In a few short days it will be September, aka the month in which all of the leaves turn orange and everyone takes this as a sign that everyone should probably go back to school, or, potentially, to university. What with leaving home, meeting new people and learning to use a frying pan, going to university for the first time is stressful for anyone. With mental health problems however, the experience can be a whole new level of terrifying, and although your chosen institution may provide a handy welcome pack with maps and phone numbers of who to call when the oven explodes, they never seem to offer any advice on how to deal with the whole thing when you are a new student without marbles, a situation I found myself in several years ago.
I think part of the problem is that before people have even stepped onto campus, they have built up an image of what their first year at university is “supposed to be like” and anticipate having to be involved in various situations they may not be comfortable with.
People expect that they will have to drink copious amounts of alcohol, attend wild house parties where somehow everyone ends up naked, make best friends with everyone living in their accommodation, share a kitchen with people who never wash any dishes so that by month three the sink is covered in plates that have rapidly been growing some kind of blue fungus, carry out crazy pranks with their hilarious roommate Colin, get entangled in a passionate one night stand with a mysterious moustachioed stranger, live off kebabs/Pot Noodles/Pizza, experiment with drugs, and capture all hilarious moments on a polaroid camera to place carefully in a scrapbook which will then provide unforgettable memories of the university experience that will forever be heralded as the best three years of your life.
That university image, so often portrayed on social media, is understandably a nightmare concept for various mental health conditions. People with depression and social anxiety may fear attending all these wild parties when they are often unable to get out of bed, let alone party and interact with strangers. People with OCD may struggle with the wild unstructured “anything goes” attitude and questionable hygiene or lack of ritualistic order associated with student living, or people with eating disorders may fear having to drink alcohol and eat pizza to fit in at any social gathering.
Well, if that wild carefree party life described above matches your expectations as to what you think university will be/require you to live up to, I would like to invite you to place those expectations or ideas of things that are “supposed to happen” in a box, and then smash that box with a fairly large mallet. Nay, lets go wild. With a flipping colossal mallet.
Admittedly, my description of what people envisage before they go to university, really is the experience had by some students (bar the bit about hilarious pranks with roommates called Colin…people called Colin don’t tend to like pranks), but it isn’t the experience that you have to have or feel pressure and stress to be involved with. I would love to say that going to university with a mental health problem is easy, and it is true that some people find the new environment beneficial to recovery, but that doesn’t happen for everyone and it is important to acknowledge that so we can deal with it.
Indeed, when you embark on your university journey whilst dealing with a mental health issues, it is likely that it is not going to be straight forward and you may not have the same experience as everyone else. It isn’t pessimistic to think this way, it is realistic, and being aware of potential difficulties from the outset is a far better way to go about things than charging forth unprepared with deluded optimism, pretending you don’t have mental health issues in hopes that they will just go away. Denying them will not make university any easier and not dealing with them could make difficulties you thought wouldn’t be an issue come as quite a shock. The key is to accept early on that you are going to university in perhaps a different situation to most people (after all it isn’t every student that goes to get a degree whilst fighting an unrelenting mental health gremlin), and that is ok, not something to feel ashamed or guilty about.
You don’t have to pressure yourself to live the “expected” university life of gay abandon if that is something you cannot manage right now…
…That said, I am not trying to tell you all to go to university and allow your mental health issues to take over entirely, as whilst you must acknowledge the issues are there, it is good to challenge yourself and try new things. TO AN EXTENT.
University can provide opportunities for millions of new experiences, and though you may not be able to join in with all the things that are on offer, if there is something you would like to try that challenges your mental health problem in a manageable way, (whether that be going to a society, or saying hello to someone in your accommodation), go for it. I know I avoided all challenges in the early weeks by totally isolating myself (aka I lived under my desk for a month covered in a blanket in fear another student might see me through the peephole in my door and want to say hello), and it made things a hell of a lot worse for me in the long run.
Eventually however, I came out from under my desk, and over the three years I managed to go clubbing/ to a party a few times and live with some lovely girls in a shared house. I didn’t want to do any of these things and was terrified for various OCD, anxiety, ED reasons, but on days where I felt a little stronger, I pushed myself to try and join in with others. Of course it was difficult and I can’t say it always went to plan, but by dipping my toe into the waters just outside of my comfort zone occasionally, I managed to have some fun that I would have missed out on had I kept myself locked away in my rituals and bubble of safety.
What I mean then by saying you should challenge yourself to an extent, is to be aware of your difficulties and know when a challenge is manageable and when one is not. It is great to give scary things a go, but do not blindly leap so far out into the waters of your comfort zone that you end up drowning if you are not ready, just because you feel you should/feel pressured to. It is not weak or boring to say no to things everyone else is doing, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Nobody “fails at life” just because they didn’t manage to go to that foam party with UV paint being splattered into the crowd and needed to spend the night curled up under a blanket for a good cry instead.
It really is key that people remember the fact that when going to university with a mental health issue, you are ill, and have to put as much time into prioritising care for your mental health as you do for prioritising attempts at socialising or writing essays.
For example, if you have an eating disorder, it is important to make time to eat, follow any prescribed meal plan you have and not let things slip just because you are away from people at home who “know”, so if you miss bits nobody will notice. If you have depression and can’t get out of bed for a few days, take care of yourself and keep yourself safe rather than beating yourself up or feeling guilty about it. Prioritise taking your medication, make time to go to the Doctor, seek out mental health services available to you and take up offers of appointments. Equally, inform lecturers of your issues so that they can support you if you miss a lecture or require essay extensions, as although scary, being honest with staff and the support I received in return was vital for my experience.
Most importantly and the most difficult thing to accept though, is to know when enough is enough. It would be great to go to university with mental health problems and for it all to go swimmingly, but if that doesn’t happen and if you going to university has such a dramatic impact on your mental health that you find yourself becoming increasingly unwell, accept that this might not be the right time for you to be there. Allow yourself to drop out or defer until another year. Maybe in a few years time when you are in a better place you can try again, or maybe university just isn’t right for you, but either way it is fine, not a sign of failure, and no degree is worth sacrificing your health for.
There are a million other things I could probably go into when it comes to university and mental health or more specifics in terms of how to deal with it with specific illnesses, but I have waffled on too long and as a basic overview, I guess this is my advice:
It will be hard, it will be scary (much like an old toffee wearing devil horns), but the most important thing is to just try your best, take care of yourself first and never give yourself a hard time for being unable to live the “typical student” lifestyle.
That said if anyone would like more specific information or tips on managing university with certain illnesses or situations, feel free to comment or message me privately and I will do my best to help. To all those going to university in a few short weeks, good luck, I will be thinking of and supporting all of you. Take care.