’s usually a bad idea anyhow. Anti-depressants work for depressed people for a reason.
DO get involved with things. Of course the whole ‘you don’t have to drink to have fun’ is a bit of a boring trope because let’s face it, the majority of people drink at university. But it’s not the only thing and although I love a good night out, I have so many precious memories of events and activities that didn’t involve excessive alcohol consumption, and were possibly much better for my mental health. Join societies, join the gym, go to events, make friends. Expand your circle, expand your horizons.
DO understand that universities are extremely accommodating of mental health conditions, just as they are of physical illnesses. The university will do its best to ensure that you can continue your studies, but it is an option for students to resit years or take gap years in order to give them time to get back to health. There are safety nets at university that possibly weren’t so much an option at school. It’s fair.
DO ignore people who are rude to you, or make you feel awkward or out of place. Over the past year I think I have toughened up considerably in terms of dealing with abusive comments related to my scars, but at the start of the year I was very sensitive and found it really difficult. It’s really important to just keep your head up high and ignore these people. They are a minority of d*ckheads. Be confident, be yourself.
DON’T feel like you have to tell everybody immediately about your mental illnesses. You are not your illness, and sometimes it takes a while to build up trust. You have nothing to be ashamed of, and you should be able to talk to new friends when you feel the most comfortable. Some people may be less used to talking openly about mental health. Some people might find it uncomfortable because they’re ignorant (yes, there are people like that at university too), others maybe because it’s close to home. Be open-minded.
DON’T expect to get on with everyone, or for everyone to understand you. Like I said, some people sadly don’t understand, and some people don’t know to act. This isn’t your problem! I have found plenty of kind and caring people at university who, whether they suffer from mental health conditions or not, accept me for who I am and are always there to help me.
DON’T be disappointed if you’re not doing as well as you thought you might. University is a whole different ball game, and the workload can be very heavy at times. The grade boundaries are a lot lower than what students are used to at A Level, which can be disheartening at first. Just remember especially with first year that it’s a learning process.
DON’T expect everything to be perfect. There are going to be tears. They are going to be times when you don’t want to be at university, when you maybe don’t want to be anywhere. But these times will pass and you will enjoy some of the very best times of your life at university.
Cheers, The University of Nottingham. I’ve had a brilliant first year in spite of my struggles and I can’t wait to come back in September for another year of amazing memories.