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University can easily be the best years of your life, but it tests you

Wednesday 18-02-2015 - 11:34

To mark University Mental Health & Wellbeing Day (Wednesday 18 March), Bethan Phillips, a member of the Student Minds blogging team, opens up about her experiences of mental health during university. 

University can easily be the best years of your life, but it can also be an incredibly challenging time. Moving away from your family and friends, fending for yourself, trying to figure out how to use the industrial sized washing machine – it tests you. You’re bereft of the support network you had, and if you’re anything like me, you’re also trying to figure out who you are.

I started university fresh from a year of working and travelling, and as cringe-worthy as it is to say, I’m sure that leaving school and seeing some of the world changed me for the better. Regardless, I still felt completely out of my depth on my first day at university. I was bricking it when I woke up and it hit me that I was moving 140 miles away. I had all the fears of your average fresher – will I get on with my flatmates? What if I don’t like my course? How many vodkas can I drink before completely embarrassing myself?

Despite my worries, my first couple of weeks went smoothly, and I only embarrassed myself once. It was coming up to Christmas in my first year, however, that something I thought I had dealt with in the past resurfaced. Throughout my teenage years I had struggled with depression, anxiety and self-harm, to the point that I had pretty much accepted I’d never make it to university, let alone my 18th birthday. For whatever reason, the problems I thought I had banished in my year off came back with a vengeance, and I felt more alone than ever before. The friends I felt I could turn to were (according to Facebook) having the time of their lives at their own respective universities, and no longer were my parents there to notice if I missed class. I stopped going to lectures and seminars and struggled through the Christmas holidays doing far less revision than I should have. I found it strangely comforting to slip back into my old ways and began drinking by myself, finding it less embarrassing to buy cheap wine than boxes of plasters. The fact that my lectures weren’t compulsory and that during exam time we didn’t even have classes made it easy for me to hide away in my room for weeks.

Through my first and second year the depression and anxiety fluctuated, always peaking around Christmas time and inevitably impacting on my performance. I felt completely isolated, and more than anything terrified to speak out and ask for help. I’d felt more able to be open with my new friends than I had before, probably because I’d felt able to ‘start over’ by coming to uni and I decided I didn’t want to hide as much anymore, yet I still felt unable to tell my tutors or visit student support. I’d been briefly involved with CAMHS when I was younger, but the experience had left me jaded and distrusting with no desire to see another professional.


Things came to a head in my second year when I started feeling suicidal, and with shaking hands I typed out an email to student support asking to see a counsellor. When I got an email back with an appointment, I was terrified. I existed in a state of constant worry for days until I woke up the morning of my session feeling more nauseous than ever. I won’t sugar-coat it – I found my first experience of counselling incredibly uncomfortable and I couldn’t wait to get out, but the relief I felt just to hear another human being tell me ‘that must have been hard’ when I told my story and to have someone actually listen was liberating.


I attended three sessions with my university counsellor all together. The experience, whilst frightening, allowed me to feel more open about my mental health. I wrote a blog post for Time to Change about my experiences with coming out about my mental health and my sexual orientation. I met a girl who I fell in love with, and with her help went to the doctor to get help with my localised anxiety. I wouldn’t say I’m completely recovered, because I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that ever goes away, but I know now that if I feel myself falling, I can get help.

My experiences with mental health at university and my openness have, I think, helped to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness in the people around me. I’ve had friends ask me about my experiences of counselling at university because they’re thinking of making an appointment, and it’s surprising the number of times I’ve mentioned something about my own experiences only for another person to respond with theirs. I am a firm believer that mental health shouldn’t be something that is swept under the carpet and ignored, and that it’s purely an illness of the brain just like any other illness within the body.

I know how terrifying it can be to ask for help and admit that you think there’s something wrong to other people, but there is help out there. If you’re struggling with university work, there is no shame in applying for extenuating circumstances or visiting student support. Loads of universities around the UK hold support groups, have mental health teams, and courses on improving your mental health that are free to attend. I am not naïve, however, and I am aware that universities could still do more to help students when it comes to mental health – after all, leaving home can be stressful enough without having to consider changing GP and psychiatrist every time you leave and return from university holidays in an attempt to keep up your treatment.

The most important thing that we can all do when it comes to improving the perception of mental illness in the UK is to talk openly about it just like any physical illness, because there should be no difference between the two. It’s all too easy to just ignore a friend who consistently fails to show up to socials and lectures or who always seems down, but by reaching out and helping them to reach out to services, you could potentially save someone’s life. One of the biggest obstacles to people recovering from a mental health problem is the fear that they’ll be judged and pigeon-holed and written off if people find out ‘what’s wrong with them’ if they get help, and each of us has the chance to challenge that.

So if you only do one thing on University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day, have a chat with that one friend you think might be struggling. If you are that person, try and reach out to a friend or someone at your university. There’s no doubt that it can be a scary step to take, but the more people that take it, the less scary it’ll become, and there’s a real chance we can destroy the stigma surrounding mental illness.

University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day is an annual event to promote the mental health of those who live and work in higher education settings. To find out how to get involved in the day, and to find out more about the #IChoseToDisclose campaign, visit www.studentminds.org.uk/uni-mental-health-day.

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