University is a landmark occasion for many young people. It is a time to live their own lives, meet new people, learn skills and, above all, have fun. In contrast, as many as 1 in 4 students will experience a mental health issue in some form. What is troubling is that many students are worried about coming forward and asking for help.
I should know; I have been there. And to an extent, I still am. During my time at Coventry University, I suffered from depression and anxiety. Coping with the pressures of essay deadlines is hard enough but add those into the equation and university became a great deal tougher.
I was at Coventry University for three years, studying journalism and media. I was recently asked if I had enjoyed my time overall, and I would say yes, but late Year 1 going into Year 2 was an especially tough period. That was when I really started to struggle.
Homesickness is not uncommon for students, and I was no exception. Despite home only being a 90-minute bus ride away in Leicester, I was finding it difficult to acclimatise to life as a student. For example, making sure there was enough food on my shelf in the fridge I shared with my flatmates and getting to my lectures was a whole new experience and I was constantly thinking about my friends and family at home. This sensation faded over time, but a new battle lay ahead.
Pressure is part of the university experience. With my course, myself and my coursemates were producing video, audio and written articles all the time. It was Year 2 in particular that we really had to step our skills up; we were producing more complex pieces on a more regular basis and the stress was starting to show. Video is not my strength (writing is) yet seeing the great video pieces being made around me made me doubt my own ability and even question whether my own skills were enough. There is no shame in having a weakness – we all have one – but I started to feel worthless or not good enough to be on the course.
I should say the next section of this post might be triggering for some. I will completely understand if you choose to scroll to the bottom.
Comparing myself to the other students around me was my first mistake. My second mistake was letting it grow. I am, by my own admission, a perfectionist and that is one of the reasons I became a copy editor. At university, however, this quest for perfection proved to be a blessing and a curse. Yes, it enabled me to produce some great work, but I was not feeling good about myself. I always wanted to be better and there were times that I slated what I was making, despite others giving me high praise. I was at the top of a slope, just starting to plummet.
Away from the lecture rooms and equipment store, I began to struggle personally. Confidence has always been an issue for me, but with my brain already whispering to me that I was no good, it started insulting my appearance. I would wake up one morning and go through the daily routine, and I would catch sight of myself in my mirror and scowl at what I saw. Over time, those scowls grew into hatred; I didn’t like the way I looked, the work I was producing, everything. That was when my problems really got out of control.
Anger and frustration at my apparent inability to make a good quality piece of journalism, coupled with the way I viewed myself, soon built up, but I had no idea how to get that negative energy out of my system. Back home, I would have turned to badminton for help, but at university, despite playing with the club there, I was finding it hard to escape. These feelings quite often came out of nowhere, and before I realised what was happening, I was cutting my chest and arms.
I knew I was in a bad way. Self-harming gave me a temporary respite, but afterwards, I felt ashamed of what I had done. I spoke to a counsellor, who did help me understand why I was feeling the way I did, and also my close friends on my course. In an era where social media allows us to connect with our friends at any time in any location, I was able to let my friends in Leicester know what I was going through. Having the support from both my friends at university and at home, and admitting that I was in a bad way, was essential in getting me through this difficult period.
Though I had support, I was not out of the woods. January 2014 was a particularly tough month. Within two weeks of the year starting, I was still fighting myself, and one particular night, I lost that battle. I cannot remember exactly what triggered me that night, but I am still bearing the scar on my left shoulder which landed me in A&E. I do recall the pain – it was enough for me to drop on my knees in agony – and texting my flatmate one simple word: ‘help’.
That night was the wake-up call I needed. Something had stirred inside me; the desire to not let my mind beat me again. There was also fear, not just the fear of being in A&E, but the thought that I would do something much worse than cut my shoulder. From the moment I woke up the following day, I was determined to fight back.
It has been nearly two years since I ‘relapsed’ for want of a better word. I still have days where I struggle, but I am infinitely stronger than I was and part of that is down to the support that I have around me. Asking for help and being honest about what is going through my mind has been vital.
The problem is many young people find this difficult. A study by the National Union of Students (NUS) found that whilst 78% of students report experiencing mental health issues, around a third said that they did not know where to support, and 40% stated they were nervous about reporting it. With students thought to be in the group with the highest rate of anxiety, these statistics paint a troubling picture.
It is natural for people to feel nervous about reporting they have depression and anxiety (I was nervous when I first started letting people know), but with students it is important they feel they can access support should they need it. There is certainly no shame in saying that you are struggling to cope and the majority of the time, people will at least try to help.
I’m not saying students should go and tell every single person in their cohort, but letting the people they feel they can trust know can ease that burden. Universities will have counselling and wellbeing services available for free, or there are helplines you can call.
If I could finish with one piece of advice for anyone struggling at university, and I realise this is not easy, but do not be ashamed of asking for help. Even if it is just one person, that is a great first step and an important one. Admitting you need help takes courage, and once you take that step, you can start your own fightback.
Compared to a couple of years ago, I am in a much better place. It has been hard; I still have anxiety spikes and off-days, but they are getting fewer and further between. For the first time since 2012, I am now looking ahead to the future with optimism.
I hope you have found this article helpful, but always remember, if you are struggling, there are so many organisations out there. They will help you, if you ask them.
Thanks for reading.