University and my Mental Health

Before I begin the disjointed warblings of my second blog post I’d like to thank everyone for their feedback on my first ever post! I cannot even begin to describe how overwhelming it was to receive such fierce support from my amazing friends. I was genuinely terrified to post that first blog – especially as it came from such a place of loneliness and self-doubt. The relentless encouragement people gave me has made me feel so much less isolated and gave me an overpowering sense of hope, not just for the improvement of my own mental health, but for the attitudes of people towards mental health in general – and I mean that with deep sincerity.

My brain has been tick-tocking long and hard trying to decide what my second blog post should be about and I have decided to begin by writing about where my most recent decline in mental health has stemmed from. Obviously there were many factors that contributed, but in this post I’d like to concentrate on the one which I thought had the biggest affect on me: University. Last academic year was set to be my final year at University – I had always enjoyed my work and as a literature student I got to choose the majority of what I studied and nothing thrilled me more than sinking my teeth into a gritty Early Modern drama or an embittered epic poem. In my first two years at University I loved the work I did – I attended every lecture, devoured every book and delighted in the concocting of obscure interpretations of texts. I once wrote a whole essay on the significance of the hymen in renaissance drama, and I even wrote a piece on the character of Lady Macbeth and her relationship with the menstrual cycle (no I did not attribute her murderous rampage to PMT!). These whacky ideas served me well, I was proud of the results I was getting and most importantly I was content with the work I produced.

When third year began the stress levels hit new highs, and this was not unusual – all of my friends were facing the same challenges and everyone was finding the work load demanding. For me, I found third year to be shrouded in toxicity with little life/work balance. The fixation with work for many students like me became an unhealthy obsession and this is exactly the kind of environment in which mental illnesses thrive. It is no wonder that mental health problems are so common among university students. All anyone ever talked about was their Uni work, there was no switching off from it. In my head it became the be-all and end-all of my existence and soon I stopped looking after my health and it made me very ill.

After a careless comment from a lecturer that I had had always looked up to academically until fairly recently, that my achievement of a 2:1 in my first assignment of third year was not good enough and that they were ‘disappointed’ and ‘would have expected better’ from me, my mental health started to spiral out of control. My mood disorder seemed to cling to these words and prospered in their negativity. My already low self-esteem gave way to unadulterated self-loathing and I began to equate all of my self-worth with the results I got in my academic work. If my work wasn’t good enough then was I good enough?

It got to a point where I was so afraid of failing, disappointing my family and falling behind my peers, that my body physically wouldn’t let me keep going. Every time I opened my dissertation file on my laptop extreme anxiety would escalate into a panic attack; my heart would start palpitating to the point where I was worried it would give out on me, my whole body would shake, my stomach convulse and tears would flood from my eyes. This was of course not helped by the fact that these panic attacks were, more often than not, in public spaces. They often occurred in the library or some other university building where handfuls of students would be staring at me – some with genuine concern and some with derision. This would happen to me at least once or twice a day. I felt like I was completely losing my mind – and in front of an audience no less! I no longer felt in control of my body or my emotions and I would spend a lot of my time refusing to leave the safety and isolation of my bedroom.

Finally, with only a few months to go before finishing University for good, I made a decision that I will always stand by – the decision to take a leave of absence from my studies. This was a scary decision to have to make and was not made any easier by the constant comments from my peers, friends, lecturers and family who all felt in necessary to point out that it was ‘such a shame’ that I was dropping out so close to the end of my studies. As if I didn’t feel enough of a hopeless failure! Although the suggestions that I ‘just keep trying’ made me feel small and angry – (could people not see how hard I had been trying already?!) I realize that this came from the lack of understanding of mental health that is so deeply embedded in our society – the British mantra of ‘keep calm and carry on’ still, apparently, reigns true. Unfortunately this popular way of thinking did not change how broken I felt inside. I have resolved not to blame people for thinking this way – it is a fault that lies with society and should not be seen as a reflection on any individual. Instead I hope that by writing this blog as honestly as I can I will be able to give people an insight into what it is like living with a mental illness because if you haven’t faced one yourself it’s not easy to understand – and that is okay. But for these people I will say this – please try and educate yourselves more on the subject because one day it could be you or your loved ones that are affected and having a better understanding of mental health will make it that little bit easier to cope.

Thankfully I am in recovery now, my panic and anxiety have improved drastically compared to a few months ago with thanks to regular sessions of cognitive behavior therapy and medication. I am still working on getting better and I still find it incredibly difficult to do my university work but I’m hoping to graduate maybe in the summertime if I can and if not, you know – I don’t think I care! There so much more important things in life than a university degree and I am determined to keep working on getting better so I can start enjoying my life again and focus on what really matters. My self worth does not equal my academic merits and I am determined not to continue thinking in this harmful way.

In a blog post coming soon I will be writing in greater detail about my ongoing recovery this time round, so if you are interested please keep reading!

Wishing you all good mental health!

A

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