Discovery, drinks and depression: How I dealt with my mental health as a fresher
‘Everyone seemed to be having a good time, so why wasn’t I?’
It’s a sentiment that has been depicted countless times in the media and passed down through generations: University will be the best time of your life. The opportunity to discover new locations, enjoy new experiences and make new friends encourages students from all over the world to apply.
However, if you were to ask me whether my university experiences lived up to the hype, the answer would be an emphatic no.
I can say with certainty that my first year at university was one of the most painful and challenging periods of my life. Amidst all the excitement of starting my degree, I failed to anticipate a darker aspect of being a fresher: the impact on mental health.
I first arrived at university full of enthusiasm and hope, but a month or two later these emotions slowly but surely began to fade. Studying for a degree can be challenging and, soon enough, the immense stress brought on by deadlines and exams started to emerge.
This was combined with the shame I felt over my perceived failure to succeed socially – most of the interactions I had during my first term were brief and mostly consisted of small talk. I struggled to form close friendships with the people I met; by the end of the first term, I had a few acquaintances but not much more.
At the same time, the friends who I had parted with after sixth form were experiencing the exact opposite – that is, according to their social media accounts. I would spend nights scrolling through feeds, liking images of drunken nights out with friends, picnics in the park and videos filled with laughter and joy. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, so why wasn’t I?
I felt utterly alone – I didn’t seem to be wanted by the people I met, nor the people I already knew.
Eventually, I began to suffer from depression, exhibiting the hallmark signs of chronic fatigue, irritability and a loss of interest in activities. I would spend hours in my room, only leaving to attend lectures or obtain food. It became increasingly difficult to finish tasks and these were often left to be completed last minute.
I also struggled with managing the complex array of emotions that I was feeling. Most resources told me to have conversations about it with other people but it was not as easy as they made it out to be. I did not want to share details of my life with staff that I barely knew, nor did I want to distract family and friends from their own lives. This resulted in a lot of confusion and I only began sharing my feelings much later.
All of these experiences made me want to help students who are going through what I went through when I started university by sharing some things which helped me at the time.
Look at universities’ cultural environments when applying
I deeply regretted my failure to look at social and cultural aspects when shortlisting universities. I believe my mental health was impacted because I was not in the right environment – As a result, I would encourage everyone to do as much research as you can about the campus environment as well as the course when you apply. For example, if you are extremely introverted then it may not be the best idea to study in a city that is renowned for its nightlife. Being in the wrong environment can negatively impact your mental wellbeing.
Take a break during Fresher’s Week
I enjoyed Fresher’s Week and I would recommend trying to attend as many events as possible, particularly those which are of specific interest to you. However, I found that meeting new people constantly was exhausting at times, and now believe that it would have been better for me to take a break when things became a bit too intense.
Don’t stress too much about making friends straight away
I used to worry a lot about making new friends during the initial few weeks and this definitely increased my stress levels. Therefore, my advice would be to not put too much pressure on making friends during Fresher’s week. Trying to make long-term friendships in one week is unrealistic and is not worth stressing over. Many students don’t make solid friendships until much later, after they’ve attended society events and lectures and met people with mutual interests to them.
Reach out if you feel isolated
The start of university can be challenging for those who have moved away from home, because they are often far from existing friends and family and have not yet established close relationships with new people. During my experience, I initially chose to keep my feelings to myself which, in hindsight, made it harder to deal with. It was hard to share how I felt, especially the first time, but I found that talking to family and friends helped me to understand my emotions more and over time, I found it easier to open up to them.
Try and stick to a routine
I cannot stress the importance of routines and hobbies at university. Most people are aware that spending lots of time in bed can make anyone’s mental health worse and this applied to me. Taking time out to go for a walk every day had a really positive impact and I would definitely recommend it.
Personally, being more open about my struggle with mental illness as well as finding effective ways to cope with it made things easier for me. I eventually managed to settle into university life and made new friends. Despite this, it would be naïve to suggest that there will no longer be any challenges to my mental health in the future. It is likely that I will have to return to the same city where I once faced so many challenges.
It will be difficult for me, but this time I know that I am not alone.
Those depicted in the images of this article do not correspond to its authorship.
Soho Rooms photo credit: Sarah May.