Lucy Francesca Davies
Man, even typing this is scary. What you’re about to read is personal, and encompasses the worst years of my entire life. I am sharing this experience because we need to talk about mental health. I’m talking about depression. 1 in 4 people will be affected with a mental health problem in their lifetime and there has been a rise in demand for Mental Health services at Universities across the UK. So why are we struggling to speak openly, still?
The first year of University can be difficult. Why wouldn’t it be? Most will be living away from home, having left the comfort and familiarity of family living in favour of student halls. There are empty gin bottles lining the window sills, and sixth form is a distant glimmer somewhere beyond the horizon. Many will thrive in these circumstances; there’s always something to do, somewhere to be, someone to meet and hang out with. There’s the quasi-unlimited freedom that spurs your drunken footsteps towards BBQ Kings, quieting the “What would Mum say” about your impending feast of cheesy chips.
This aside, the first year of university can also be incredibly isolating. It’s not a feeling exclusive to first year; but the changes are so significant, day-to-day living is so different and daily autonomy is new. There’s no bustling parentage to remind you to tidy your room, shower, do your homework. Pets and siblings remain a journey away- and at the end of the day, in student halls (at least at first) you’re living with strangers. It can be tough.
When I was in first year, I struggled with depression. The problem had followed me from sixth form, to volunteering abroad and all the way up to University, trailing behind the family car packed with my worldly possessions along the M8. Everything seemed so exciting; oh the people I’d meet! The places I’d see! Did I mention I’d never been north of Hull before I actually accepted my offer to study in Glasgow? In my mind, University had to be somewhere intangible, far away. I thought the further away I was from home, the further I’d be from the problems that I’d met there.
This, unfortunately, is not how depression, or any mental health condition, works. For months, I was miserable. I’d vacillate between not eating then feasting on takeaway. I’d do nothing but university work, then stay locked in my room for days at a time. I’d obsessively clean everything, then wait until I was surrounded by a mess of clothes, shoes and mugs before noticing my room was untidy. I was medicated; then I wasn’t. But this post is not going to discuss medication- it’s simply too complicated, personal and individual. My cocktail of anti-depressants, or lack thereof, makes no difference to the point of what I’m writing.
What I’m writing is a personal account of how I’m still standing, despite crippling depression and eventual hospitalisation just before my 19th birthday. Post-hospital, I moved into a different student accommodation, where I met wonderful people who I still call close friends, and am forever grateful at how willingly they took me in. This is not a one size fits all solution, but a change of scenery when you’ve been wallowing in complete apathy is a must. The turning point for me was when I told the relevant University staff what had been going on. Truthfully, they seemed deeply upset that I’d gone so long without saying a word. You see, they can’t help unless they know you need it.
I’m now in third year, and I have down days like everyone. But I can identify that these down days are not depression; and I can’t give you the exact day when I knew I was no longer depressed- but I know things began to get a little better each day once I told the University what was happening. Each time the sun rose, it seemed a little brighter, and I didn’t loathe waking up each morning the way I had. The University made allowances for me that lightened the worry on my mind, and they urged me to prioritise getting better over my studies.
Beginning University can be terrifying: the institution can seem faceless and impersonal. Opening up about what you’re facing helps in so many ways; not least because looming deadlines don’t have to be final. If you need to sit an exam out and focus on yourself, they can make that happen. But not if you don’t tell them. With depression especially, keeping quiet about it is the worst thing you can do.
So what do I want you to take from this? Firstly, that no matter what you’re facing, telling the relevant University staff can only help ease your mind with University work. Secondly, that it’s ok to feel like you’re not making friends and not doing first year right. Thirdly, I’d like you to know that the dark days don’t have to last forever. It’s never as easy as pulling your socks up and being told to cheer up, but it’s not as impossible as I know it can feel. Lastly, please share your troubles. If you’re having a hard time, don’t wait until it gets worse to talk about it. Sharing it is how you start to recover. And you can, and you will.