I have to be honest, I didn’t always find my three years at University a breeze like some seem to. In fact, they were some of the hardest years of my life. Hence why I thought I would create a post (or three), about some of the things I wish I had known for those of you about to/ or currently at University. It can’t be all bad though… I’m going back in September!
According to their age, the stress placed upon them, and the lack of support available – students are at one of the highest risks of developing a mental health problem. Throughout my time at uni, I experienced some of the biggest changes within and regarding my mental health.
Arguably, I brought many of these issues with me TO uni, but there were plenty which was influenced by being at uni too. In those three short years, I received my Bipolar Type 1, OCD, and Agoraphobia diagnoses. I underwent a lot of different treatments and medications to address them. I experienced some of my worst side effects – all whilst trying to achieve a good grade, maintain friendships and relationships, have a social life and get enough sleep – rough huh?
Choosing further education is likely to bring a number of changes to your life – hopefully, most will be interesting and enjoyable! If you, like me, are living with a mental health problem – you might experience challenges with: leaving home, finding new housing and living with new people (sometimes strangers), maintaining old and new friendships and relationships, managing your own finances, coping with homesickness, meeting and working with new people – as well as the obvious academic pressure.
Therefore, simply knowing how significant these years are upon anyone’s mental health – especially those with mental illnesses, I would like to dedicate a series on my blog towards mental health and university.
PART ONE: THINGS I WISH I HAD KNOWN BEFORE I WENT TO UNIVERSITY WITH A MENTAL ILLNESS:
1. Have expectations, and then get ready for them to completely change! There is not a single person I have met at university, who didn’t agree that it is completely different from what they were expecting…
2. There is no time limit on how long it takes you to adjust to university – don’t worry if it takes you longer than others. It is going to be worth it.
3. Everyone is in the same boat as you. Honestly, despite how much better everyone seems to be doing than you, no one is. I have yet to meet a student who isn’t struggling with something – whether it is inside or outside of uni, everyone is just trying to find a way to get by.
4. If you are registering with a new GP, you will no longer be registered at home. Having a local GP is so necessary, especially if you are experiencing a mental health issue. However, you will only be registered in one place, so you will/ have to try and be a temporary resident when going home for the holidays if you require medical assistance.
5. Give yourself time to make friends. Don’t feel disheartened if it doesn’t happen right away. I myself found some of my greatest friends during my third year of uni – there is no right time. Quality over quantity with friends any day. Try something simple like leaving your door open so people can say hello or introduce yourself to the person next to you in a lecture.
6. Recognise that your mental health matters – over everything else. As important as uni feels, you will always come first. ALWAYS. You are your longest commitment, if it’s a decent uni – they’ll be flexible for you. You are human. Chances are, it seems a lot more daunting than it is, you CAN do it.
7. Make your space a safe space. If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a fair amount of time in your room – whether it’s relaxing or studying. Make it comfortable. Make it feel like home. Make it yours. Bring photos, take new ones!
As cosy as your room will be, try to spend some time outside of it. Your best friend could be living in the very next room. Leave your door open so people can pop in and say hi. The kitchen is the place to be.
If you’re just heading off to uni, choose your accommodation wisely – attend an open day to get a feel of it too. You can swap if you change your mind, it just might take a little while.
8. Be open about your story and experiences – it doesn’t make you less of a person. It makes people understand you better. I have been thanked by many people for talking so openly, they said it made it easier to talk to me and to talk about themselves. I have been told I have shown people it’s nothing to be ashamed about – which obviously, there isn’t. It shows you who will stick around and who is just there for show.
9. Go for walks. It will help to clear your head, get some exercise from sitting at a desk all day and get to know the new place you are living in now.
10. Exams are tough, yes, but you will cope. In the first year, it is important not to take it too seriously and burn out – the most important thing is to get to know whether the course is right for you and that you will pass it with 40% (based on a standard course, you may need to look into your specific course details).
Talk to your university about their additional exam arrangements and see if you are eligible for any. The additional arrangement rooms are usually quieter with fewer students requiring the services, which I found really helpful. Aim to collect all the information you can regarding the exams you’ll be sitting, as soon as possible. Confirm how you will be examined – which kind of assessment (written, multiple choice etc…). Look for past papers – learn the style of writing, compare questions over previous years, practice questions in timed conditions!
11. When you feel like quitting, think about why you started. You are wildly capable, don’t let it feel like you aren’t. Focus on the end goal.
12. Call yourself out on your procrastination. You are doing this for you, no one is forcing you. You don’t want to look back and know that you could have done better.
13. Strive for a good balance for study and life. You can do anything, but not everything. If you struggle with independent learning, try studying like a job. Set agreed hours to work and arrange breaks. Even reward yourself with treats!
14. It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop. I had to defer my exams, complete re-sits, extend nearly EVERY single piece of coursework I was ever set… but I still graduated with everyone else in my year – because I didn’t give up.
15. Just because your path is different, doesn’t mean that you are lost. Sometimes, taking time out of university, or doing things differently to others may be compulsory or voluntary – but usually necessary. You don’t need to do what everyone else is doing. I am such a sucker for comparing myself to people – especially those I admire. The whole time, I was constantly asking myself “why isn’t it that easy for me?” “why can’t I be like that?” “what have they got that I haven’t?”
Truth is, all those hours I spent comparing, it never got me any closer to an answer. When I started to celebrate my own little achievements, my whole outlook changed. I was so tough on myself that I had to defer exams and apply for extensions – thinking it made me less of an able student.
But it was the best decision I ever made. I knew I couldn’t have carried on during those times, I needed to recover. I went from having “2” and “18” as grades – to firsts and 2:1s when I gave myself time. When I moved back home whilst struggling, I achieved 3 of my best grades. Moral of the story: you cannot pour from an empty cup.
16. Make your time meaningful. These years may be tough, but they are like no other – make them meaningful. Find your circle, however big or small, and make some wonderful memories. Have nights you won’t remember and days you won’t forget. Even though I didn’t get drunk once, at uni, I still have so many treasured memories and stories I can tell.
17. Don’t bring clothes if you know you won’t wear them – you are provided with such limited storage as a student, fill it with things you love. If you have fallen out of love with something – donate it!
18. Sleep, and sleep well. Everything will seem better in the morning.
19. Write down stuff when you think of it. When I was writing my dissertation, I would constantly get random ideas on the bus home. But! I would forget them by the time I went to sit down and start anything. So, I created a note page on my phone, for when these random ideas popped into my head. There is no such thing as too organised.
20. Struggling with motivation? – My trusty trick when I’m lacking motivation, but I have work I need to do is to do “an hour on, fifteen minutes off” – and repeat! Getting started is always the hardest part. But, with this technique – you know that a break is coming soon, there are fewer distractions because of the condensed time. You can make sure that you stretch, top up on a drink, grab a snack – therefore looking after yourself whilst studying! During exam time, my flatmates and I would discuss what we had learned within that hour to solidify our understanding further too!
21. Keep your kitchen sink clean, trust me.
22. Never stop looking for help. Don’t give up. Don’t try to hide what you are going through. You don’t need a good reason to seek help or talk to someone. Check up on yourself and others regularly. Mental illnesses are so common around campus – you are not alone. So, be kinder than you feel, most people are struggling too.
23 It is normal to feel down, anxious or stressed from things which happen in your life – but if it affects your daily life or your academic work/ if it doesn’t seem to be getting better = seek help.
24. The only way to pass a test is to take it. The test is inevitable, but you cannot achieve without it.
25. Start now, not tomorrow. The earlier you start working on something, the earlier you will see results. Do what you have to do until you can do what you want to do.
26. Mistakes are proof that you are trying. Remind yourself regularly that no one has their shit together – especially when you feel like you are the only one who is struggling.
27. Give yourself breaks – even if it feels like you have a million things to do. Make time for self-care and things you find fun, put yourself first!
28. Know about the resources before you need them. Don’t struggle to find help whilst you are struggling! I have created a page full of resources here. Try and talk to someone about issues which are bothering you, before they become a problem for you! Please use resources when you need to, that’s what they are there for.
29. The first draft of anything is always shit. Don’t be discouraged.
30. Don’t try to hide what you are going through.
31. It’s hard but try not to compare your life to what someone else is posting on Facebook or Instagram… everyone likes to show their best days, not their every day – most of it is for show.
32. Develop a rapport with your Personal Academic Tutor and Dissertation Supervisor – I’ll be honest, my PAT and I didn’t get on for a while. She thought I was another lazy student until I told her I had bipolar. Then for both of us, it just clicked. I realised there were ways she could actually support me and she realised that something greater than a lack of effort was hindering me. Towards the end, she was one of the most useful support systems I had at uni.
33. Don’t be afraid to change – change modules, change courses, change friendship groups, change where you live, change your personality, change your relationship status. Your happiness is so important.
34. Creating a study schedule – on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis can help you feel less stressed and more in control. Find out when your deadlines and assessments are – plan your time and prepare for your assessments in advice.
35. If you are thinking about changing your treatment or medication plan, consider delaying it to over the summer. Sometimes medication changes have to happen, and they can’t be delayed. But be a driving force in your treatment, as you are the ones who will have to live with it when you leave the doctors. Do what is right for you. But try to avoid big changes occurring during your studies when you have enough going on.
36. Of course, it is hard, it’s supposed to be. If it were easy, everyone would do it and it wouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg to do it! So, never give up on a dream because of the time it’ll take to accomplish – that time is going to pass regardless. Fill it.
37. Call your family. It feels like you’re so busy all the time, that you often forget their lives are passing by too.
38. If you can’t explain it simply – you don’t know it well enough.
39. Don’t let FOMO (fear of missing out) rule your life – it is okay to say no. In fact, I encourage it! Set your boundaries. Learn to say no without explaining yourself. There will always be a next time. If you don’t drink – there are plenty of ways to join in on the fun. If you do drink, have fun! Just make sure that is what it is – fun.
40. Prepare mental health necessities before you arrive. This might include medication, medical notes from the previous GP, proof of diagnosis, DSA approval if applicable, pill pots, self-care things. It’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared when changing GP and psychiatrists, as each may offer different treatment than what you received at home.
41. If you receive a lot of prescriptions each month, invest in an NHS Medical Card. From the very start of my time at university, I was constantly changing medications or levels of medication. One month my prescription would have been £60. Who can even afford that anyway?! An NHS Medical Pre-Payment Card costs £100 for the whole year, and you can use it as many times as you need! Bargain!!!
42. Keep an eye on which substances you are using. During difficult and stressful times, you may be tempted to drink more or take drugs. If you are predisposed to mental illness it is important to consider how this may make you feel in the longer term. An underlying mental disorder could be worsened by extensive drug and alcohol use, it can also impact the performance of medications. I’m not trying to be a party pooper, just it has more effect than people realise – whilst people may believe it is making things better for them, the reality may be it’s making it worse.
43. Plan your healthcare in advance. If you are receiving treatment for a mental health issue and register with a new GP – the support may change. You might have to go through assessments again and be offered a new treatment plan. Speak to your current GP about how medical notes will/ can be transferred, what they can do to ensure your new GP understands your medical needs, review meds which can affect your studies, ask/ pay for a medical history letter to give to your new GP to speed the process up.
What are some things you wish you knew before you went to university?