Experience: mental illness at university



When I started university, I was completely oblivious to the fact I was suffering from clinical depression and anxiety. I’d always had a tendency to feel a bit more stressed out and upset than the average person, a trait which came to a head when I was 17; for the first two months of Year 13, I found myself feeling too low to eat, sleep, or function at all. However, I’d never had any formal education about mental health issues, and it wasn’t something that my family really talked about. I was resigned to the fact that I was probably just a silly, over-emotional person, and that I really just needed to pull myself together. I’d never been told otherwise; I had no idea that my low moods and anxious thoughts could be part of a medical condition. In my mind, it was all my fault, and I needed to just stop feeling the way I did.

Then first year came along, and it became more and more apparent that something wasn’t quite right. People often underestimate just how emotionally draining it can be when you’re thrown into this totally new territory of lectures, seminars, formals, socials, and having to fend for yourself. Yes, it’s exciting, but it’s also an anxious person’s worst nightmare. You suddenly have to navigate making a whole new set of friends, looking after yourself both physically and emotionally, and getting used to the new academic system of lectures and seminars: what could possibly go wrong?! In the mind of an anxious or depressed person, the answer to that question is everything. You find yourself obsessing over everything that could possibly turn out badly for you, and, especially when you don’t have a formal diagnosis, you have no idea how to make all of those thoughts stop.

In hindsight, depression and anxiety controlled almost every aspect of my life as a fresher. I struggled with work because the constant stream of negative thoughts and anxiety attacks made concentration a near impossibility. I struggled with making friends, because my depression was constantly telling me that it was a pointless endeavour – it wasn’t like anyone would want to be friends with someone as worthless as me. Going on a night out was out of the question: the mere thought of being in a crowd was enough to trigger a panic attack. But worse than any of this was the fact that nobody knew the extent to which I was struggling. I managed to project an image of someone who was calm, collected and basically fine, but then in second year, the façade began to crack.

When depression and anxiety is left untreated, it’s like an avalanche hurtling down a mountain. It gains speed and it gains power until one day it comes crashing down, leaving destruction in its wake. My avalanche hit at the start of second year. The added stresses of living out only made my anxiety worse – you try staying calm when an estate agent tells you it’s your job to fix the boiler and restore hot water to your house eight times – and in the end, I simply ground to a halt, consumed by constant panic, inescapable low moods, and suicidal thoughts. The delicate balance I’d crafted between academia, social life, life in general and my emotional wellbeing just wasn’t working any more, and something had to change.

While being at university undoubtedly made life more difficult depression-wise, it also provided the easiest access to help I’ve ever come across. After talking with college office, my department, a GP and the counselling service, I finally found a course of action that firstly helped me understand what I was actually going through, and then began to resolve it. Talking to someone – specifically, my senior tutor – was the best decision I’ve ever made regarding my illness. When I realised there were people out there that understood what I was going through and were willing to help, it took away some of the shame, the guilt, and, most importantly, the sense of isolation that depression can bring.

A year on, I’m undoubtedly more emotionally well than I’ve ever been while at university. The road to recovery was a long and rocky road, but my story is the perfect testimony that things can get better. Things aren’t perfect – depression and anxiety will be with me for the rest of my life, and they still rear their unwanted heads at the most inopportune of times. But I’ve finally learned how to manage the combination of university life and living with a mental illness. We’re lucky at Durham that we have such a strong welfare support network, and I’m personally lucky to have such an amazing group of understanding friends and family. But there’s still a long way to go. There are still people out there who are too scared to ask for help, and still stigma that needs to be overcome. But the more we talk about mental illness, the more people will feel comfortable and supported enough to seek help. That’s why I decided to tell my story: if it makes even one person suffering from depression and anxiety realise that things can and do get better, it’s worth it.


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