First published in The Huffington Post 13th August 2013
I was depressed at university. I have friends who were depressed at university. Depression is the most common mental health problem in the UK, occurring in a fifth of adults, according to research by the Office of National Statistics. So why still is this admission accompanied by a sense of shame? I’m almost curling my toes in embarrassment as I write this, wanting to add some amusing disclaimer, like ‘I’m not nuts really’, as though I need to make up for the fact that I’ve suffered from a mental illness. Ideally however, shame and silence should have no place in a discussion about depression.Starting university can be a stressful time for everyone, regardless of whether or not your serotonin receptors are doing what they’re supposed to. Between high academic expectations, a daunting workload, living away from home for the first time and various financial worries exacerbated by the hike in tuition fees, it’s easy to feel adrift and unprepared. Worse still though, is the nagging sensation that it is weak or stupid to feel depressed during a time of freedom, fun and new friends. However, belittling the illness does nothing to improve the situation and can actually discourage people from seeking treatment. You wouldn’t expect someone with a broken bone or a viral infection to ‘just cheer up’ or ‘pull themselves together’, and depression shouldn’t be taken any less seriously.I’ve detailed a couple of ways to feel better while studying that were relevant to my own experiences, and perhaps the most important of these involves refusing to isolate yourself. Making connections with others and getting involved in social activities, even if you just feel like hibernating beneath your duvet for the next year, is a good way to combat chronic low mood. Sometimes it’s a real struggle, and you might feel like you’re trapped behind a wall of glass, watching the people around you have an amazing time, but don’t get disheartened. The prevalence of depression means that more of your university peers will have experience of the illness than you might expect. Give your friends the benefit of the doubt when wondering whether or not to share your feelings.
During my first year, I experienced a lot of academic doubt when I realised that I was on a course with lots and lots of other people who were much better at my subject than I was. I was used to consistently gaining top marks, but in the more expansive world of higher education, this was not always the case. Initially, I felt hopeless and wanted to give up, but by reaching out to course mates and vocalizing my worries I quickly found out that I was by no means the only one having this difficulty. I began to see university not as a tooth-and-nail struggle to be the best, but more as an opportunity to learn from others around me. Feelings of inadequacy are common, particularly when there is a great deal of pressure to succeed. Your personal tutor is responsible for your pastoral care and is a good first port of call here. They genuinely don’t want you to feel academically insecure!
I found that the student lifestyle itself was actually pretty good for creating conditions in which depression can flourish, particularly in terms of alcohol. Students are notorious for their high levels of alcohol consumption and lots of society activities revolve around drinking, particularly in sports clubs. Alcohol is a well-known depressant and can have a significant impact on your mood. My point here is not that you shouldn’t drink at university or that going teetotal cures depression, but that a more balanced lifestyle is helpful in terms of regulating mood. When I reduced my drinking, I definitely noticed a change. A balanced approach to food and sleep, factors that can become pretty disrupted as a student, is also helpful. A friend on my MA course candidly describes his poor diet, vitamin D deficiency and ‘numbing routine’ involving alcohol as contributing to his depression in an obvious way.
All universities have support services that cater for a variety of different needs, including Nightlines and campus counselling services. Utilize them! It can be helpful to try several mediums of support before you choose the one that is the ‘best fit’ for you. Services do vary between universities, as one of my course mates describes his experience as ‘farcial’ due to very long waiting lists and others are very positive about their interactions with campus counsellors and GPs at university practices. It may seem like the biggest and most obvious cliché out there, but don’t feel like you’re alone. Depression is an illness that feeds on loneliness and silence. Don’t give it the satisfaction of either.