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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.

Do you know many others with mental health issues like your own?

There's a real underground community! Many people just choose to not be as open about it. University can cause high levels of stress and this invariably leads to mental strain, something which affects us all in different ways.

What would you tell those who think they may have a mental health issue?

Don't be in denial. Recognise that if you're experiencing symptoms or just anything unusual, this could signify something quite serious. Suppressing these things will not help you at all. People often think that symptoms will go away if you ignore them, but the reality is that with neglect, they become stronger because you aren't getting the support you need. And you do need medical support.

Any advice for those starting university already with a mental health problem?

Accept what you have but don't allow it to define you. Don't push it to the back of your mind. Your condition must always be in your consciousness, reminding you to look after yourself… don't think that you are different. I've learnt that the reality is that everyone, of whatever age, has their own battle. I used to be more self-centred and think that my experiences were very alien but actually this isn't at all the case. When I opened up to others – and do this at the right time, not straight away but when you've developed a proper, trusting friendship – I often found that telling a little about my condition would prompt them to share something very personal about themselves too, and through this I formed strong relationships.

What would you tell your previous self?

I would advise her to not care what others think, and not feel paranoid that on her forehead, 'bipolar' is written for all to see… I would encourage her to accept herself during whatever mood, and to not see her condition as a weakness – it's actually a gift in certain ways. For instance, my heightened creativity and analytical mindset are assets for my studies.

What do you think of the ways in which we as a society address mental health?

In the Western world, we're constantly bombarded with ideas of success and perfection. This can breed insecurities, and often, insecurities can bring about mental health issues. Some countries adopt a different approach to dealing with this, discouraging medication and focusing more on talking therapy. I find this preferable to being pumped full of drugs, which aren't always the answer to our problems.

Jane’s personal story and her willingness to retell her experiences signifies that younger generations – our own most definitely included – are becoming increasingly open to addressing mental health issues. This acceptance is supported by the fantastic work of charities such as Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, currently collaborating on their campaign 'Time to Change', which seeks to end the stigma surrounding the topic. Both on and off campus, the unabashed discussion of mental health is growing in status. This needs to continue, encouraging the understanding that psychological problems are just like any other physical difficulty and need to be considered with equal care and respect.

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*Name has been changed.

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