An Important Reminder For People Struggling With Mental Health Problems During Exam Season

Ah summer, a wonderful time of sunshine, drinks with umbrellas (as we all know if anyone needs a device to keep something dry it is a glass of liquid), and, less wonderfully, exams. No matter what kind of exam is being thrown at you, whether it be a GCSE, A-level, university finals or your N.E.W.T’s at Hogwarts, I think we can all agree that exams suck and are a very stressful part of the year for everyone involved, especially people with mental health problems who are pretty stocked up on stress and need no exam boards adding to it. If you have exams coming up I can guarantee you have been told how important they are by teachers and lecturers and if you are anything like me you will feel that they are the most important things in the world, but I want to provide an alternative voice to all that stress and pressure and let you know that in the grand scheme of things, exams and other education related worries are not important. Now I know what you are thinking, “why should I listen to a weirdo on the internet when I have educated officials telling me that these exams are vital to my future happiness?”. Well dear reader, because I am going to prove my point with an analogy using the absolute best thing about summer, ice-cream, and if that doesn’t get me credibility then I don’t know what will.

For the purpose of this post I would like you to imagine an ice cream cone. That empty cone represents your physical health, no emotions whatever, just the heart beating oxygen to carbon dioxide basics of being alive. Now add a scoop of ice cream to that cone (one involving chocolate or peanut butter preferably but I suppose you could use any flavour for your metaphorical ice cream…just not rum and raisin because that is nasty). That scoop of ice cream is your mental health, stress levels, emotional stability, any brain activity that involves quality of life, pain or pleasure, and makes you different from the empty ice cream cone of the amoeba. Now add a cherry to that ice cream cone. That cherry is exams/good results/fantastic education stuff in general.

If you went to an ice cream van in the real world and asked for an ice cream, you would expect at least a cone with a scoop of ice cream in. A cone is fine but it is worth nothing without the ice cream and without the cone the ice cream would have no “body” to chill in (literally). To be worth having, you need both the cone and the ice cream. Having a cherry added on the top would be nice, but without the ice cream and the cone it is pointless. Without those key components you just have a random cherry floating in the air and that is useless in terms of the ice cream experience (otherwise known as “life”). Exams alone are that useless floating cherry.

The most important things to focus on and look after throughout life, exams and education in whatever form, are your physical and mental health, because if you don’t have either of those things then exams have nothing to sit on.
When I was doing my A-levels I was absolutely terrified and my exams literally became a life or death situation. My head was compressed under so much pressure and my brain had made some kind of OCD rigid deal that I had to get straight A*’s or kill myself. No other grade would give me “permission to live”, not even an A which is an incredible grade to get as it is. My anxiety and OCD drive made a life or death situation out of “a star” and you know what that star is? IT IS JUST AN ASTERISK. IT IS PUNCTUATION. It is not the be all and end all goal of life, this mystical magical holy relic to be chased to the end of time. Nope. Look here is one now *. And another one *. Is “*” and therefore any grade worth the pressure and insanity placed upon exams?

The stress of exams, grades and dedicating all of your energy to revision is like chasing a floating cherry without the cone and ice cream needed to support it. If education is causing so much stress that your anxiety is out of control, if you are revising so much that you are “not having time to eat”, then that is not OK. At university I spent my entire time chasing that illusive floating cherry (otherwise known as “a first”). I read books obsessively, didn’t sleep, took notes on things with unnecessary detail and precision. Revision sheets were awash with bubble letters that I took hours colouring in using the order of colours in the rainbow. I had to get a first so everything had to be perfect, but I was so busy colour co-ordinating titles that I didn’t look after the cone or the ice cream and eventually everything fell down with nothing there to support it. I never took my final exams at university, I never wrote my dissertation or got the resulting “dissertation picture”, because I was in hospital. Thankfully I had the most amazing tutor and team at university so I was still able to graduate. Did I get a first? No. Has having a “2:1” rather than a first changed my life in any way? No. Do you know how often I get asked about my degree or A-level grades? How often someone asks to admire my colour co-ordinated revision notes with obsessively neat handwriting and bubble letters? Never, because in the real world none of it matters, what really matters is keeping yourself alive and able to function.
When you are in school I know that education feels like the world and grades are the tip of the mountain in importance, but when you leave school you realise that that mountain was just a mole hill and the real important mountains in life are actually living your life both physically and, hopefully, with some mental stability or quality that make it worth it. Getting an education or a dissertation picture are things in life, but they are not the ONLY things.

Obviously I am not telling you not to bother with revision, if you can handle it then that is great and of course you should do your best in exams, but you shouldn’t sacrifice your emotional or physical wellbeing to achieve, catch a cherry that is useless without the cone and ice cream to balance it on. An earlier hospitalisation during sixth form meant I had to go back a year in school so I did my A-levels a year late. Again it seemed like the biggest deal in the world, but I needed that time in hospital and that time out and eventually I got my exams, Ok they were a little late, but the only difference between my certificates and the ones my initial year received was the date. Also, I actually made loads of new friends in my new year, so in retrospect going back a year was not only vital but actually gave me some positive experiences with people I wouldn’t have met had I forced myself through exams the first time. Especially if I had died in the attempt.

In short, education can wait. Education can be done any time if needs be, but what cannot wait or be done at any time is keeping yourself alive and looking after your health. If you need to take time out, do it. Lower the pressure and expectations for grades. In short, give yourself a break, give yourself time to breathe. If you have exams and revision this summer then I wish you the best of luck and hope they go brilliantly, just please remember to look after that cone and scoop of ice cream first, and don’t kill yourself over a floating cherry that in the grand scheme of things matters nowhere near as much as the ice cream.

Ice cream

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4 thoughts on “An Important Reminder For People Struggling With Mental Health Problems During Exam Season

  1. I don’t know if you remember but you comforting me when I was suspended (you are the loveliest person I know) but in retrospect I have gained a year to improve my health. Your comparison is brilliant and I do hope this article helps a few people. Loose, anna

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    • You are too lovely yourself! Of course I remember! Really hope the year out has helped you, you deserve so many fantastic things in life and I will always be here to support you whenever you need help believing that. Love and hugs xxxx ❤️❤️❤️❤️

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  2. This post is my life! You understand me so well. My exams are on 17 and 24 of June and I’m feeling very stressed. My anxiety is so high that I throw up, like literally throw up. I’m so stressed that i cried after reading this post. I already said that but I’ll say it again: you live in my mind! You must have superpowers or something like that because you can read my thoughts! Anyways, thank you for being here and always write the right things.
    Kisses from Portugal ❤

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    • 😊😊😊😊 I am just sitting here smiling like the Cheshire Cat. I am so sorry to hear that exams are causing so much anxiety (I remember it well!) but I hope I have managed to help calm that down a little bit because I do not like that exams are making you feel this way! I wish you so much luck in your exams but please remember to look after your lovely self first! Also please know that on those dates in June someone in England will be sending loads of love and hugs to support and get you through the anxiety! Much love and kisses from England, thank you for being lovely (so much so that I think you have superpowers!) xxxx

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