“Going to University is the best thing ever”, “you’re going to have so much fun”, “honestly university was the best time of my life”, “enjoy it while it lasts because the real world is misery”. These are but a few of the remarks that people often said to me before going to university.
I, like many, was sold this dream of freedom, spare time, and relaxation with a mild element of work. What many do not speak of, nor boast about, is the stress, depression, isolation, loneliness and often periods of hopelessness that comes with being a student. I knew I was at university for a purpose; to work hard and get a degree that would ultimately get me a job I wanted. I also saw this as an opportunity to broaden my horizons through other means like meeting people from across the world, being part of projects I cared about and trying something I had never come across before (for instance my universities Quidditch society!). I saw university as a means of pushing myself outside my comfort zone.
Initially what I had been told was true. University was fun, exciting, and so much better than the real world. Soon however, reality hit. The reading piled up, essay deadlines cluttered my calendar and exams were just around the corner. It felt as though there was not enough time and the easy-going lifestyle I had been promised quickly evaporated.
I was fighting time itself, trying to utilise every last second of the day and pushing every productive fibre in my mind to the limit. Slowly but surely I began to shut myself away from the close friends I had made and the societies I enjoyed to appease the self-induced guilt and pressure I was feeling about my studies. I knew that what I was experiencing was not healthy, and that mentally I was burning out.
It was only, however, at a one-to-one with my seminar leader Francesca, where I made some joke about struggling with this particular course, that I recognised I was not alone in how I felt. Francesca, who at the time was studying for her doctorate, disclosed her battle with depression: an illness which had forced her to take time off from her postgrad for 6 months, knocked her confidence and at times had made her feel isolated from the world. Sitting there in the dimly lit concrete-walled seminar room, a wave of relief hit me. I had heard many brag about the “amazing” nights out they had, how easy it was getting a first on their essay, and generally how well they were coping with university. However, unlike most, Francesca was the first who was willing to disclose the not so perfect side of life at university, and this for once was a story I actually wanted, and needed, to hear.
Don’t get me wrong, university for a lot of people is the best thing ever, and at times it’s easy to see why. Nevertheless, we have to take into account those people for whom this is not the case. For starters, there needs to be better support in universities for those who have mental illnesses; an environment that encourages openness among students. We also need to stop trying to perpetuate this hyper-reality that everything is fantastic, amazing and wonderful, all the time.
If you find that you can relate to this article and find yourself struggling to cope with the huge burden and demands that university can place on your mental health, this article from the charity Student Minds might be helpful.