We all heard the claim “university is the best time of your life”, followed by “so just enjoy it”. The problem for many, many students is that it cannot be enjoyed. Instead, most days are filled with practicing fake smiles, creating and updating a list of excuses in our heads for why we missed the lecture, seminar, tutorial, or social event, and with lying to our friends, family, and peers with the two word phrase: “I’m fine”. Ironically, everyone is so insular in their suffering, we fail to realise we’re not alone. I can safely say that anyone who is reading this has, without a shadow of a doubt, got a friend or acquaintance suffering from a mental health issue, be it anxiety, depression, insomnia, or something worse.
University life is a perfect storm of conditions that cause this problem. Firstly, for most of us, moving to university is the first time we have been away from home for an extended period of time. Moving away from your family, your friends, and your surroundings can be daunting for some, and downright unmanageable for others. The stress of trying to adjust to your new situation; to make friends, to look after your diet, your fitness, and your bank account, and to stay on top of work, can often prove too much.
Making friends, in particular, is incredibly important.
In Freshers Week we are set loose with a large group of total strangers and told to make fast friends in an incredibly short amount of time. If you miss the boat on joining a clique or a friendship group, it can feel like that ship has sailed, and you are destined to a life of solitude or drifting between friends. Even more crucially, and I can attest to this; the longer it takes to make a real, close, unwavering friend, the tougher it gets to cope. I’m not talking about someone you see once a week in the club and high-five while bolting a drink; I’m talking about the kind of person you can message any time of day, with any problem, in the knowledge that they care for you, and will not judge you.
From personal experience, I can say that the mind is not compartmentalised – if something goes wrong in one aspect of your life, you can be sure that it will snowball. If you are too anxious or apathetic to attend lectures, then you feel guilty. When you feel guilty, you might fall behind on work and miss more lectures. When that happens, it might then spread to your social life, and you’re suddenly too busy, too ill, or too tired to go out to the club with your friends. Before you know it, you’ve gone two weeks without seeing anyone you care about, and it feels like all the progress you’ve had so far at university has gone to waste. This is what I’m talking about with the snowball effect – it is impossible to separate mental issues with social issues and academic issues.
I personally believe that the lack of outlets in a person’s life is what, too often, causes these problems to occur at university. All too often we are caught up in trying to appear cool, confident, and collected that we are unwilling to open up for fear of appearing weak, needy, or attention seeking. Indeed, sometimes we believe we have no-one with whom we can truly talk, believing our friends are for when life is going well, and not for when it’s going terribly.
Further, the university itself often falls short of what is needed by many students.
Sure, they offer numbers to call if we feel we can’t cope – but how many students know they exist, and out of those, how many know the number? Sure, they offer a ‘wellbeing center’, but when it takes weeks just to arrange a phonecall, or a rigorous face-to-face meeting just to ascertain whether a person ‘deserves’ a counsellor, what good will this do in the short- or even long-term? Sure, there are fancy phrases about ‘caring’ and ‘being open’ and ‘willing to listen and help’, but when the university itself does little to nothing to actually show or encourage it, what motives do the students have to risk opening up? A lot of the time the student is too fearful to share with their friends or family, so what does a university spouting vague generalities expect to happen?
At the cost of sounding clichéd and worn-out, I have a few pieces of advice for anyone in a situation where they feel the walls are closing in, and things are starting to slip. First of all, find a person to open up to. If you have a best friend or, if you’re one of the lucky ones, a significant other, perfect. If not, then a coursemate you talk to, or a flatmate. If you don’t feel comfortable to take the leap (and trust me, sometimes you won’t), then get on the phone to your family members, worst case scenario is you have a chat with the people who love you most in the world and are dying to hear from you; best case scenario is that you get that crushing weight off your chest, and you have a permanent outlet for when things are overwhelming you. Further, occasionally force yourself to do things you know need to be done. Go out with your friends to that one party; go to that key lecture; go to that movie screening you secretly wanted to see. It doesn’t need to be a constant thing, just start off small – once a week, then eventually twice a week, then work your way up to doing more and more. I can attest that you will feel terrible beforehand, but during and after you will feel relief and, hopefully, confidence. Finally, tell the university. Even if it’s just going to one meeting in the Wellbeing Centre, it can mean a world of difference down the line when you have exams to sit or a deadline to meet.
“helping one person may not change the whole world, but it can change the whole world for one person”
And if you see someone in a similar situation to yourself, treat them as you would have others treat you. Don’t make them feel uncomfortable or self-conscious. Don’t force them to do things or go places if they genuinely don’t want to. And don’t try to get them to talk about their issues before they are ready – if they want to talk to you about it, they will. Having said this, do everything you can to make them feel welcome and wanted if they do decide to open up, and show them just how much they mean to you.
We are told that university is “the best time of your life”, and we know that it’s a lie, but I believe it’s a lie worth striving for, don’t you?bookmark me