Five years ago, I left home to go to university, eager to begin The Time Of My Life.
I remember the floral bedsheets I picked out in Ikea with my mum; I remember the way the student halls smelled. What I don’t remember exactly is the day I started to feel weighed down and full of dread, or the morning on which getting out of bed began to seem impossible.
I think it started sometime during the second term. I remember coming home for Christmas and hearing from the school friends who’d also started university about how much they were enjoying it: stories about funny things happening on nights out, the new lifelong friendships they were making, the leases they’d signed for second year flats. It seemed like everyone I knew had naturally fallen into place – except me.
It’s not that I didn’t have any mates at uni, I had people I went out with – I just didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. And first year, with its 40% pass grade and awful Freshers events, was meant to be all about making friends and having fun – but I was even failing at that. I remember feeling like I was slowly sinking.
Or do I? Depression makes your memory hazy. I do know that my moods kept worsening as the winter tentatively turned into spring and I sunk deeper into the mental sludge. But there was a long in-between period where I’d spend winter afternoons having panic attacks alone in my room and crying, only to feel okay enough to go out the next night. I’d convince myself, silently and repeatedly, that I was just making excuses for my own failures.
“First year was meant to be all about making friends and having fun – but I was even failing at that”
I wasn’t depressed, I was lazy. It was my own fault everything felt numb.
Predictably, this cyclical thinking only reinforced feelings of guilt and made me feel less able to help myself. That slow burn – the fact that I did have highs between the lows – made it easier for me to ignore that I was spiralling. I can’t be depressed, I thought. Depressed people don’t go out!
It made the period harder to distill in my mind. “I thought you were having a great time”, my mum said on the phone when I finally told her one night in April. I felt split; no extended period of time is ever entirely good or bad. But at some point the bad bits had started to eat away at me.
With hindsight, I can see now how I didn’t help the situation. At eighteen, I was doing a laughable job of looking after myself. For anyone with patterns of low moods and anxiety, the combination of a transition, vast stretches of unstructured time, being away from friends and family, and drinking and drugs is a disaster waiting to happen. I now know I’m someone who needs to be busy.
I’d been a good student in school, genuinely passionate about the subjects I’d come to study, but I lost focus as I sank into a rut of dead time filtered through a haze of smoke. And as was constantly emphasised: first year grades didn’t count, anyway! I became untethered to the university structure, a student in name only. My sleep cycle was, frankly, beyond fucked – I was constantly sending embarrassed emails to the indifferent PhD students who ran our 9am seminars.
“Sometime between series twelve and thirteen of Come Dine With Me repeats, one of my flatmates staged a mild intervention”
I felt ashamed and disgusted with myself – a spoiled shit wasting my parents’ money and opportunities many didn’t have – but these feelings never seemed to work as a motivating force out of the state I was in; they only made me feel more paralysed. I wasn’t a complete outlier: many first years appeared to be living an unmoored existence of constant drinking, getting high and only occasionally passing a sideways glance at the set texts. I just happened to be one of the ones who fell off.
Sometime between series twelve and thirteen of Come Dine With Me repeats, one of my flatmates staged a mild intervention and made me go the GP. By this point it had become undeniable: I’d somehow stumbled from feeling low and unmotivated to going days without showering, barely getting out bed and hardly eating. I went on antidepressants and started seeing a counsellor through the university’s (sorely lacking) mental health service. For weeks SSRIs made me so nauseous I couldn’t get up without feeling sick, but in the end medication helped. I stayed on fluoxetine for 18 months before tapering off it at the beginning of third year. I don’t think I’d have stayed at uni otherwise.
Over the next three years, I made the best friends I could ask for. I worked hard at my degree, got a part-time job and increasingly involved with the student newspaper. I began to learn how to weather periods of intense anxiety and low moods. And I found that many of my friends had had similar experiences. While first year is fun for many, others find it overwhelming, disappointing and difficult.
“The prevalence of mental health issues among students points to systemic issues that need tackling in the higher education and healthcare services”
There’s a neediness to Freshers’ Week that borders on the hysterical; terrified school leavers necking 35cl bottles of Glen’s vodka in a desperate stab at friendship, or at least at fitting in. It’s a period of time so heavily constructed around going out and being social that it can be hard to admit you’re not loving it, or even coping.
It’s common though: one in four students suffer from mental health problems, with stresses over finances, workload and isolation dominating. If you find yourself struggling, I can guarantee you’re not the only person in your year, your halls or probably even your flat feeling that way. Talk to the people you’re closest to – whether that’s your friends from home or family. It helps. Go to your GP and get in touch with your personal tutor at university. This may seem daunting, but they have a responsibility to help, and they’ll be able to point you in the direction of your university’s counselling services as well as put you down for extenuating circumstances if your attendance or marks have suffered. Depression robs you of structure: having external support systems in place is an important way of getting that back.
Clearly, the prevalence of mental health issues among students points to systemic issues that need tackling in the higher education and healthcare services, including the chronic underfunding of mental health services. But on a personal level, when I think of that time, I think of all the other people who felt like they were drowning, came close to dropping out or did. And when I do, I think of us all in our separate rooms across student hall blocks, each thinking we were the only one.