Mental health at university: half way through my degree

As I am now half way through my second year and therefore half way through my degree (oh my goodness, where did the time go?) I thought I would write a little post about me, my mental health, and university so far.

My journey to university wasn’t a conventional one. I had always wanted to go to university, but going to the University of Nottingham, my local university, had never been my plan. I had wanted the ‘full’ university experience. Until suddenly, I didn’t want anything at all. I didn’t want to go to university, I didn’t want to live.

I struggled with mental health issues my entire way through secondary school and sixth form, but during the summer before I was due to start Year 13, I suffered a mental breakdown and ended up being detained under the mental health act in a children’s psychiatric hospital until the following summer. I was incredibly sick, completely detached from reality, and was angry that a) my suicide attempt hadn’t worked and b) I was then being forced to stay alive by legal paperwork that allowed me to be kept on 2:1 and then 1:1 observations for a long period of time.

I decided to apply for university anyway in December 2015, right before the deadline, because I didn’t have anything to lose. I had achieved almost full UMS in the AS levels that I was supposed to take to A2, I was being encouraged to carry on with my studies in the hospital Education Base, and I needed something to motivate me. Six months into my section, I decided there and then that if I was to live, I needed to make something out of my life.

Through UCAS, I received offers from 4 out of 5 universities, including 2 unconditional offers. One of my university offers was from the University of Nottingham, and suddenly it seemed like everything could work out. Sat in my hospital room having a supervised call on a brick phone as my Mum read my mail out to me, I was ecstatic. Whilst planning on going to university just 9 months later somewhere far from home seemed utterly reasonable, Nottingham seemed possible. It seemed just right.

I honestly think that getting an offer from Nottingham helped me to change the direction of my life around. I had come into hospital suicidal, but the fact that I was missing so much of Year 13 made me feel like it was too late to turn things around, that I had messed up big time.

Less than six months after receiving my offer, I was out of PICU, out of hospital all together, off section, and back into community services. I was able to see my friends from home, spend my family, and prepare myself for moving to university.

The lows 

Although I am a world away from how sick I was aged seventeen, university has been really testing and at times, I’ve felt all new and all time lows.

Freshers was difficult. In my head I thought it was going to be perfect, that I would make friends for life, that I could be a ‘new me’. I think I forgot, after spending so much time around kids who were ill like me and staff who were trained to look after us, that not everyone is understanding. I did make some really good friends during freshers but one particular comment ‘People who do that to themselves shouldn’t be allowed to come to university’ has stuck in my head. I eventually stopped attending hall meals and ended up losing a significant amount of weight.

Friendship groups have also been testing. When you become friends with someone there’s always that honeymoon period, and after that it tends to be make or break.  Unfortunately some people who I thought the world of and would have done anything for when I first met them, turned out to be nasty in more ways than one. One friend actually stopped talking to me for the whole month I was re-sectioned, and was back to acting like my best friend when I was back at university and able to go clubbing again.

The work can be really hard. Although I haven’t found the step from A Level to University a massive one, there is so much more work to do. Even with meticulous planning, coursework deadlines are massively stressful. It’s also difficult when you’re a perfectionist and you’ve been used to achieving A/A* grades at A Level and suddenly you’re really pushing yourself to get 70 out of 100 and get a first.

On top of the actual assessed work, I’ve also had really bad trouble with anxiety in seminars and lectures. Although not so bad in second year, in first year I was constantly having to leave things because I could either feel myself about to be suffocated with a panic attack, or was already choking on one. Some tutors have been really nice to me, others have seemed almost annoyed.

I’ve realised that on a bad day, alcohol is an awful idea. And when you’re having a stream of really bad days, it’s only going to get worse. When I get stressed, I black-out, have panic attacks on a huge scale, or even have minor psychotic episodes. Add alcohol to the mix and it’s a whole different level of F*cking Nightmare for me and for everyone around me. Sometimes even worse is the guilt you feel when you wake up the next morning – sometimes in your own bed, sometimes in someone else’s or on someone else’s floor, sometimes in the emergency department because you’ve done something bad, and you’re not even sure what you’re feeling guilty for because you zoned out and can’t remember.

And relapses happen. As mentioned briefly above, I was re-sectioned for a month between March and April last year. A friend had just passed away, I had been started on a new medication that caused suicidal ideation (an ironic but actually quite common side effect or antidepressants), and I was pushed to crisis point. It was awful and I was so scared because I felt like I wasn’t going to be discharged soon enough and I would have to leave university and everything I had worked hard for. Luckily, that didn’t happen.

The highs

In spite of all of the above, my time at university has been the happiest and the most fulfilling time of my life so far. For the first time in my life I have been accepted for who I am, for someone who is absolutely fine on some days and sick on others. For the first time in a long time I’ve had friends that I can trust, things that I look forward to, things that I get up in the morning and go to bed for, things that make me glad that I’m alive. For the first time since before I became unwell, which all began over 8 years ago, I’ve smiled until my rosy cheeks ache and laughed until it feels like my sides are splitting.

Hard work at university has paid off. I’ve become a better reader, a better writer, a better student. I put the effort in and things seem to work out. I enjoy my course, genuinely love it as the subject that has always been my favourite, and I’m enjoying the thought of carrying on for the next year and a half and beyond. I feel motivated. I feel like I have a life and a future. I don’t think about myself in the past tense anymore.

Going to university was one of the best things that I could have done, and I believe that if I hadn’t of gone to university, then I could very well still be under that ominous Section 3 right now, or even worse. It’s certainly been difficult, but the highs indefinitely outweigh the lows.

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