student stories of mental health
Many students silently suffer trauma and are overwhelmed by the fear of stigma attached to mental ill-health. If you are reading this and are dealing...
Many students silently suffer trauma and are overwhelmed by the fear of stigma attached to mental ill-health. If you are reading this and are dealing with a mental health issue yourself – you are not alone. Here are stories of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts shared by some students. Some spoke of diagnosed conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder, and the destructive effect these conditions sometimes have on their education.
When it came to lesser-known issues such as borderline personality disorder, students spoke of a lack of understanding about what they were going through. Others talked about the embarrassment they felt about asking for help. Some were as yet undiagnosed but clearly struggling: "I stay up all night crying" was a common phrase.
No one tells you that university might be difficult, said students. You were sold on stories from your older friends and the glossy prospectus – there are no footnotes about loneliness and disillusionment. One anonymous student said: "As a fresher you are constantly reminded that this is supposed to be the 'time of your life'. When it feels like the worst time of your life you feel both a sense of guilt and a pressure to keep these negative thoughts to yourself."
Another said: "I spent the first few weeks of uni hiding in my dorm room crying my eyes out. I was homesick and wasn't sure if I wanted to be there at all." Mental health issues can start in childhood, and many students spoke about a history of depression or self-harming that they carried to university. But a new life can add pressures.
"My depression and anxiety started some time before I came to university, but leaving home, being in an extremely taxing social environment and being under large academic pressure all took their toll on me," said one student. Another said: "Getting tubes or being anywhere I didn't know felt uncertain. I always had a burning, itching, tormenting anxiety bubbling in my chest. At the time, my boyfriend had no comprehension of mental illness and would regularly tell me panic attacks didn't exist, that I was stupid and that I had no friends."
Managing your studies alongside a mental health issue can be a daily struggle. "Panic attacks followed by depression meant things rapidly spiralled out of control," said one student. "I found I simply couldn't think straight and my short term memory became terrible. The best description I could muster was that it felt as though the entire world had been rotated very slightly and nothing was the same anymore."
Another student said: "I'm absolutely terrified of being in social situations in which I don't know the people I'm speaking to – seminars are a nightmare. I've often missed my contact hours because I've been up all night crying and stressing and can't face going in. "I don't feel like I can tell my tutors why I'm missing their classes, because I feel like they won't believe me as I haven't been officially diagnosed."
Others said the stress of deadlines and feedback from tutors contributed. One student said: "I had a burn-out from the pressure of juggling nine modules. One of the triggers was some negative feedback I recieved in writing from a lecturer which included the word terrible. It was hard to get family support as they live far away." Students expressed a general feeling that university support services were helpful – when they could access them. After suffering from a severe anxiety attack, one student took the step to contact their university counselling service.
They said: "I'd put it off for so long, but finally I defined myself as 'mentally ill'. It did take a few weeks for them to back to me, but nothing can describe the relief I felt when a therapist for the first time said to me, 'that must be really hard'. Yeah, it was hard! Finally, someone who understood, who didn't tell me to snap out of it."
But others are still struggling. "When I started my undergraduate degree I did the responsible thing and informed my supervisor that I had depression," said one anonymous student, who has since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder."He informed me that in his opinion depression was a girls issue and he didn't know what to do with girls issues and sent me on my way."
Another student said: "My university supported me in my decision to suspend my studies and have helped me get back on track to resume my studies in September, yet I can't help feel more could have been done to help me, before I reached breaking point."
What do students think needs to be done? Education needs to start early. An anonymous student said: "People need to know what signs to look for in their friends. They need to understand that depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD and bipolar are illnesses, not character flaws. "The support and education about them need to be on par with the education we get about other medical issues. If we learn about it in school, we will be more prepared when we get to university."