Living on your own for the first time can be scary and stressful. Sometimes the new and difficult challenges presented by university life can lead to mental health problems. The Badger is here to tell you are not alone, and getting help is easier than you think.

[Andy] had never thought of himself as a pessimist. When he got into the University of Sussex, he was absolutely thrilled. He couldn’t wait to be on campus with other students, go out every night, and live away from home for the first time. He imagined breezing through his Engineering classes (he had loved it at A level), going back to his student flat, getting coursework done before having dinner, and then heading out with his huge group of new friends to Brighton’s pubs and clubs.

But when Andy began university in September after the whirlwind of Fresher’s Week, he found it really hard to keep up with his lectures. Despite meeting tons of awesome people, he missed his friends back home. And to his surprise, living alone was more effort than his mum had made it look. He asked himself several times a day why he had even chosen to do Engineering, and whether he should drop out and work for his dad instead. Everyone else looked like they were having such an easy time. What was wrong with him?

Andy found himself too tired to join his friends on nights out. His dishes piled up unwashed in the sink, and his laundry basket overflowed with dirty clothes. I came round to see him after he stopped replying to my texts. He had not moved from his bed for two days.

“I think you might be depressed.” I said.

On average, one in four students today report having a mental health problem of one type or another. Of those who suffer, 77% have depression-related problems, and 74% have anxiety related problems, issues that are often comorbid (meaning, they often appear together in the same person). Shocking statistics, perhaps — but it isn’t all bad news. Many universities around the UK, including Sussex, have easy-to-access mental health services for students like Andy. Furthermore, students with mental health problems aren’t alone — 52% of students know between one and five people with a mental illness, with only 8% knowing nobody at all with one.

It is accepted nowadays that mental illness is as serious as physical illness, and like giving your body time to recover from a cold, or going to the doctor, it is equally commonplace to take a mental health day to perform self-care after a difficult week or stressful event, and to visit a professional therapist or counsellor if you need it. Furthermore, antidepressants are increasingly a valid way to help treat persistent mental illness: in 2016, the NHS dispensed a record 64.7 million items of antidepressants to adults across the UK. And many students go on to manage or make a full recovery from their mental illnesses, and lead successful lives.

It is obvious that emotional distress must not be ignored. But unlike a broken bone, how do we know when a bad few weeks has turned into something we should go to the doctor about? Short answer: When it stops you from doing the things you want — or need — to do.

Editors’ top tips for keeping mentally healthy

  1. Don’t be afraid to get help for your mental health. You are not crazy, and there is nothing wrong with you as a person — you are just ill, and will recover faster if you get help sooner. Your problems are big and real enough if they are stopping you from fully living your life, and therapists really have heard it all. If your arm was broken you wouldn’t wait until you had a gnarly infection — it’s the same with your mental health!
  2. Having a routine can help enormously with mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and even bipolar disorder. Eating and sleeping at regular times may not sound like fun, but they are a necessary part of keeping you healthy and will likely make a huge difference if you feel like you’ve had a bad couple of weeks. It sounds small but it really works!
  3. Make sure to get regular exercise. Studies have shown that ten minutes of exercise three times a week are more effective than and have longer-lasting effects than the best antidepressant. Furthermore, the vitamin D absorbed by the body during exposure to sunlight helps regulate mineral absorption and also to regulate the mood. Even if you just walk to and from University every day, you are already benefiting! You can also try joining the gym or one or more of the sports societies at Sussex if you just can’t get enough, or want to meet like-minded friends.
  4. Make time to call friends and family from home. There’s nothing like hearing a familiar voice from someone who knows you well, especially during first year, which can sometimes be socially overwhelming.
  5. Plan ahead. Seven in ten (71%) say that work from university is one of their main sources of stress, so make sure that you turn up to lectures and hand your work in before the deadline. It will definitely pay off in the long run of your degree, and you will find your whole university experience a lot easier. There’s also no need to miss out on social occasions for study — invite some of your new friends round and study together! This is more fun than it looks.
  6. Keep doing your favourite hobby — or, find a new one at university. A hobby such as art, journaling, playing an instrument, or anything which needs your undivided attention and your hands is very beneficial for the mind, according to science. And who knows where it will take you?

Even if you become mentally ill, it isn’t the end of the world: management, and sometimes even a full recovery, is possible for even the most difficult or unique issues. I recovered from my depression in 2018 after almost nine years and my anxiety is no longer clinically significant, and my life is splendid because of it. Most people don’t wait around like I did to get appropriate help and recover much faster!

And as for Andy? He went to see a therapist for his depression and even took an antidepressant for a while. He graduated last year with a first in Engineering and is now thriving in his first job. He has loads of friends both from University and afterwards and has plans to work at NASA — and he’s very glad he didn’t give up!
Written by Shane Caulfield and Arianna Lee.

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