Bethany Woodhead opens up about the balancing act of student life and mental illness
Did you know that 75% of young people with mental health problems are not receiving treatment, and that the average wait time for effective treatment is 10 years? Coupling this shocking statistic with another, it is estimated that 30% of students live with some form of mental illness. Considering the facts, it’s no wonder there has been a 210% increase in university drop-outs in the past five years.
I’m a first-year student who happens to fall into the percentile of “students with mental illnesses.” It was only in my last year of sixth-form college that I really felt I was getting the support I needed – both in school and out of it. This is despite the fact that I was formally diagnosed at 14 and have been in and out of various mental health support systems ever since. So, moving almost 200 miles from home, away from what little support I had and into a new city – completely alone – was certainly a daunting process. Whether you’re a first-time fresher or a returning postgraduate, mental health problems can arise at any time.
Lecturers, as lovely and supportive as most try to be, have likely never met you before. As I sit among a mass of strangers, surrounded by the archaic grandeur of Bute Hall, with its philosophers and scientists decorating the windows, reminding me over and over again how inadequate I currently feel, it truly hits home how anonymous I am. This lecturer doesn’t know me. They can’t pick me out of the crowd or pick up on the days that I’m not okay and need that extra little push. Besides, how do I condense years worth of pain into a short, awkward, formal email? At university there is no hand-holding. It is up to me to seek the help I need, which is made even harder when most staff only have one half-hour office slot per week.
It’s not just about letting the “adults” know what is going on with you. Opening up to your peers can be just as difficult. Especially during Freshers’ Week, when it is drilled into you that you will find those “friends-for-life”, with whom you are about to share the next four years of blood, sweat and tears – and probably one too many bevvies. Due to the stigma surrounding mental health, it’s not exactly something you declare upon first meeting strangers. Set the scene: you’re standing in the line outside GUU, the music from within vibrating through the walls as drunken freshers covered in piss, pints and paint tumble out of the doors, screaming with laughter. You turn to the person next to you and go through the mandatory three-question rule: “Hi, my name is X; I come from Y; and I’m studying Z. Oh, and by the way, I’m mentally unwell!”
Mental illness is an invisible disease. With physical illnesses, your daily problems and struggles are often immediately obvious and people are aware of what extra support you’ll need as their friend. For people like me, it’s much more different. I was fortunate enough to go to a very small sixth-form of around 150 people, and while not every face was a friendly one, it became accepted that on certain days, when everyone else was showered and dressed appropriately, I would stumble in bra-less with my pyjama top on, a pair of slipper socks and likely unwashed hair and dark eyes.
I know I’m in for a tough few years. I know that I am going to have to force myself to wake up and dress myself; to brush my teeth and flash a smile; to meet deadlines and attend lectures. I know I will fail at doing these things sometimes too, and despite the University having support systems in place to occasionally bend deadline dates or offer one-hour counselling sessions, I understand that, unless something significant changes, really, I’m on my own.