Blog post by Rosa Blakelock, who graduates next week with a BA (Hons) in Geography
It is often said that university is the best time you’ll have, that you meet your “friends for life” and create memories that the rest of your days will struggle to live up to. These things are often said by those who are looking back, and no doubt some of these things are true, but memory is unreliable and this may not be the whole truth, and may mask parts of university life that re challenging and unhappy, stressful and upsetting memories. The truth is that university can be fun but can also be a very isolated place, which is strange to think, that you can feel lonely whilst surrounded by 25,000-odd people of your own age. When asked to write this blog post as a recently graduated Geography student, I was wary of exhibiting a cynical, Scrooge-like vibe, making readers feel disillusioned, but I am even more wary of contributing to the culture of not talking about issues faced by students, which helps paint a picture of university as clear as dishwater for those who are yet to come. Major organisations such as the NHS (where I now work) have reams of information about student mental health and Student Minds, which is a student mental health charity that provides information for students to look after their health, support others and create change. If you want to find stories written by other students, Imperial has a great blog section on mental health.
I think one of the things that is painfully ironic about university is that when you’re going through a hard time, it is so easy to think you’re alone because everyone around you looks as they’re having a ball. But the reality is that every single person, if not now, then in the not-too-distant past, has been through something very similar. From feeling homesick to feeling too dim to make it through the year, from discretely battling depression and having no energy to get up in the morning, to paranoia and anxiety developing, coming to terms with a newly diagnosed STI…what do all these things share, apart from being astonishingly common among the student population? They are hardly talked about.
Coming back to university after being sectioned in my second year (put in a psychiatric hospital for a few weeks), I felt more alone than ever in my life. I still had my wonderful friends who had stuck by me through the hell I went through, but they were now graduated and I was placed in a brand new year group…like a latecomer to a party where everyone has been hanging out for two years. I am generally a friendly person, easy to get along with you might even say, but man, my confidence plummeted hard during my last year in this new year group. I spent my days sitting on my own in lectures, not talking to anyone, isolating myself from a group of people I was convinced, had it together. Naturally I was given therapy and counselling after my episode and it wasn’t until a few weeks in, sitting in the overcrowded waiting room at the university counselling service that I realised, it’s not just me. The reason waiting lists are so long and appointments are so distant is because so many people apply for counselling that the services just can’t cope. A YouGov survey showed that 27% of British uni students report having a mental health problem whilst studying. And that’s only the people that actually spoke up about having one, I am confident that the percentage would be a lot higher if we were all honest.
Feeling alone is the worst thing in the entire world, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. But, if the fact that I am now graduated, married and in a full-time job bestows me with any wisdom whatsoever, I want to relay that anyone feeling down, anxious, lonely or a combination of the three, is certainly not alone. Your own mental health is more important than anything – good grades, friends, money, popularity, jobs, clothes, drugs, a flat stomach, approval from your parents…anything. So if any of these things are causing you to feel bad, I urge you, make changes, ask for help, take it from someone who’s been through hell and back because of bad choices, it’s just not worth it. Asking for help can be awkward but it is surely not shameful. After I took a year out of university from getting seriously ill, I lost all my confidence, and eventually realised that if I didn’t ask for help, my life would continue to be difficult for the rest of my degree. I sought guidance and advice from my tutor, who I will forever thank as the reason I made it to graduation. She told me that people like me, who have problems that affect their work, sometimes need a bit of extra help to push them forward to the starting blocks everyone else races from. Otherwise I would not only be battling through uni, I would be carrying the weight of my problems too, and no one needs that. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your friends or even your family, there are so many resources made specially for you! A quick chat with your GP will provide you with some general guidance, and although the university counselling services are stretched, they have drop in sessions and hundreds of leaflets with information that can help. Another good place to visit is the student support department, who have drop-in sessions tailored to give advice and help students out, because they know uni can be a really hard time. One thing that you can’t think is that nothing or no one can help. Initially reaching out for help is the hardest part, I promise. I used to think that getting help was giving me an unfair advantage, but actually, the help is there to give everyone an equal chance.
Anyway, to end on a lighter note, the person you will be when you graduate will be unrecognisable from your former self and for the best possible reasons. University teaches you to look at life pragmatically, develop into a mature version of yourself, and if you’re lucky, you’ll end up making friends that will be the godparents to your children one day.