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September, 03, 2013

How to do University with Depression

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Name: Joel Tennant
Member of: Student Panellist
Joined: Jul 2013
Joel's Full Profile

If you, like me, have the same insane notion that I began my university career with, a thorough determination to learn (rather than drink and have sex with almost everything in a mile radius), then it is not a wasted one. Yes, I have thrown up at uni, it was a delicate mixture of cider and instant noodles, I’ve stumbled home in the early hours of the morning, I’ve laid out on a dew-covered lawn staring at the stars discussing life with strangers – and I’ve smoked some things… The aim of gaining a ‘healthy’ balance of partying and education though shouldn’t seem too hard – you have free will, use it – but what complicated matters for me was when I was diagnosed with social anxiety and depression half way through my first year.

Depression

Photo by Anjan Chatterjee

I remember Fresher’s Week very well. The large majority of it I spent in my room, my box-set of Friends at hand, whilst avoiding my new flatmates at all costs. I was lucky in many respects to be in the more modern accommodation on campus, not only were our rooms and kitchens large, clean and not infested with sexual disease or bubonic rats, but I could also get away with ignoring the chaos going on outside. I of course did go out, as I have already alluded to, and I still remember the bar crawl I went on in the first week, making friends with a kid who referred to himself as “Northern Paul” (which, in the South East of England, was presumably considered safer than allowing people to find out for themselves) and finally making my way back to accommodation, glad to be done with a night of socialising. Some anti-climactic nights of pre-drinking and clubbing later, I found myself having something I later found out was a panic attack, curled up in the corner of my en-suite bathroom (a very middle class panic attack, perhaps).

Depression

Photo by Rachel Carter

Over the coming weeks and months I was to be found not sleeping more than three or four hours at a time, using the kitchen at 1am so as to avoid being seen or spoken to, drinking alone and in worrying quantities, and finally missing seminars and lectures because facing the outside world was just too much. I made few friends, I stored my food in my room so as to avoid having to cook alongside people, and I spent almost every night alone, listening to music and playing games online with headphones on, so no one would know I was in my room at all. The night I spent alone, drunk and not wanting to wake up the next day was the night I realised something was wrong. The following day I rang the on-campus medical centre.

Depression

Photo by Leo Hidalgo

Despite the myth that doctors just want to medicate everyone, in my experience, this is just not true. In fact, it was some weeks after that initial appointment that I finally had to request to be put on anti-depressants. I began counselling, a weekly event in which I spent more time trying to downplay my feelings rather than discuss them, and I began to email lecturers and seminar leaders explaining why I was so seldom in their classes.

A lot of people refer to depression and anxiety as solely a mental illnesses, but that never helped me, I wasn’t concerned about the medical definition – what helped me was viewing it as an addiction. Like smoking – or, to use a more culturally relatable issue, vampirism – you need to feed the monster inside to keep it alive. Since that realisation, starving my depression, shoulder-barging my social anxiety as I walk out of my student house, is on every To Do list that I write myself.

Depression

Photo by Alessandra

University should be fun. I know of no other environment that allows so much freedom to express yourself and to be who you have always wanted to be. I have so far learnt during this unpredictable and incredible two years that you never know what is coming next and that conforming to what you think society wants you to be is the last thing you should do. I now inform lecturers of the issues I face before my first lecture with them, and I get more support from staff than I could have ever imagined possible – empathy, all without having to get drunk and wake up in a field with a curious selection of empty alcohol containers and tired farmyard animals.

Depression

Photo by Josef Grunig

There’s no magical cure, but mental illness isn’t a curse either. If you’re considering going to university, or you’re already there, don’t let your fears or worries overcome you, talk about them, and don’t stop until you get every bit of support you need.

These have been my experiences and everyone is different, there is no way to understand what it is truly like to be someone else. However, since publishing this on my own blog, I’ve discovered that many of my friends have to wrestle with similar problems every day, our lives are markedly different yet we aren’t alone in a that uphill slog towards happiness – and I’d like to think there’s strength in numbers, wouldn’t you?

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15 Comments

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  1. Ben Sullivan

    You sir are a bloody trooper!
    I am still at university and dealing with this stuff on a daily basis! I regular visit a “mental health” clinic to talk through my problems and it’s finally took me till my 3rd year to do this.
    I recommend anyone who suffers from this, do Joel suggests and just talk to someone. It’s hard at first but I am no longer sat in my room, clutching my quilt and crying myself to sleep, I am out there in the world making something of my final year :)
    I’m not anywhere near back to my normal self but I would never wish to go backwards! If anyone wants to talk to even me, please do message us :) more than willing to chat!
    Joel, keep it up buddy!

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  2. Sal Price

    I find it difficult to get out of bed some days and because I do drama I sometimes have difficulty keeping my sleeves down due to self harm, I feel bad for not being able to do work sometimes because of my severe depression.

    *sigh*

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  3. Sedanur Arslan

    I agree, but i got a problem with my laziness…wish i can find cure for tht :)

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  4. Emily

    THANK YOU SO MUCH! Keep going x

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  5. francis johnson

    Is a hard feeling

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  6. marie

    It was my lecturer that revealed to me that I have depression, and so was made to go to the doctors and provide a doctors note to prove I had been. I agree with everything that you have said here – you shouldn’t hide away. As soon as you start doing that, something is wrong. Well done for tackling this.

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  7. j

    Great article. And I agree with most of the comments. I was diagnosed half way through my second year with anxiety and depression, it took me over a year to go to the medical centre. I hadn’t been sleeping or eating much, and after a visit and my parents saw how I had changed, they made me promise I would go. I had been telling myself that I was just too weak or chicken to deal with life, and that that was my own fault, and I shouldn’t waste doctors times with stuff like that. I still struggle with that sometimes. I started getting more support at uni, but it felt like it was just scratching the surface with these limited sessions on the NHS. I managed to finish uni with help from family and a couple of friends. Some years later, having been back at home struggling with the depression, I decided to get back on the horse and do a post grad. This was a PGCE, known for it’s intensity, and I wasn’t coping. I lasted about two months, before I was advised to leave as my health was more important as they said. Once things got that bad, then staff were more empathetic and supportive. Before then I felt I could just’ve well been invisible. The medical centre was so small and there was rarely anyone to talk to, despite drop in sessions being advertised. Best way forward seemed to be to lose the mental illness and ‘be normal’, in order to succeed, but of course depression is not just a hat you put on and take off as you please. I left university and went back home, got more medical help. I have now moved out, got my own place, and starting some courses to get the ball rolling again. What I want to say is, nobody fits into any boxes called ‘normal’, health is complicated, and our lives often don’t pan out as we expect them to. If you hit bumps along the way, have to drop out of uni or take a break, or have to have support and medication, it doesn’t make you any less of a person. Depression and anxiety take their toll, so give yourself some credit for carrying on and battling through. One day at a time, onwards and upwards, and indeed strength in numbers. No one is alone, despite how we feel, there is always someone there. Find them, support eachother. Sufferers are the best people to understand where you are and where you’re coming from.

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  8. Karl Faux

    Dont feed that monster.. very good philosophy

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  9. Lucia Widdop

    Great article, as a student who suffers with panic attacks it’s an awful feleing and it does leave you feeling very isolated and alone, thanks for this, it’s nice to know there’s support available and the fact that there’s other people that understand what it’s like.

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  10. Frankie

    I do agree, but what if it’s too hard to talk about? I’m scared of my university medical centre, and everyone here is too judgemental to actually open up to, at the same time…if I go home I don’t think I’ll ever come back to uni and obviously I’m here to further my education.

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    • Joel Tennant

      Medical Centres, simply by their name, are daunting, so I think I can sympathise. I put on a rather business-like attitude when I go in there, like I’m requesting a product or a service, which I kind of am. Often when I saw a doctor about my anti-depressant medication or therapy, I’d smile my way through it like it wasn’t hard at all. It’s difficult to talk about this thing that’s bubbling up inside, day and night, as if you understand what’s going on when you really don’t think you can understand it.

      What I’ve learned – my final counselling appointment is in two days, after all – is that therapists and counsellors aren’t expecting you to explain what’s going on in your head with any clarity. I still can’t say exactly what’s going on, but the one thing I have achieved is that I don’t feel like I’m carrying a life story of bad events and memories around with me any more.

      Talking about it is terrifying. If you struggle, do it in little bits. And sadly, there are many people who aren’t worth your time trying to make them understand how you feel, and the people who are seem to be impossible to find. But they are there and they seem to pop up out of nowhere when you least expect it.

      Out of all the friends I’ve made at uni (a very small number, I’ll admit), I’ve found a couple who understand what’s been happening to me and they’ve been a great help. But for me, the talk therapy, the counselling, has been what has truly lifted me up out of those horrible pits of depression and anxiety that I suffer with. If you feel like you can, take that jump, go arrange counselling or pour your heart out to a doctor. It doesn’t matter if they don’t seem sympathetic, some just seem very stoic to me, but then you’ve done something, you’ve taken that first step.

      It’s a matter of little victories that you win over depression, and when you look back, you have always come further than what you thought you’d travelled.

      Face-to-face isn’t for everyone, so people like the Samaritans are immeasurably good at getting you talking. Google them :)

      Good luck, things will work out for you.

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  11. Laura Shackleton

    Great article that really shows the less boozy and exciting side to University.

    If anyone does struggle with anything like this please keep in mind, the Mind charity.

    The service provides groups that aim to help things such as Anxiety and Depression.

    Working here and knowing I will be going to Uni and facing problems such as this after this gap year, it’s great to know there are services such as this to help.

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  12. Sophie

    Great article. I know a few people who have suffered in a similar situation to them. However, it was their parents who realised and made the decision to bring them home for some much needed TLC. I agree with the previous comment that not all unis were this supportive for genuinely introvert students who probably slip under the radar completely.

    It’s great that you’re writing about it though. I’ve witnessed a lot of people go through some kind of emotional turmoil/stress and find they have no one to turn to.

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  13. M

    Unfortunately there is an assumption that people will just “make friends” easily. That’s not the case for everyone. There should be a lot more help for people who struggle in those areas, especially for post-grads, who are largely forgotten.

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  14. C

    Unfortunately some universities aren’t as helpful as the one you attended.
    Asking for help is extremely difficult and I have seen friends drop out because staff have little to no understanding of the struggles of those suffering from depression and other mental illness. These struggles are not only being able to get to class, but also managing personal finances and living situations.

    I feel that universities should be tackling the lack, or for some the perceived lack, of proper support for students less able to cope with the stress of university due to mental health in a more visible and proactive manner.

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