Since I’ve been in Birmingham with my brother and his girlfriend this weekend, it gave me a chance to get away from the uni environment. Whilst I do genuinely love it at Edinburgh, 6 weeks in I was starting to feel in need of a change of scenery. That, and I also wanted to spend some quality time with some close family. So, this mini-escape has been the perfect opportunity to reflect on the all important topic if Mental Health at University, my own experience and opinions.
World Mental Health Day
On Wednesday, it was World Mental Health Day. A fantastic opportunity to speak up about it, diminish the taboo surrounding it and show solidarity to others. And, crucially, encourage the conversation to carry on throughout the year. I’ve spoken about mental health – more specifically, eating disorders – in the past, but now I want to address it in the context of University.
Mid-semester marker & mounting stress levels
I’m (crazily) already six weeks into my first semester. This means that I’m almost halfway through, and so am definitely used to my routine and lifestyle here. The workload is also starting to steadily pile up, and I’ve been set my first proper assignments which constitute 30% of my final grade for this year 😬. I’m naturally the type to stress about things (more than necessary), so this has definitely impacted me mentally. Now that I’m aware of this, I’m making a conscious effort to tune into my emotions and find the root of any low moods, which I’ve compiled into a list below.
Although I’m not a particularly homesick person, it’s inevitable that such a drastic change in environment is going to lead to varying degrees of homesickness in everyone. Factors such as distance from home (Brighton to Edinburgh is quite far 😅), proximity to relatives, stress, personality/ personal issues and fatigue all impact how acutely you’ll feel it too. Crucially, there is NOTHING to be ashamed about. The best way I can think of describing it is like the tide. Similar to the ebb and flow of the waves, homesickness sometimes creeps up on you and seems to drown out everything else. Conversely, other times it’s just background noise, the distant lapping of waves on the shore. Sorry for getting all metaphorical (can you tell I’m and English literature student?), but I hope that it’s a useful analogy for some of you!
Anyway, tide aside, homesickness can seriously affect your mental health. You feel lonely, isolated, as though you have no one to support you. Whilst these may not actually be true, they feel very real. When homesickness comes crashing in and I feel overwhelmed, I’ve found running with the Haries (my XC club) to be the most soothing activity. The combination of sport, the endorphins released and the good company make me feel “at home” again, surrounded by people who have come to mean so much to me. Cheesy but true 😉
Sorry for stating the obvious (again), but Uni is a huge change – especially in terms of the style of learning and studying. I’m a pretty self-motivated person, but I definitely struggled to get used to the lack of structure, both in terms of teaching and timetabling. I average 2 hours of class a day, except for Thursday where I have 3, which doesn’t sound like much. And it really isn’t. But it’s up to you to organise when/ where/ how you’re going to do your reading. It’s up to you to factor in sport, socials, food shopping, laundry, downtime, and everything in between. You have to budget, cook, clean… all things which add up and take up time.
Suddenly the day doesn’t feel so long! It can be so easy to fall behind, especially when the reading lists are so long (don’t get me started on “core”, “recommended”, “further” and “online” reading 😂). Again, it quickly becomes pretty overwhelming. With very little contact time with your tutors, it can be hard to know who or where to for help. Your relationship with them isn’t like with your teachers at college, where you see them daily and (hopefully) feel like you can ask them for more support.
My looming essay-deadlines are scaring me, because we’re given virtually no support in how to research/ structure/ approach them. But I guess that’s all part of the process of independent learning, and it will make me more resilient in the long run. However, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s all too easy to feel like a failure at University. I know I’ve been psyching myself out recently, as have my flatmates (love you guys 😉). What’s helped me feel less overwhelmed and inadequate has been talking to my coursemates and friends. Generally speaking, everyone feels the same way – a bit aimless, confused and lost. Safety in numbers though, right? Hanging out with friends, going out (within reason), taking time out for yourself will all help to keep things in perspective. After all, first year is mostly about finding your feet.
3. Clubbing culture
I touched on this topic in my 2-part “Freshers Experience” series, but I want to go into it in more depth here. One of the things that intimidated me about the prospect of going to Uni was the prominent clubbing culture. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good boogie and social. However, in first year especially, the pressure to go clubbing isn’t just a “freshers week” reality. It doesn’t simply end when the welcome week does. Instead, there are events throughout the year and clubs open every night. People have pres (which are drinks before going out for non-British people), flat parties, go on pub crawls. There’s so much going on, it’s impossible not to get involved.
But by the same token, it’s impossible not to feel overwhelmed. Everyone is unique and can handle a different number of nights out per week. Some people don’t enjoy your stereotypical “night out”, but would rather go to a pub or attend a potluck. Others have sporting commitments which mean they don’t drink, so clubbing isn’t the most fun for them. Despite all this, it’s easy to feel inferior if you don’t/ rarely “go out”, per se. Social media perpetuates this pressure to party all the time, as there will be photos & stories every night documenting their “amazing” time. However, these are only snapshots into people’s experience. Often, they probably are loving it – but not always! I spoke to some people who said they thought there was something inherently “wrong” with them for not enjoying drinking and/ or clubbing. It can seem like you’re the only one who feels that way. But the truth is, you most definitely aren’t! Personally, I average 2-3 nights out a week (Wednesdays, Fridays and/or Saturdays). If I have a race, I won’t go out Friday. I don’t go out the nights when I have a 9am the next morning, and rarely go out after training (Tues/ Thurs).
I’m lucky in that my flatmates are completely non-judgemental, and sometimes we all go out together, other times it’s just me/ someone else, and at times we’re all in. And if anyone ever does try to encourage me to go out when I really don’t want to, rather than think I’m disappointing them, I remind myself that it’s my choice, not theirs. It can help having an excuse up your sleeve too for those occasions where you don’t want to “let anyone down” (although you shouldn’t feel this way). Saying I have a 9am, a race, an assignment etc usually get any persuasive friends off my back! I’m not ashamed to say that I lie sometimes too 😂 But remember, you do you. If you want to go out, then do! And if you don’t, please try not to internalise the idea that you’re not being a “proper student”. It’s your life and your University experience, so make the most of it in whatever way you want to!
I hope the tone of this piece hasn’t been too sombre, because the reality is, I’m loving uni, as I’m sure many people are. Sometimes, though, no matter how hard you try, it might not be right, and that’s okay too. Uni drop out rates are pretty high because settling in / finding your feet is so hard. If your mental health really is sinking under it all, please don’t suffer in silence.
Most universities have started becoming a lot more proactive with mental health-related issues. There are societies, campaigns, events, counsellors etc provided and run by the uni to help when you’re struggling and need support. It might seem scary to put yourself out there and ask for help, but that’s the first step to making things (even if only a little) better. University is fast paced, full of highs and heaps of fun. But remember, it’s also mentally and physically draining. Take care of yourself and don’t let things break you down.
With that, I want round this post off. I hope you found this interesting and insightful, and I’d love to hear your own thoughts/ experiences. I’m always here for a chat too if you are struggling and need a supportive ear 💖