by Olivia Lee
CN: depression, anxiety
I began my first university journey two years ago, as an excited fresher yearning for the freedom that these years promised to entail. I finished a mere four months later: a lifeless body, trudging my limbs back and forth to hospital appointments when I was told to, my life directed like a play by a jumble of doctors and psychiatrists. My dream, the hedonistic haven that I had yearned for, had swallowed my happy and spat me back out like a pip. What would follow would be a debilitating 6 months spent climbing out of the black hole I felt trapped in: the beginning of recovery from a severe depressive episode that had hijacked my soul.
I don’t think university was the fundamental cause of my depression, as I had been experiencing mild symptoms a year before. But I do believe it acted as the trigger which made these feelings explode in to something beyond my control. There is no doubt that university, particularly the first term, is dangerous territory, especially for people who are vulnerable and susceptible to mental illness. Being placed in a new, unfamiliar environment, miles from home and ordered to ‘have a good time’ is a huge burden to place on the shoulders of any young person.
“Recovery was a long process, but the following year I felt ready to venture back”
Recovery was a long process, but the following year I felt ready to venture back to the bundle of emotions I knew another first term at university would involve. As expected, it was difficult. During my first term at UCL, although my mental illness was not as severe as it had been, I still spent many of my days dragging my body between lectures, seminars and friends in a state of heightened anxiety, or lying in bed under an insurmountable heap of duvet covers, only moving to reach for my phone.
Though I felt much more stable and able to cope with these feelings a second time around, my experiences nonetheless started me thinking about mental illnesses at university and why they are so common.
University, is no doubt a difficult place for those who experience mental health problems; it is also the place where many students develop mental illnesses for the first time. University mental health services at UCL and across the UK are inundated with applications, as many students battle with feelings that they are unable to manage alone. But why is university such an emotionally intense environment? Why are we not having the best three years of our lives, all the time, as everyone has so repeatedly promised?
“Why are we not having the best three years of our lives, all the time, as everyone has so repeatedly promised?”
Indeed, this promise could well be part of the problem. Impossibly high expectations make it extremely difficult to speak frankly and openly about mental health problems when we are simultaneously told that we are meant to be constantly happy. If you are feeling low, having an informal chat to lift what can feel like a growing weight on your shoulders doesn’t always seem like a viable option. During the freshers’ period, friendships are fragile: people don’t know one another well, and unless you scratch beneath the surface, everyone else seems just as happy as the faces that beam out of the university brochures that sold you this dream in the first place. The cult of the fresher is to relish the smiles, booze, friends and joy. The mental health sufferer is thus left isolated, suffocating behind a grin, in fear of bringing down the cheery vibe everyone else is so desperately trying to hold up.
The pressure doesn’t only take the form of forced smiles – there is also a pressure on students to excel in every aspect of their life. Attending lectures can be difficult for someone with depression who struggles to get out of bed, or someone too anxious to be in a room filled with people. Yet, you must attend lectures, seminars and library sessions to keep up with your academic work, probably do a sport or join a society (to make the most out of your university experience, as you have been advised), whilst keeping up your daily chores. And, of course, you feel compelled to attend the endless parties and social events, which means you are then rewarded with a further pressure of finding a job – because how the hell are we meant to pay for all these things that we feel we need to keep doing? No wonder everyone is always so tired. The pressure is real and it burns.
The physical environment of first year itself can be lonely and isolating. Halls, the villages of hedonism, can also be alienating places. Boxed rooms stacked on top each other like Lego pieces, lined by dark, dingy corridors. It is difficult to make these places feel like home: they are cold, devoid of identity. These problems are worsened when halls seem to be falling apart or (in the case of my halls), be way (way) too cold, or, as in my friend’s case, be visited by cockroaches and mice.
“No wonder everyone is always so tired. The pressure is real and it burns”
After plucking up the courage to share your feelings with your new friends when you feel more settled in your university life, the next step may be talking to a professional. This is another road-block that can be isolating. Universities and the NHS are notoriously known for having poorly funded, inadequate mental health services. Wherever you find yourself opening up about your struggles, you will most likely be pushed to the back of a queue that stretches itself twice around the globe (bring a tent, or a house – this might take a while). The times during which you need help most will be the times when the fewest hands are pulling you towards the light.
Of course, this is only one side of university life: it can, and does, also offer all the great things you have been promised. You might find yourself experiencing an unprecedented sense of freedom, a sense of individuality and accomplishment. You have been offered the amazing opportunity to study a subject you love, engage in extra-curricular activities, pursue your interests and make lifelong friends. It really can be great, and I am lucky to have experienced this side of uni life, upon my return.
But there is another side that needs to be recognized. It’s ok to be happy sometimes and down at others, or both at the same time and everything in between. What matters most is that we speak openly about these feelings. University, as with all experiences, is likely to be a mixed one.