CW: This article may cause distress for those who have suffered from domestic abuse or have experienced suicidal thoughts.
I feel lost in the system.
I am struggling to cope.
I am not sure I have the necessary skills.
Today, I feel like I cannot get through my degree.
It all started when I was 7 years old. Young and in primary school. I read too much. I did too much. I achieved too much. In school, we were meant to go through 16 reading levels within 7 years and I finished them in 4. I was immediately marked as different – I stood out. I received constant praise and adulation in school, but never did I feel challenged. Nothing was there to drive me, instead, the awards stood in place of what should have been there. There was nothing to entertain me or something to provide me with a semblance of meaning. The remainder of my school years left me feeling bored.
Eventually, I was the centre of nerd jokes, pegged out by other students who assumed I did little if anything other than study. As a child, feeling different and singled out bothered me but there was not much I could do about it. I didn’t want to do anything about it then anyway – growing up in a home with constant domestic abuse – the instability at home was only met with the stability of achievement in school. I didn’t care if anyone made fun of me for doing the one thing that gave me solace. I just wanted stability in some area of my life and my academic achievement became an integral marker of identity for me and given the circumstances, it would have been ill-advised to complain about the boredom I experienced in school.
As time progressed and I entered high school, everyone assumed that I was happy and satisfied because I was an able, high achiever with a good academic record. But I wasn’t happy. Soon after that, I went to University, and although the first couple of years were okay - third year is the year that is challenging me and everything that I believe to be true about myself. It confronted me for the first time in all of my years in education, and I don’t know what to do when faced with a challenge of that sort.
Though I love a challenge, I know it’s good for me, and have always wanted one, at this point in my life, I just don’t have the skills to cope with it. Because I was never challenged before, I never needed the skills to cope with mental hurdles and so, no one ever felt the need to teach me how to do it. This experience made me realize that high achieving students often get lost in the educational system. We grow up unchallenged, and when someone finally decides to meet us where we are, and test us accordingly, things get overwhelming and quickly turn into feelings of fear. For me, it feels as if I have been sent into war without a single bit of armour, and I don’t know what to do. I’m scared and my whole identity feels like it’s being challenged.
And I know, I know that university is meant to challenge you, but the difference between me and my other peers - who are also being challenged academically - is that most of them were academically challenged before. They’ve had experience with it, they developed the necessary skills they needed to stop them from crossing the fine line between challenged and overwhelmed. A challenge is good. But a challenge you’re not equipped to deal with quickly becomes a personal crisis.
I am not writing this with any answers – in fact, I don’t have any answers. But I am writing this because we need to start remembering the hidden challenges of being an overachiever and starting University; where for the first time ever, you are no longer the best. For the first time ever, you are surrounded by others who are erudite and slowly, your sense of identity becomes shaky and you start to question whether you really are good enough. You start to wonder how you could ever be good enough without getting burnt out, and you start to question whether the one thing that offered stability before – a glimpse of achievement - still will.
And for students going through something similar, it can be incredibly isolating. As this isn’t something that is commonly spoken about, and it can also be incredibly difficult to ask for help. Not because we don’t want to, but because one of the first questions professionals tend to ask you when you say that you’ve been really struggling to cope is whether your grades and attendance are suffering as well. But what happens when the answer will most often be no? Even in my darkest moments, my academic record was just fine. Not because I particularly wanted it to be, or because I was okay but because that’s all I ever knew, and it’s something that I am able to do, even when everything else is falling apart.
I am writing this, hoping that people will start to broaden their definition of “struggling to cope” to include everyone. At either end of a spectrum and even in the middle. People can struggle and not be able to keep up with academics. People can also struggle and still maintain a good academic record, and for high achievers, this will almost always be the reality. We cannot continue judging mental wellness from academic success and lecture attendance, because if we do, people like me will continue getting lost in a system that doesn’t feel like it was ever designed to include them. Assuming that highly able students are immune from mental illness is a dangerous line of argument and could be one of the many reasons behind the rising numbers of student suicide in the UK. Something needs to change and one way to start - could be thinking about how universities can better support all students in the transition from further to higher education.
I feel inadequate and lost more than I have ever felt before because everything leading up to today, did not prepare me to deal with this. I often wonder if the education system was designed for a person like me...
…So what about high achievers? What do we do now - and where do we go from here?