I was 20 when depression hit me. I went to University two years later than everyone else, but only lasted 9 months before I felt the only thing I could do was drop out.
I had no idea about mental health before I went to Uni. The way I looked at depression was attention seeking. The only time I’d heard of it was when someone dumped someone else, and they’d update their MySpace profile to say they felt depressed—for about 3 hours. It wasn’t something I, or anyone around me, seemed to understand or appreciate—let alone wanted to admit as a ‘real’ thing they were going through.
I now look back and realise how wrong all that was, and it all stemmed from the lack of education around mental health. Luckily, there is far more awareness and understanding these days. We have celebrities speaking up, personal stories all over the internet, and countless charities focused on helping people suffering with a mental health problem. There’s still a way to go, but that in itself is a huge step in the right direction.
I remember freshers week being one of the best weeks of my life. The amount of new people, the nights out, the freedom of living in halls—it was great! Slowly the novelty wore off as the months went on and the loneliness, amongst other things, set in. I remember several times sitting in my room late at night wondering why I felt so upset. I doubt very much that any one of my friends or course mates knew. I became very good at being able to switch, put on a happy front, and carry on as normal.
When April came, I remember returning home and after a few hours my mind was made up. I really didn’t want to go back. I felt completely differently when I was at home. I was around people I could be myself with, without having to put on a brave face. In my mind, if I told anyone at Uni what I was feeling I would have been laughed at. I’m sure no offense would have been meant, but in my view, it would have been seen as ‘banter’—it wouldn’t have been taken seriously by anyone.
Turns out, I was completely wrong. One of the people I was closest to at Uni has gone on to complete a Masters in Mental Health Nursing, and many more have gone on to promote and work in the mental health field. Talk about an ideal opportunity for me to have sought support…
Being at home and with counselling, CBT and quite a few citalopram prescriptions later, I began to understand it. The small stresses and anxieties I did not deal with or spoke of became much greater, and when I bottled it all in and worried about it on my own. It built up over time to become something much greater than it should have been. Of course, that’s just my story and everyone is different, but we’re also a lot more similar than we may think, and it’s really important to seek help when you feel you need it.
One thing I wasn’t aware of at Uni was the amount of support available to me—you might not be aware either. Every University will offer a free counselling service to students. Many offer confidential phone lines, and, combined with student unions, many offer even more services that can really help you over the next few years. It’s worth investing some time in your first week back to find out exactly what support you can get, and how to access it. Even if you are never affected just be aware in case your friends need it—they might come to you first.
I now use my experience to try and help students. The big problem is speaking out, and although we shouldn’t be afraid, a lot of us still are. I work with a group of psychiatrists and psychologists who have created an app that allows you to seek support without having to put your hand up. The app is completely confidential to you, and teaches you four evidence-based self-soothing techniques that, if practiced regularly, are clinically proven to build your resilience against the common mental health problems we all may ignore – stress, anxiety, etc. It also helps you track your mood, detect problems early and help you learn to manage negative thoughts using cognitive behaviour therapy skills. The app allows you to have access to these therapies at the touch of a button, whenever you want, wherever you are.
There are a small number of Universities that have provided our app to students directly, but there are still ways you can access it if yours has not. Simply visit www.feelstressfree.com on your tablet or phone, and it will redirect you to the relevant download page. Once you’ve signed up, enter the coupon code STRESSFREESTUDENTS2016 to get your first month completely free. It’s usually only £1.99 per month, but I’d like you to try it during your first few weeks and see if it helps first. The deep muscle relaxation is my favourite technique.
University is such an exciting time, but you’ll go through more emotions than you have probably felt before. It’s a huge step up, but just remember if you do go through a rough patch, you will always come out the other side. No matter how low you feel there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. The first thing to do is to put your hand up and ask for help; whether that’s through an app or directly with someone. You might think it feels tough, but you’ll feel the pressure lift off your shoulders the moment you do.
You’ve got an incredible opportunity in front of you, and what could be the best few years of your life. Grab it with both hands!