Juggling a mental illness with a degree

Sitting in the University Medical Centre waiting room, I watch the familiar scene play out in front of me. The same posters on the wall with crumpled edges, students slumped in chairs staring at their phone, the automatic door opening and closing, letting in blasts of cold December air. This has become a regularity for many.

Coming to university is supposed to be a fresh start – the chance to ‘re-invent yourself’ and delve into an abundance of new, exciting ventures. Talking to many students suffering with their mental health, this pre-conception is all too familiar – that somehow university will be the path to a renewed and positive frame of mind.  Yet if anything, the often isolating and academically demanding days spent away from home allow negative thoughts to fester, becoming an increasingly toxic environment to be in which is when mental health can start to deteriorate.

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Although we are now much more mindful as a generation when talking about mental health, there seems to be an unspoken rule between those who suffer with mental illness sharing secret acknowledgement – often befriending those who can empathise and relate whilst those who have had no previous history before coming to university, can suddenly fall into a pit of depression and anxiety, wondering how on earth this happened.

One thing I have learnt after suffering with mental illnesses for several years, is that mental health does not discriminate. You can grab your stereotypes and throw them out of the window: not everyone with an eating disorder is privileged, not everyone with anxiety has panic attacks, not all those with depression miss lectures or fall behind with the workload. In fact, it is likely the opposite will occur; especially in an elite university like Durham which attracts not only those with incredible work ethics but, as we are so often known for being ‘Oxbridge rejects’ – incredible perfectionists.

Juggling a degree and a mental illness is no mean feat and the more I speak to students the more shocked I am at the sheer lack of pastoral support; not only offered by the university but by the collegiate system as a whole. When I found out that the university could only offer four hours of counseling, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Four hours is barely enough to form an assessment of someone, let alone build a trusting relationship with a professional and feel able to open up to them. This then, inevitably falls to the ever-struggling NHS. GP’s take the brunt, stick you on a waiting list or hand you a prescription and if you’re lucky, you might be seen by the early side of next year.

Where on Duo is the conduct book on sending emails to tutors, telling them that you haven’t been able to get out of bed in three days, let alone walk to the department building to hand in an essay? Of course, it is important to have a support network around you, but friends can only do so much – especially if they happen to be struggling with their mental health themselves. Services like Nightline are great and should be utilised – but the volunteers are just students. Surely, we should not be placing the entire pastoral support service on student’s shoulders? This shouldn’t be seen as a way for the university to do less – it should be a stepping stone in order to achieve a more proactive and vigilant support system.

It seems then, that despite being such a prominent and rising issue, little is actually being done to address mental health in university. Evidently, brushing it under the carpet and a quick doctor’s note won’t do the trick, leaving it down to you to somehow cope with managing a challenging degree whilst simultaneously dealing with your mental health. I do not know the answer, but I do know that something has to change.

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