Anna Lezard shares her experience of dealing with depression at university
During my first year, I was struck with depression. I found myself unable to get out of my pyjamas, let alone walk up St Michael’s Hill and stuff myself into a lecture hall. I only managed to eat one meal that I would stagger throughout the day. I would skulk out of my room at 10pm and buy a bottle of wine for myself at the Co-op with a hoodie over my PJs and head straight back under the covers. It doesn’t sound too different from the student way of life anyway, but the thing about mental health is that you often can’t tell how bad your brain is doing until you’re out of the dark.
I’d say what I just described was when I was feeling darkest on the inside. I’m still not totally mentally healthy; in fact, when I tackled the bulk of my depression it left me free to spend some quality time with my anxiety. But the comparison between how I was from January to August in 2015 and now is unbelievable to me. The fact that I can attend a lecture without my brain coming to a brick wall before I’ve even left my bedroom is astounding. But at the time, I had no idea. I knew I wasn’t exactly peachy, but when faced with the option of the Student Counselling Service, I resisted it on the grounds that I’d be taking up a space on the waiting list that could be used by someone who really needed it. Now, an absolutely ridiculous thought. What were you thinking, slightly younger self? You were the one who needed it!
It took a lot of persuasion from friends to make me realise that being in a superposed quantum state of misery and emotionlessness meant I could probably do with some sorting out. I hauled myself up to the Student Health Service and was immediately seen for an appointment. The first one is a 20 minute chat that acts as an emergency bandage over your troubles, which then can be followed up by a 50 minute appointment that gauges how much your brain is fucking you. I went in there assuming that they would smile and nod then tell me that what I was feeling was totally normal and I should just go for a jog in the mornings. Of course, as I now know, that’s what almost everyone from every part of the mental health Richter scale goes into therapy thinking.
So to my surprise I was more than eligible for professional help. They warned me that the waiting list was very long and I shouldn’t hold my breath for regular appointments, but only a couple of weeks later I got a call offering a weekly spot. The Student Health Service only offers counselling in six session bursts, and then you can re-join the waiting list. It doesn’t sound like much, and I devoured my sessions (I thought quite deeply about tampering with the clock so I’d get more than 50 minutes) but for me, six sessions was exactly enough. My counsellor both got me out of the Danger Zone and suited me up to monitor and address my own mind like I never could before. If I could still see her as much as I wanted I’d probably just have her move in with me, but as a free student service, I can’t complain about those six sessions one bit.
The first year is the most crucial year of university in a way, because it’s when you build the foundation of a social group (allowing for many drastic modifications, in my experience) without being too bogged down in university work. Unfortunately, like many other people, I spent a lot of it trapped in my head being beaten up by my own damn emotions. At the time I wished I could pull myself together and stop feeling like that. Now I realise all I needed to do was accept that I was going through some shit, that it wasn’t my fault, and that the institution I was in wanted to help.
Three years is really not a very long time. Especially when it costs £27,000 and tops off the end of your childhood. So it’s easy to feel that if you’re not having the time of your life all the way through you’re squandering it. But you’re not. University isn’t one big cluster of ecstatic experiences; it’s life. And in life there is sometimes horrible mental muck to wade through. The only difference is that here you have a wonderful staff of genuinely openhearted people waiting to take care of you – for free.
Image by Emily Godbold
This piece is the first in our series of Mental Health Week articles. For more information about student counselling and mental health support at the University of Bristol, please visit: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/students-health/services/mental-health/