My uni experience was moulded by mental illness: Rosie's Story
University can be a very difficult time. For a lot of people, living a completely new life is an exciting adventure. For others, it can be overwhelming. Meeting lots of new people, living in a new place and being given big projects to work on can be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting. For University Mental Health Day, we spoke to ambassadors on our Step Up: University project to find out what it is like living with mental illness whilst studying. Here’s Rosie’s story…
Birthdays are often points of reflection. It seems in many ways, only fitting, that this year mine falls on University Mental Health day, the 5th March. I never imagined in previous years that I would be writing this, or that I would be dealing with the things I am at the moment. My university experience has been moulded by my mental illness. The two are inexorably linked; I cannot talk about one without the other. For some, university is the best time of their lives, for me it has been nothing but challenging.
Being a university student and managing mental illness sometimes feels like you are trying to do the impossible, to educate and push yourself when you are struggling to function. Excelling academically and feeling incapable of simply getting out of bed do not go hand in hand. I have suffered from anxiety and depression for years before university, and as my last year draws to a close, I find myself struggling with bulimia.
Being a university student and managing mental illness sometimes feels like you are trying to do the impossible, to educate and push yourself when you are struggling to function.
I think there is huge stigma and shame still around mental illness, despite how ‘woke’ people love to seem. I have encountered prejudice I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and sometimes from those closest to me. That weird kid in halls you remember from first year? The one who seemed stand-offish, or awkward and nervous? Did it ever occur to you that they might have more going on in their head than anyone could imagine? That the worst you could think about them, they already think far worse about themselves. University is a transitional, and for some, difficult time. A little compassion goes a long way.
How my university has dealt with my mental illness has been at best mixed. The procedures of extenuating circumstances and reasonable adjustments are often exhausting and necessary when you are at your lowest ebb.
You are told to seek help as early as possible. I have done this, only to be faced with endless (6 months or more) NHS waiting lists. Turning to my university for help, they offer up to 6 (15-20 is recommended) CBT sessions. My counsellor dismissed my disorder eating issues as ‘boredom’ and told me other students had ‘blood cancer’ and had it far worse, so I needed to be more ‘grateful’. I am sure some find it helpful, but my faith in their support, along with disability advisors who seem disinterested at best, has been shattered. My tutors and peers, however, that I have shared with, are far more compassionate and understanding, accommodating where they can. I feel infinitely lucky for the support and kindness my family continue to offer.
My day to day life balancing my mental illness and university work is up and down. Some days are much harder than others. The lack of organisation and structure to my course has personally been a source of stress for me, but for some, the flexibility may help them manage their timetable alongside their work. Having severe social anxiety can mean something as simple as taking equipment out, or having to query something with a technician, can seem an impossible hurdle. Likewise, when my depression is at its most all-consuming, I struggle to find motivation in any basic task, let alone to produce work. Honestly, struggling with an eating disorder has been the hardest challenge of all. It’s like living with a voice in your head that constantly hates and berates you.
Sometimes it’s said that in difficult times creatives produce their best work. For me, this is simply not the case.
I do not think that being a university student and living with mental illness are fundamentally incompatible. But support is vital. In hindsight, there’s a lot I would have done differently and I think there’s a lot my university could have done differently too, to help me cope. I wasn’t even aware of the disability service, or that I was a ‘disabled’ student, until my final year. I don’t think enough is done pro-actively by the university to help students. The burden is placed on those who already have enough to carry.
I do not know what I will be reflecting on next year on my birthday, but I remain both hopeful and realistic. More challenges may be ahead, but they will continue to teach me greater kindness and empathy to myself and others.