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My experience of mental health issues at university

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Nick Sutton discusses his experiences with depression at University, urging people not to suffer in silence.

University, for many, is a truly liberating, exciting experience. University gives you a chance to be independent for the first time, to get away from home, to meet new people from a range of backgrounds and a chance to throw yourself into new experiences in a new place in a different part of the country. However, for many to start with, myself included, it can also be extremely daunting. I still remember seeing all of my belongings sitting in my front room ready to be carted off. Before then, I had been putting it off in my mind that I had to go and had not considered what it would be like to be leaving. I had a happy, settled home life, with a close group of friends, a great girlfriend and a loving family. Suddenly, I had to leave. My whole life had to be put into the boot of a car and moved 200 miles away. My friends, my family and my girlfriend, would all be scattered across the country and I was going to have to make a new start in a different place away from them. Although for some this is an exciting prospect, for me it was one that filled me with worry and trepidation.

I arrived at university and quickly met a vast array of people, all of whom I had assumed seemed to be having a far better time than me, I assumed. I got through Freshers’ Week by the seat of my pants but soon I panicked, feeling like I hadn’t settled properly. One thing that there is no warning of before starting university is that, if you are not careful, you can spend a lot of time on your own in your room and the first few months of university for me were incredibly disorientating and isolating. My moods began to change. One minute I felt calm and in control, the next I was in floods of tears. I would often count down the hours to the end of the day until I could go to sleep because when I was asleep I wouldn’t feel so low. I had stopped eating properly and had lost a stone in weight over the course of only a few weeks. One of the worst things about this time was that I was no longer rational, no longer in charge of my own emotions. I often found myself breaking down and crying but I could not explain way. Sometimes the trigger was very minor, like a misinterpreted text, but most frightening of all was when there was no trigger at all. It felt like a thick black fog was following me. Sometimes it would get smaller and sometimes get bigger but it would never leave. It was only when I visited home and talked with my girlfriend that I finally realised that I was depressed.

Depression isn’t just being a ‘bit sad’, it is an illness. Depression is the most common of all mental health problems in the UK, with between 8-12% suffering with it over the course of a year. And like an illness, it cannot always be controlled. It is possible to have good days with depression but this does not mean it leaves. It can be crippling and can stop you from doing anything.

I confided in very few people. My close friends, my family and my girlfriend were all hundreds of miles away. I felt at the time I also could not talk as I did not understand what was happening in my own head, let alone begin to tell someone about it. One very hard thing about suffering with a mental health problem at the start of university is that your anchors are not there. You worry that if you talk to your newly made friends about not being fully settled that they would judge you, that they would feel that you not being settled would somehow be a reflection on them as people. Even worse, I would worry they would get scared and decide not to be friends with me anymore. I only really opened up to my girlfriend, who, despite being hundreds of miles away and also settling at her own university, was brilliantly supportive. Without her help and her understanding I know that things would have been a lot worse.

I came back to university after my trip home and things started to get better. I knew what was making me low and I started to do something about it. I got out of my room more, socialised more, tried to make more friends and forge closer friendships. I stopped constantly worrying whether I was more or less settled than other people and began to enjoy university life for what it was rather than what I thought others thought it should be. Slowly but surely, the black fog began to lift and I started to enjoy my life at university. My moods were under control, I was more sociable and jovial. I began to feel like me myself again.

My advice to anyone who is in the same position as I was is to be open and to talk more. I bottled up my troubles. I was too scared to be open and talk and resisted going to seek help. If I had done that when I had started becoming depressed, my problems would not have become as bad as they did. I do not want people to make the same mistakes that I did. One in three people will suffer with a mental health problem in their lifetime, yet less than half of us will ever get any help with it. It is frankly bizarre when mental health problems are so common and so normal that there is so much stigma that prevents people from seeking help with them. We need to change the way we see mental health. It needs to become more normal in people’s views. Seeking help for a mental health issue should be no different to a physical illness.

My other piece of advice is that you are not alone. Do not let the hype that ‘Freshers Week should be the best week of your life’ worry you. When I started to become more open about more issues recently, many of the people that I presumed were more settled than I were thinking precisely the same as I was. Don’t feel pressured, becoming happy and settled at university does not always happen overnight. It takes time. I am now in my second year and have a good diverse group of friends, am involved in a number of different societies and love Exeter and the feel of university life. There is no shame in feeling disorientated and unhappy when you feel others may be settled. You do not need to compare yourself to others. Don’t let a bumpy start to university life define you; it can get better and it will.

Having a mental health problem does not make you strange, it does not make you a freak and it does not make you different. You only have to start to scratch the surface to realise how common they are. Do not believe the stigma. There is nothing weird about being depressed and it does not have to be like that forever. You can get help and people will listen. You are not the only one who has been where you are.

Be open and talk. It can be more powerful than you think.

Nick Sutton

For advice and support about the issues raised in this article, contact Voice, the Wellbeing Centre and Mind Your Head here.

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