Yesterday, sat here working, with the television on in the background, an ITV news segment discussing mental health problems in university students caught my attention, so much so that I had closed my laptop and watched it with real interest.
A report has warned that university students with mental health problems are in danger of “slipping through the gaps” when they are at their most vulnerable.
It comes amid a continuing increase in the number of student suicides, showing that the number of young people dropping out of university with mental health problems has trebled in recent years, and calls for a more “joined up” approach to mental health care services, with schools, colleges, universities, voluntary organisations and the NHS working together to provide adequate support to students.
And sitting there, twenty years since I started university, it took me right back in time to my 18 year old self and the start of a life-long battle with my own mental health.
Because when I left home for the very first time at 18, and moved away to University, I was a very different person. Going from being a popular, out-going person with a large circle of friends and a long term boyfriend, I found myself just one of two girls on a corridor of boys in my Halls of Residence, feeling very alone, and as though everything had changed.
The first few weeks of university passed in a blur of Blue WKD, Bacardi Breezers and Reef, playing drinking games til 4am and dancing ’til our feet hurt. But pretty soon I found that I felt increasingly isolated, feeling as though I didn’t fit in amongst the two main groups in my particular faculty – the performing arts crew and the sports science bunch. I felt lost amongst the big characters in my seminars, questioning my own ability as a writer under such excruciating pressure, and I felt worlds apart from the sports science students, feeling completely inadequate, and believing that I would never fit in with their already closely formed friendship groups.
It’s hard to pinpoint a moment when I realised that I had become depressed, I guess at first I didn’t even realise. When I casually mentioned to others that I was feeling a little lost, I was told that it was perfectly normal to feel homesick, that everyone struggled to settle in at first, that my university years would be the best of my life. And I knew nothing other than to believe that.
And so I tried to carry on as normal. I made friends, juggled a messy break up with a new boyfriend, and stumbled my way through the first semester – partying, drinking, sleeping in late and skipping lectures. I sought comfort in the wrong places, looked for answers in empty bottles, and told myself that this was just a blip, that pretty soon I would settle and have the time of my life.
I wrote endless letters to all of my friends at universities spread across the country, desperate to appear happy and upbeat, and I relished every single reply, comforted by a glimpse of home and a life I had loved. And yet when I returned home for Christmas or Easter, instead of feeling relieved to be spending time with my friends as they told me their endless tales of how amazing university life was for them, it simply made me feel even more isolated that I didn’t feel the same way.
Eventually, in the final semester of my first year, I reached out to my personal tutor and told him that I was struggling. Having no registered doctor to speak to, and still unsure as to why I felt so sad, I was given an appointment to see the sole campus counsellor, 6 weeks from that date. I can still remember how the appointment had taken an age to come around, how I had ticked off each day on the calendar, trying my very hardest to stay afloat and failing, massively.
I will never forget how nervous I was as I walked into the counsellors office, terrified to say out loud all of the crazy thoughts in my head, worried about what the implications would be when I admitted how low I was feeling. And I will never forget how, after sobbing uncontrollably for the entire half hour, she had merely pushed a box of Kleenex towards me, patted me on the arm, and told me that it would all work itself out.
And that was that.
I’m not sure how I made it through the remainder of that first year, but when I returned home, with a bin bag of washing and a heavy heart, I was a shell of my former self. And whilst I plastered on a smile and tried my hardest to hold it together, I was hit by the realisation that everything had changed, and I would never be the happy, carefree young girl who had left home just 10 months earlier.
It was purely down to a fear of failure that I returned to university for my second year that September, moving into a shared house with three friends, and drinking myself into oblivion on that first night to drown my sadness. I felt paranoid around others, I was struggling in my relationship with my boyfriend, and completely over whelmed with the sudden influx of essays to write and deadlines to meet.
In no time at all I reached a point where the only way to deal with all of those feelings was to shut myself off, to stop replying to friends when they wrote to ask how I was doing, to phone home less and less, and to build up a wall to protect myself from everything, and everyone.
And my ex husband, for all of his faults, was a rock to me at that time. Looking back my heart breaks for that 19 year old boy, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, dealing with my issues, and bowing under the strain. Because the truth is, it was not his burden to carry alone, not his, not my friends, not mine, and I look back now and wonder how we even made it through.
It was only one night, when everything came to a head, when I genuinely wanted to go to sleep and never wake up, that I wrote my parents a letter, telling then how desperately unhappy I was. And, having received that letter, my Mum rang me two days later, sobbing down the phone as she asked me why I hadn’t told them sooner, and she said to me just three words which I’m pretty sure saved my life back then, “Just come home.”
And so I did, and, over the following years, under the care of my GP and a mental health support team, I started to regain some control over my life, find a way forward and eventually, return to my studies.
Looking back, I question why there had not been more support available to me at that time; why my university didn’t have a dedicated mental health care team in place; why, in retrospect, so many others in that same position had been failed in just the same way.
This week Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah stated that, whilst the University Mental Health Charter will go live in the next academic year (2019/20), we should be acting now – as institutions and as a society.
Because now, as a Mother, the idea of sending my children off to university to fend for themselves, perhaps hundreds of miles from home, is terrifying. I want to know that should they struggle with any aspect of university life, be that home sickness or mental health issues, that there is something in place which they are aware of, and that they can access, immediately.
And at 38 years old, having lived with mental health issues my whole adult life, I can’t help but wonder how my life would have panned out had I received the help I needed at a young age, with early intervention at university, and a support network that was easily, and readily, accessible.
When reading more about the increase in suicide rates amongst university students, the saddest quote of all came from the friends of a Bristol university student who took his own life, who simply said: “It shouldn’t have been left to us to shoulder the entire burden of our friend’s deterioration. That’s the part that really sticks with me, they left it in the hands of a bunch of 20-year-olds to manage this…”
And for that reason, I am backing the campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues in universities, whole heartedly.