As you may or may not know, I’m a student. I’ve done one year of university so far, and I still have another 3 to go (including a year abroad – eek!). I spoke to one of the professors in my department (no, don’t worry I haven’t turned American on you, he is an actual professor) and he made a remark about how there should be a guide to being a student with depression. That has stuck in my head, and so I’m going to tell my own story, and describe the problems I’ve faced, and how I have dealt with them.
For someone with depression, the prospect of moving somewhere where you know nobody, and having to live with strangers is terrifying. I would imagine this would be a difficult time for anyone, with or without mental health issues. Also, the idea of going out drinking and partying every night for a week is something which excites many students, however for me it seemed very daunting.
Sometimes socialising is difficult. I found that the best thing I could do was be myself; socialise when I could, and not when I couldn’t. During my freshers week, everything was so busy that I didn’t really have time to be homesick, and I didn’t have too much time to dwell on feeling down or anxious. The best thing to do was to make as many friends as possible, and join in with as much as possible. The key words being “as much as possible”, rather than “everything”.
The actual course
9am lectures are horrible things. I’m sure 99.9% of students would agree with me on that. However, the issue of morning lectures becomes more of a problem when your sleep patterns are crazy. I had trouble sleeping for quite a while (turned out this was due to my medication but that’s another story), so waking up in the morning to get to a lecture at 9, 10 or even 11 seemed very difficult at times, particularly when my motivation was low. How did I cope with this? I set myself targets. If I get up and go to my lectures, I can go back to sleep afterwards. Or, I will go to at least 2 of my 3 lectures today. I tried to keep my attendance as high as possible, but there were times where I physically didn’t have the energy or motivation to leave my room. That’s the other thing I have learnt this year – if you don’t achieve all of your targets, that’s ok, just do your best.
Throughout the year there were a number of coursework tasks which I had to complete. Somehow, they always seemed to come at the worst possible time for me (moodwise). The best thing to do in that situation, I found, was to go and speak to a member of staff in my department (remember the professor I mentioned earlier?). I applied for and was given a week’s extension on one of my essays and lab reports. Although the extra time didn’t help me feel better, or concentrate any more, it took the time pressure off a bit, which meant that eventually I got it done. As a perfectionist, even as I’m typing now, my brain said “Yes but it wasn’t very good”, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, it was better than a 0 which I would’ve got for handing nothing in. Elephant 1 – Depression 0.
I also found it extremely helpful having close friends on my course. Of course these can be difficult to come by, but out of your whole course, there must be at least some nice people. (Turns out most people at my uni seem lovely!) I found I had to come out of my comfort zone and just talk to random people – everyone is in the same boat (not knowing anyone). Friends are brilliant for helping with stuff you don’t understand, being revision buddies, and also great sources of missed lecture notes!
Societies are another great way to make friends. If you’re a bit shy/anxious like me, it will take a lot of courage to go to a society’s meeting, but once you’ve done it you’ll have made friends AND be proud of your achievement. It’s also good because you’ll find people who are interested in the same things as you = more friends 😀
As a person who has occasional panic attacks, this could be challenging. Also, when feeling very low, going out was the last thing I wanted to do. After a while I found a solution: If I didn’t feel up to going out…*drum roll*…I didn’t go! It was an amazing revelation for me, as I tend to do what other people want me to do, for fear of letting people down. I found that if I said I didn’t feel up to it, my friends were understanding, they’d invite me to pre drink with them and say “we’d like you to come, but if you don’t feel like it, it’s fine”. This took some getting used to, as I have only recently realised I am a vertebrate – and by this I mean of course that I have the ability to do as I choose, and can say NO! (Rather than the fact that I have a spine, which is not a recent revelation.) Anyway, back to the topic…nights out could be fun, although I would often leave early, when I was no longer enjoying myself. The panic attack unfortunately reared its horrible head one night when I was out at my student union club. I found myself completely disorientated, hyperventilating and running to the doors to outside. I sat down and tried to calm myself down, and I was helped by some lovely strangers (I wish I had got to say a proper thank you to them). After this, when in crowds if I started to become anxious, I would simply remove myself from the situation – ie. move out of the crowd. Although I may have looked rather strange doing so, I prevented any more panic attacks, so it’s even at Elephant 1 – panic attacks 1.
I found generally that most people were very understanding; I had spoken to my housemates about my depression and anxiety, and they always (mostly) did their best to help when they could. I found that it was comforting to have someone in my house who I could trust, and speak to when I needed to. A lot of people don’t know what to say, but to be perfectly honest, without sounding ungrateful for the advice some people give, listening is the best thing they can do. On the flip side, saying “man up”, “cheer up”, “get over it” or any similar phrase is the worst thing they can do. – Luckily, I did not come across many people who’s comments fell into the second category.
It is also useful to acquaint yourself with some of the staff members of your department (Yes, you guessed it – again I am referring to that professor!). If they know you are suffering with any kind of illness, they are sometimes able to give you help (eg. deadline extensions and being less strict on your attendance record.) I was worried that I would be judged for having these problems, however I found the staff members I spoke to were very helpful, and I was certainly not the first to have spoken to them about these things. The worst thing is to try to handle everything by yourself; if no one knows about your problems, they can’t help.
Doctors, some of my least favourite people (in particular Dr Orr – but I’ll talk about him another time), can in fact be very helpful. Not only can they prescribe antidepressants, which I’ve heard work wonders for some people (not me, sadly) but they can offer you alternative treatments such as counselling. It’s good to see the same doctor each time, as they will grow to know you and your symptoms, and thus be able to help more. However, something I learnt this year, and need to put into practise when I go back to uni, is that if you don’t like your doctor (*ahem* Dr Orr), you can CHANGE DOCTORS. (It sounds simple I know, but like I said I don’t like letting people down, and didn’t want to appear rude.) Having seen this doctor for most of my first year, I have decided I will definitely see a different doctor next time, preferably female.
Counsellors can also be useful in your battle with mental health issues, and I think most (if not all) universities have a counselling service. The best thing about this (in my opinion) was that the waiting list was dramatically shorter than the NHS one (national health service to non-UK readers), which is – what can only be described as – utterly ridiculous. I haven’t found the right counsellor/type of counselling which suits me yet, but I’m hoping that in September I will be able to try something new, and it will help. Again, be honest, and if you don’t get on with your counsellor just ask for a different one.
Wow this has been a rather long post – sorry! I didn’t realise I had so much to say, and I could probably think of more, but shall save it for another day. As I wrote this, giving advice to other students (not that I am likely to have many people reading this), I found myself realising how I have been approaching things wrong. Turns out blogging is pretty good therapy!!