My struggle with depression #timetotalk

Time to talk 2015University, for many, is a truly liberating, exciting experience. University gives you a chance to be independent for the first time, to get away from home, to meet new people from a range of backgrounds and a chance to throw yourself into new experiences in a new place in a different part of the country.

However, for many to start with, myself included, it can also be extremely daunting. I still remember seeing all of my belongings sitting in my front room ready to be carted off. Before then, I had been putting it off in my mind that I had to go and had not considered what it would be like to be leaving. I had a happy, settled home life, with a close group of friends, a great girlfriend and a loving family. Suddenly, I had to leave. My whole life had to be put into the boot of a car and moved 200 miles away. My friends, my family and my girlfriend, would all be scattered across the country and I was going to have to make a new start in a different place away from them. Although for some this is an exciting prospect, for me it was one that filled me with worry and trepidation.

I arrived at university and quickly met a vast array of people, all of whom I had assumed seemed to be having a far better time than me. I got through Freshers Week by the seat of my pants but soon I panicked, feeling like I hadn’t settled properly.

One thing that there is no warning of before starting university is that, if you are not careful, you can spend a lot of time on your own in your room and the first few months of university for me were incredibly disorientating and isolating. My moods began to change. One minute I felt calm and in control, the next I was in floods of tears. I would often count down the hours to the end of the day until I could go to sleep because when I was asleep I wouldn’t feel so low. I had stopped eating properly and had lost a stone in weight over the course of only a few weeks.

One of the worst things about this time was that I was no longer rational, no longer in charge of my own emotions. I often found myself breaking down and crying but I could not explain way. Sometimes the trigger was very minor, like a misinterpreted text, but most frightening of all was when there was no trigger at all. It felt like a thick black fog was following me. Sometimes it would get smaller and sometimes get bigger but it would never leave. It was only when I visited home and talked with my girlfriend that I finally realised that I was depressed.

Depression isn’t just being a ‘bit sad’, it is an illness. Depression is the most common of all mental health problems in the UK, with between 8-12% suffering with it over the course of a year. And like an illness, it cannot always be controlled. It is possible to have good days with depression but this does not mean it leaves. It can be crippling and can stop you from doing anything.

I confided in very few people. My close friends, my family and my girlfriend were all hundreds of miles away. I felt at the time I also could not talk as I did not understand what was happening in my own head, let alone begin to tell someone about it. One very hard thing about suffering with a mental health problem at the start of university is that your anchors are not there. You worry that if you talk to your newly made friends about not being fully settled that they would judge you, that they would feel that you not being settled would somehow be a reflection on them as people. Even worse, I would worry they would get scared and decide not to be friends with me anymore. I only really opened up to my girlfriend, who, despite being hundreds of miles away and also settling at her own university, was brilliantly supportive. Without her help and her understanding I know that things would have been a lot worse.

I came back to university after my trip home and things started to get better. I knew what was making me low and I started to do something about it. I got out of my room more, socialised more, tried to make more friends and forge closer friendships. I stopped constantly worrying whether I was more or less settled than other people and began to enjoy university life for what it was rather than what I thought others thought it should be. Slowly but surely, the black fog began to lift and I started to enjoy my life at university. My moods were under control, I was more sociable and jovial and began to feel like me again.

My advice to anyone who is in the same position as I was is to be open and to talk more. I bottled up my troubles. I was too scared to be open and talk and resisted going to seek help. If I had done that when I had started becoming depressed, my problems would not have become as bad as they did. I do not want people to make the same mistakes that I did. One in three people will suffer with a mental health problem in their lifetime, yet less than half of us will ever get any help with it. It is frankly bizarre when mental health problems are so common and so normal that there is so much stigma that prevents people from seeking help with them. We need to change the way we see mental health. It needs to become normalised in people’s views and when seeking help it should be seen no differently to seeking help with a physical illness. This is a process that has been championed by many, including our very own Norman Lamb.

Having a mental health problem does not make you strange, it does not make you a freak and it does not make you different. You only have to start to scratch the surface to realise how common they are. Do not believe the stigma. There is nothing weird about being depressed and it does not have to be like that forever. You can get help and people will listen. You are not the only one who has been where you are.

Be open and talk. It can be more powerful than you think.

* President of Exeter University Liberal Democrats and Executive Member for the Liberal Democrat Mental Health Association

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  • Maria Pretzler 6th Feb '15 - 2:03am

    Excellent post: thank you so much for sharing.
    As a university lecturer, I see quite a lot of these problems.

    I would like to add to this post that students who have any sense that things are not going well, that they are feeling isolated, helpless or depressed, should talk to somebody at university. You might be wondering whether your new friends might understand you – but rest assured that university staff should usually know how to react to students’ difficulties of this kind. Talk to your personal tutor or some member of university staff you trust (sometimes it might be admin staff, often it is the academics you’d go to first, or you go straight to student support, whatever it id called on your campus – depends on the university). Most universities these days have excellent support services for students: your chance of actually getting some counselling is better at university than out in the ‘real world’ – if you manage to tell *somebody* that you need help….

    You seem to have pulled yourself out of the worst of the situation, which is pretty impressive and not something you can expect from anybody. Therefore I think it’s important to add that at university particularly, you shouldn’t have to do this on your own. So, if any students read the same, or if you know students who might be facing a tough time like this: get help!

  • Nick Sutton 6th Feb '15 - 11:46am

    Thank you Maria

    And I completely agree- there is usually a very good support network at all university’s. I am part of Exeter’s mental health awareness group this year and there is an excellent well being centre on campus, the Student Guild Run Advice Centre which is free to drop in and the University’s Nightline which runs through the night for students who have hit a wall. I know that there are similar services at other university’s and that the leadership of both university and student unions are involved in pushing mental health up the agenda.

    What I would say however is that these services should be better signposted. I am now in my second year and know that these services are available. However, when just starting, which in my opinion is a very likely time for a mental health problem to occur, the services do not always seem obviously available.

  • Some people find it hard to adjust at first but there are others who enjoy university at first but go on to have breakdowns. Vince Cable mentions two students who dropped out because of mental health problems during his time at university in his autobiography. I wonder what happened to them.
    A few years ago I read in a local newspaper about a man who hanged himself at Christmas time. It was mentioned that years before he had dropped out of Manchester University because of mental health problems. It seems these were allowed to dog him for the rest of his life.

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