What was the main factor in university that triggered your depression?
“I feel that calling one particular factor a trigger is a little simplistic for my experience; there was no 'trigger moment' or moment where everything started to fall apart. My depression came on more like a slow, creeping shadow. The mixture of transitioning from A levels to uni, living away from home, with people I didn't know (and wouldn't necessarily choose), in a big new place created the overall factor of 'university' that triggered my depression. It didn't come overnight; it seeped in slowly. I started wanting to go out less, losing motivation for my work and feeling really homesick and out of place. I figured this was just adjusting to university life and was normal homesickness, and it wasn’t until I was quite unwell that I realised it was depression rearing its head again. I didn’t consider it to be depression until I started having worrying thoughts about my life and what it was worth. I think the university experience can be a massive stressor for students, and I found a lot of it came from this rhetoric that university would be 'the best time of your life' and the idea that everyone else was having the greatest time and loads of fun, and I wasn't. This made me internalise, and see it as a problem with myself (rather than an issue relating to the way we 'big up' uni before getting there), and that struggling and having a hard time is something that’s rarely discussed in relation to going to uni: all the focus is on excitement and happiness.”
Did you find support in university?
“Yes, and no. Support at university can often be either focused on the academic side (extensions on pieces of work, allowances in exams, etc), which can be incredibly useful, or often miss the more pastoral support side which is needed. Getting extensions on work, or pushing exams back can be the best thing to do for your mental health sometimes, but that support alone is not enough to conquer the issues that can come hand in hand with depression. Support can also come from outside of the university; the local NHS trust for example, will be able to support students with specific mental health issues, through things like psychological therapy and psychiatrists, alongside things university provided, like counselling and academic support. I did not find any 'depression-specific' support, however, and my experience has been that there is a lot of information for students who are struggling, and we're told about loads of support for when we're 'struggling', but often this is not tailored support, for depression, or even for mental health, and because the issues students can experience are so wide-ranging, more specific support probably would have been useful for me.
Support from friends is also a tricky one, as often you're put (especially in the first year) in accommodation with people you don't know at all, and on the 'list of things to tell my new flatmates for a year right at the start' the fact I have depression wasn't really on there. I was lucky in that I met some amazing people on my course, who I could become friends with and eventually confide in, but I doubt to this day that the people I lived with were aware of any issues I was having.”
What are your tips for coping with depression at university?
“My main tip would be knowing yourself. If you know yourself when you're well, you can start to see the signs that you're becoming unwell. I didn’t pay much attention to my behaviours when I first came to uni, which meant suddenly I was confronted with weeks’ worth of not done seminar work, with non-attendance building up, with a feeling of being completely overwhelmed and with a lifestyle which was pretty much nocturnal. Now, I’m a lot more attentive to how my feelings manifest, and keep an eye on things like sleeping and eating; when I start sleeping through days, and my appetite goes out of the window, I can now be aware of these and keep an eye on them, before I’ve got past the point of no return and let depression take over everything. “
“My other tip would be to just be open - it’s scary admitting you're struggling/have depression/have any mental health problem, but I can honestly say after five years in university, everyone is so understanding and there is help available. However, if no one knows you’re struggling, it makes everything much worse and harder to get on top of. The first time you miss a seminar or need more time on work it’s terrifying to go and tell a random academic that you have depression. However, they do understand (you won’t be the first student who’s come to them because you're struggling and you won’t be the last they'll see!). Any of the (totally normal) anxieties about things being missed or being late will go away if you make other people aware! At the end of the day, students’ welfare is key to lecturers and tutors, because students are what keep the uni running and I’ve yet to meet someone who wouldn’t bend over backwards to help a student if they needed it!”
“My final tip would be to not let everyone else’s preconceptions and ideas of what university 'should' be affect you too much. I forced myself to go out so much (and had a terrible time mostly!) because everyone else was going out and getting drunk, even though that’s not my style. It took a while before I was comfortable with 'my' idea of uni, which is more often than not, staying in watching crap TV and doing coursework, or reading, or going to a pub for a chat rather than the SU to get wasted to noisy dance music AND THAT’S TOTALLY FINE! There is no 'uni experience' that everyone has; we're all different, and not forcing yourself into situations/places/events/things you aren't comfortable with/don't want to do is so, so important for wellbeing, and having control over things like that has made my depression easier to control. And remember, just because everyone looks to you as if they’re having a great time, doesn't mean everyone is on cloud nine and you're the only one struggling! Be open, be aware and be in control.”
We would like to thank Student Minds and Amy - who is a Student Minds voulnteers - for providing us with this article.
Student Minds is the UK's student mental health charity. They empower students with the knowledge and skills they need to cope with their own mental health and offer them a safe support group.
You can support Student Minds by going to their website and following them @StudentMindsOrg
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