Even though I received my graduation certificate in the post a few weeks ago, it still hasn’t sunk in that I’m no longer a student. I’ve been taking time out to reflect on my university experience, but the main thing I could only really think about was how much my mental health has deteriorated, and I can’t help but question if my mental health would still be as bad had I decided to live at home and commute, or simply if I hadn’t gone to uni at all. I don’t like to live life with regrets but looking back, there’s a few things I think I’d change. Although I (somehow) graduated with the highest mark available, I’d be lying if I said that my mental health hasn’t suffered terribly as a result. And as much as I’m over the moon to have received such amazing grades which I never would’ve thought in a million years I would’ve been able to achieve, I do wonder whether or not I regret maybe pushing myself too hard to the extent that I prioritised a grade on a piece of paper over my already very fragile mental health. Going to uni at 16 and finishing at 21 was inevitably going to change me as a person either way, but I just can’t help but question some things and I think there is some advice I would give to my younger self about balancing university with mental health.
TW: suicide, alcoholism, bulimia, sexual assault
Taking time to look back on my university experience, I realised how much I’ve gone through. As a 16-year-old I felt ready at the time but looking back now, I think that I was far too young to have experienced what I experienced. I was living away from my family and school friends, had sexuality issues that I couldn’t come to terms with and which caused me to have rocky relationships with certain family members, I essentially had no place to call home over the summer months, and all of this inevitably lead me to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety at age 17. I then suffered from alcoholism to help me to forget about things and to feel better (which in hindsight would never have worked…) and also suffered from bulimia as my self esteem was so unbelievably low. I had strong suicidal tendencies until just 2 weeks before my 18th birthday – I went to Aviemore to try and see what it felt like to be happy and ‘alive’ again – and when my 18th birthday did come, it made me realise how appreciated and loved I actually was, and that’s why I say that that night was the best night of my life.
Even though that was certainly a turning point in my life and despite conscious efforts to get better (going vegan, taking a year out to get better, becoming completely abstinent for weeks or even months at a time), no amount of self care could help me get better, and I’m not sure if in the back of my mind it was the fact that I was at uni that hindered my self recovery progress. During my leave of absence I was sexually assaulted while in another country, and it still affects me (and my relationship) to this day. I was then unable to get help for that when I came back because the waiting lists for counselling at my university are shocking, and before I knew it I had to spend a semester abroad in France which was absolutely awful. Due to constantly having to move about and not being settled in one place for an extended period of time (apart from Stirling but the waiting list times never allowed me to get seen on time), I’ve essentially been waiting for counselling for over 2 years now. So I wonder if my mental health would really be as bad as it is if my university played a better part in helping students with mental health issues – I feel like I had to deal with a lot of my issues on my own, and perhaps this is why I’ve suffered so much and continue to do so even though I finished uni in April.
However, that being said, I’m a firm believer in everything happening for a reason, so I’m thankful that I was able to take a year out to get better, or else I most likely wouldn’t have graduated with such a great result (or maybe not at all), I probably wouldn’t have met my boyfriend or have the amazing circle of friends that I have today, and everything that I’ve gone through has made me a very strong and resilient person.
1 – Always think about the bigger picture
The first tip I’d give is to always think about the bigger picture – it can be all too easy to get caught up in the academic world that we forget what it feels like to be ‘alive’ – we merely ‘exist’ and it can be so numbing. The reason why I went to Aviemore was because I had to get out of the 4 walls mentality – it was suffocating, depressing and I didn’t want to live a life where I devoted all of my time and energy towards being in a building 24/7. Although uni is important for getting you your dream career, there is faaaar much more to life than academia! Our health matters way more, and if our grades need to take the hit in order for us to get better, then let them take the hit. This is something I maybe would’ve done differently – I feel like I didn’t really experience much of uni life at all because I was so fixated on getting a first and not wanting to settle for any less, even though a 2:1 or a 2:2 is still a really good grade. I’ve just always been a perfectionist, but in times like those I think I maybe just should’ve enjoyed the ride and spent more time socialising and enjoying life outside of academia.
So my point is, remind yourself that uni isn’t the main priority, your health is. Looking back, I would much rather have had better mental health for a goal that isn’t as high as a first, instead of abandoning my mental health in order to achieve the highest grade.
2 – Spend time in nature
This one is sooooo damn important. Seriously. Nature is literally the best antidepressant we could ask for, but it can be so hard to know how to take the first step. I found that when I woke up to do a walk before studying, I already felt so productive and focused. Even if you go for a walk after studying or at the weekends when you’re not studying, being in nature generally makes you feel so good anyway and this is so important for our mental health. After going to Aviemore suicidal and coming back refreshed and with a purpose, I 100% swear by this as essential to helping with mental health.
All we need is 10-15 minutes to help us feel better, so a short walk in between studying is good too.
3 – Let your tutors/lecturers know about your mental health issues
This one is also suuuuper important. When I was in 2nd year I didn’t let any of my tutors know about my depression or anxiety and this caused my grades to be capped, to receive endless emails about my attendance, to have to go to meetings to discuss my performance and attendance – all things that I couldn’t be bothered doing when already dealing with a lot of personal issues. By letting lecturers and tutors know, it shows that you care about your studies but also about your mental health. It’s also best to meet about this in person rather than by email, and it is a good way to discuss your options should you struggle with assignments or exam prep, and they can maybe point you in the right direction for further help such as student support services, financial services or workshops on essay writing, balancing uni with work/health etc.
However from personal experience, some lecturers didn’t understand depression or anxiety and gave really hurtful ‘feedback’ which caused me to be ashamed of my mental health issues and made me not want to talk to anyone as it embarrassed me so much. But another piece of advice I’d give is to not feel ashamed of your mental illness/health – it’s a lot more common than you may think, and there’s so much support out there if you make the decision to ask for help. Asking for help is in no way a sign of weakness (I used to think this until maybe a year ago), but is rather an indication that you care a lot about both your studies and your health that you don’t want one to negatively impact the other.
4 – See what support your university offers
I’m not sure if every uni has the same help in place, but my uni offered ARUAAs, and those were basically changes you could make to your courses (extended assignment deadlines, separate exam rooms, extra time in exams, option to do class presentations on a one-to-one basis etc) depending on medical evidence from your GP or other medical evidence. I honestly don’t think that I would’ve graduated with a first if I didn’t have an ARUAA in place, so I think it’s essential if you have been diagnosed with an illness or disability which makes university life a bit harder than those without.
Also look into counselling services or mental health mentors – just somebody to talk to when needed and to motivate you when you’re not feeling too great.
5 – Take time out of each day to yourself
Also another piece of advice that I can’t stress enough. When I was living in my student flat, I found it so hard to make and eat 3 meals a day, do washing up, clean up, wash my clothes and have time for myself – there would be days where I wouldn’t even do just one of those things… Whether it’s waking up half an hour earlier than usual to go on a nice walk in the morning or taking half an hour before bed to read a good book with a face mask on, having some time to yourself to relax without worrying about cleaning up or studying is so important.
6 – …Or take a whole day to yourself
There were so many days where I had planned to get so much work done but didn’t manage to do any of it due to feeling so depressed. I’d constantly put a time on it like “in an hour I’ll try and do this/ by 4pm I’ll try and do that.” I felt like I put too much pressure on myself that I ended up wasting so many days in bed numb and unable to move. Instead, looking back now, a healthier approach would probably be to say “I’m not able to do any work right now, I’ll relax and do something to benefit my mental health and if I don’t feel better I’ll try again tomorrow – and that’s OKAY.” Once I realised that I was feeling that way because I was so exhausted and depressed and that it was okay, I instantly felt better. When we feel like that, it should be a sign that we need to rest, and we need to know that it is perfectly okay to feel like this. If we don’t make time for our wellness, we’ll be forced to make time for our illness. So if we need to take a day off to relax and have a day free from university stress, so be it – if we don’t do that then we’ll have no choice but to take time off at a later stage, and we won’t know how long for.
Dedicate a day in advance to having a day to yourself, as this takes the pressure off and means you can enjoy it. Uni is essentially a full time job, so time off is imperative.
7 – Realise that it’s okay to not be productive/ have a lazy day
Just like my last point, don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself taking necessary time out to relax or have fun. Just see it as recharging your batteries so that you feel more focused and ready the next time round.
8 – Try Mindfulness/meditation
I used to meditate a lot more before 3rd and 4th year of uni, and is definitely something I wish I’d done more of. All the stress can be so consuming and it can be hard to meditate when your mind is going crazy with deadlines and assignments. I found that taking time out to meditate during a study break was really helpful, and there was a part of my library that had colouring-in books and sofas and a general relaxed corner to de-stress. If there is nowhere at university like this, then maybe look into if there are any prayer rooms/meditation rooms that you could use.
If you’re not too sure on how to start meditating, I’d 100% recommend the app called Headspace for guided meditation. When you sign up, it asks you what you’re using it for (university stress/self-improvement/stress and anxiety/work etc) and then your experience with meditation and then when you’d like to start meditating (morning/evening, you can set alarms and reminders). I found that this was the best way to help me meditate because my mind was buzzing about too much from uni stress that it was virtually impossible to clear my mind without any help. There are also blogs which I find really helpful too!
9 – Find healthy coping mechanisms
In 2nd year of uni I coped with uni stress by drinking and binge eating before purging, and until 4th year I used weed as a coping mechanism. It’s safe to say that in the long run these did far more damage than good, but I tried to find some healthier ways to cope with the stress. Things like self-help books, colouring books, crosswords/wordsearches, jigsaw puzzles and journal writing are all healthy ways to combat stress and to help ease your mind. I found that laying in bed binge-watching Netflix just left me feeling worse, and I’d end up zoning out because my mind wasn’t actively engaged in the same way as a colouring book or puzzle. I also found that blogging really helped me cope with stress, and I use it as a sort of online journal anyway so that’s also something I’d recommend.
10 – Drop toxic friends
When I look back at my friends from before I took a leave of absence compared with the friends I have now, only a small handful of them are still my friends today, and that’s only because I lived with the majority of them in first year. When I was in 2nd year I was friends with a lot of people who also drank and partied a lot, so when I began to work on myself, those friends naturally grew distant from me as that wasn’t the life I wanted to live anymore (and it also made me realise that we only really had drinking/partying in common!) It can be hard to drop toxic friends (might do a blog on that at some point) but it’s so important to surround yourself with as much positivity as possible, and if a friend can’t understand that you need time without them in order to focus on getting better, they’re not a friend worth having.
11 – Take care of your body
Stress often comes hand in hand with unhealthy behaviours that make us want a quick and painless solution to feeling better. That can be unhealthy/binge eating, alcohol, cigarettes, weed, drugs, partying etc, but the nice feeling only lasts a short while and the horrible feeling comes after. I’ve struggled a lot with impulsive behaviour – if something makes me feel sad or angry, the first thing I want to do is something like the aforementioned that will instantly make me feel good and forget, but these don’t erase the problem – they just slightly delay the time it takes until you end up worrying about it again. I found that switching partying as a means of socialising for more relaxed environments such as cafes or flats was something my mind and body thanked me for in my last semester.
I’d also say the usual “drink more water”, “do exercise” or “get a good sleep” but I find that even though these help a little bit, doing these plus eating kale aren’t exactly going to cure your mental health… Sleep is important though and I was denied many a good night’s sleep because of the situation in my flat during the final semester (being bang smack in the city centre was awful lol) but I did feel like having a rough night’s sleep had seriously negative impacts on my mood and therefore on my ability to do work, so this one is super important. I’ll link a blog I have to my night time routine at the bottom which might help.
12 – Spend less time on social media/your phone
I found that when I looked at my phone as soon as I woke up that I was suuuper tired and felt like crap. So when I started to get myself ready in the mornings before looking at my phone, I felt so much better because I had already felt productive from getting myself ready, and this motivated me to be even more productive with my studies. I also think it’s so important to lock your phone in your bag and resist signing onto social media on another tab on the computer when studying, because this can lead to going way off track and spending hours scrolling aimlessly through facebook or instagram and then getting frustrated about not having done any studying. But this works in our favour, because when we spend what we think is only 10 minutes on social media but is really 30 minutes or so in reality, we appreciate that when we study for what we feel is 30 minutes it’s only been 10 minutes – time slows down for us and this takes the pressure off.
13 – Don’t put too much pressure on yourself
Speaking of pressure, I think it’s far too easy for us to get so caught up with uni that we get annoyed at ourselves if we spend time focusing on anything other than that. Constantly remind yourself what the end goal is, but as long as the end goal prioritises health over grades. When I started 4th year I wrote down where I wanted to be when I finished, and I said that I wanted to be healthier and happier than when I started, and I didn’t care about what grade I got. But then university actually happened and I got so engrossed in it that I totally forgot about the end goal that I had in mind before I started. When I spoke to my mental health mentor, she told me that recruiters and such don’t care so much about whether you got a first or a 2:1, they just want to see that you have a degree. She told me that she graduated with a 2:2 then did a masters, and even though she had to have a 2:1 to do a masters, her work experience in the field of study she was going to do her masters in was what allowed her to do a masters.
So, if I can give any main, final piece of advice, it would be to relax, breathe, realise that you’re more amazing and important and valued than a grade on a sheet of paper, and that even if you end up with an outcome different that the one you desired, there’s always a way around things. Although you should always have a goal in mind, don’t let the future consume you – enjoy every single second of your uni experience, it literally flies in so fast and is over before you know it! Spend time socialising and creating beautiful memories and friendships more than spending time stressing about the future and the grade on a sheet of paper – this grade doesn’t define who you are as a person. Just live to enjoy every second of university life so that when you’re done, no matter your grade, you can live to say that you got the most out of it!
My blog for a good night’s sleep: https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/156026599/posts/34
My morning routine for a productive day blog: https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/156026599/posts/21
So from now, I’m taking some serious time to myself to get better. I’m staying at home, finding new hobbies and languages to learn, going to the gym and spending more time in nature. I’m looking forward to getting back the parts of myself I lost when at uni. Just wondering when it’s actually going to sink in that I’ve finished! And very much looking forward to having no plans for once 🙂