Coping with university life and mental health issues
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Beginning university can have its difficulties, as freshers are plunged into an entirely new, uncertain environment and confronted with a blurry crowd of never-seen-before faces. It's common to feel especially conscious of the judgements of others and pressured to tell colourful stories of our experiences. Yet for those dealing with mental health issues, the process of settling in is even harder. Just before she started university, Jane* was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and bravely began student life during a pivotal moment of her recovery. Her condition causes her mind to naturally fluctuate between manic highs and severely depressive lows. Her illness is in no way unique as, according to the mental health charity Mind, 1 in 4 of us in the UK will experience psychological problems at some point. Here, Jane shares her experiences of starting afresh at university and offers advice for those doing the same. How did you cope during freshers' week? My main battle was whether or not to drink alcohol – and become a so-called 'normal' fresher – or stick to my doctor's advice and avoid it as much as possible. During drinking games, it would come to my turn and I'd ask to be skipped. Naturally, people were curious as to why. Initially, I struggled to understand the fine balance between living sensibly and having fun. What was it like meeting new people? My medication affected me, making me hold back and generally not come across as my outgoing younger self, pre-diagnosis. Many people weren't aware of the bigger picture, that my personality was muted by my drugs. When I was making friendships, I kept bringing up my bipolarity as a way of excusing this and explaining why I wasn't as animated as other people. Did you tell people about your condition straight away? I felt more insecure during my first year of university, so I would instinctively tell new people my story and drop in details of my experiences of being unwell. Now, I'd tell my younger self to not feel as though everything about her needs to be explained. You can just say, 'I'm not drinking – full stop. And I'm tired, I'm going to bed.' At the time, I longed to be an 'average' student and so would try to fit a mould and please others, rather than listening to what was good for me. Have you ever felt judged? Not directly so – but I have experienced subtle discrimination. For example, I failed to find a language assistant placement for my year abroad, despite being told I had a strong application. Socially, I felt as though some people would distance themselves and not include me in their plans. However, part of my illness in its earlier days was paranoia and so I can't ever be sure if this really was the case. How did you cope with academic work? I've been treated really well by my university. They have a fantastic pastoral care system and are understanding if I need a deadline extension. My personal tutor is very attentive, often asking how I am and if my condition is affecting my work. By second year, I was becoming stronger and stronger mentally. I understood that in my situation, it would be easy to become complacent and reliant on my department's lenience. So I challenged myself to get through the entire year without any extensions – and I did – which I'm proud of.
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