Deadlines and depression: My struggles with mental health at University

Laura Staniforth opens up about her struggles with mental health at university
Content TeamBy Content Team  •  May 15, 2017 at 12:09am  •  Health & Exercise, Mental Health, Social Issues, Women

I‘m Laura, and I have major depression and generalised anxiety.

For the past few years, my illness has defined both myself and my educational experience, to the point of having to repeat my final year of university. Below I talk about attempting to balance my mental illness with my education, how I fought (and lost) many battles with myself, and how (thank fuck) things are finally looking up.

I was always the overachiever at secondary school – you know the nicknames: boff, nerd, brains, teacher’s pet. At this point, studying for exams was my life; I’d write pages and pages of notes, all carefully colour-coded and highlighted with the zeal of a fourteen year old girl who had new stationary. It certainly paid off, as I came out of GCSEs with 7A*s and 2As.

Looking back on this, I definitely can see the beginnings of anxiety there – in how I would worry myself frantic and prepare excessively. I would be especially affected by comments from my fellow students along the lines of, “Why are you worrying? You’re clever!” or the ever harsher “I got a higher mark than you, what’s wrong with you?!”

It made me feel like I couldn’t fail. I trapped myself in a vicious vortex of fretting about failing, and becoming more and more anxious as the years went on. Throughout my college years, the anxiety still worked for me by scaring me into revising and it wasn’t until the start of university that the depression rose up and my carefully stacked house of cards began to tumble down.

The whole vibe about first year of university is that it’s the doss year; it doesn’t count towards your final grade, so don’t worry about it! Thanks to the whole ‘fear of failure’ ethos I had going on, I was determined not to fall into that mindset and make myself stand out as an intelligent and engaged student (Yeah, neeeeeeerd.)

As the year went on though, I found myself really struggling with motivation. I’d leave assignments to the last few days or even the night before, despite not really doing anything that could have feasibly have taken up my time. And while I partied like a normal first year I didn’t go overboard; my new friends were all fairly academic too so I didn’t have that as an excuse. There are several projects and modules I did really well on, and was very proud of myself for, but there were just others which were so disappointing because I knew I could have done better if I’d just tried.

Second year was when everything went horribly wrong.

It should have been great; I was living in a house with some of my favourite people in the world, we were specialising into modules I was super interested in and I had some exciting work experience coming up. Instead, I found myself skipping lectures, skimping on research and leaving assignments down to the wire. I’d make excuses to my friends, saying that I felt ill or sick, when really I’d just sleep all day and then berate myself for being stupid and lazy.

I thought everyone felt the way I did but were just strong enough to push through it, while I just couldn’t cope. The only assignments I was doing well on were group projects, as the guilt and anxiety of letting people down was just too much for me to bear. Because I was so embarrassed and ashamed of myself I’d hide what I was feeling from my flatmates; I didn’t want them to be disgusted by me.

It wasn’t until after Christmas when one of them sat me down and point-blank told me, “Laura, I think you’re depressed.”

I hadn’t even considered it. It was out of my range of thought. Depression didn’t happen to people like me, right? (Spoiler alert: yup it really does). She was so kind and gentle, and sat with me while I made an appointment with my GP. Another one of my flatmates came with me, and I sat and cried through all the assessments until the doctor gave the verdict; major depression and severe generalised anxiety disorder. I got a prescription for medication and was signed up for talking therapy over the phone, and went home in a fuzz. The rest of the year was still difficult, and my performance wasn’t fantastic, but I had a name for what I was feeling now.

I wasn’t lazy or stupid, I was just ill.

Silly me thought it’d be all fine and dandy now I was diagnosed. But in reality, third year was shit. This was the year of the heavyweight deadlines; the dissertation, critical essay and scientific conference. I had gotten out of the mind-set that I wasn’t good enough, but traded it for one that was maybe more harmful.

I’d been on meds for several months, and had completed a course of cognitive behavioural therapy. So, surely I had the tools to boss this year, right?

Wrong.

Instead, I would be back to sleeping all day, eating either nothing or absolute garbage. My room was such a tip it became an obstacle course, to the point where I actually tripped over something and broke my nose and foot. But that’s another story.
Assignments would be done the day before. I would sometimes down some ProPlus and do it overnight before the hand-in.

I just did not care.

I felt nothing towards the fact that I was failing. No emotions registered. I had no interest in doing things I loved, like reading or gaming, so why would I want to write 5000 words about citizen science?

The only times I really ever felt anything would be when I turned my thoughts inwards. I would berate myself, because I was being treated and nothing had changed. Medication and therapy are meant to give you the tools to make it on your own so why was I still so awful at this?

It was decided, after much discussion with my tutors, that I would drop out and retake my final year. My grades were too low and no-one (including myself) thought I could make it through summer exams. And it couldn’t possibly get any worse, could it?

HA HA HA.

Third Year 2: Electric Boogaloo was a disaster from start to finish. I attempted several times to get a place on my university’s counselling system, but was never successful. I didn’t know many people in the year, and so I was always fretting about going to lectures and finding partners. My easy solution to that was just not to go!

My new house’s kitchen was very small and I didn’t know most of my flatmates very well, so I would either scuttle in and out quickly or not eat at all, before ordering loads of takeaways in an effort to force myself to eat anything.

My GP and I had decided my original medication wasn’t working as well as it should, so I tried a switch. These ones worked a bit better but also gave me horrific, realistic nightmares, so we had to make another switch. Between constantly withdrawing from and coming onto new meds and feeling so lonely all the time, I sunk into the deep fog of depression where you feel absolutely nothing.

The same problems were happening with university work. I couldn’t even get myself out of bed and into the shower, so I wasn’t capable of critical thinking. I was an awful friend because I struggled to display empathy or indeed any emotion. My thoughts got to the point where I just didn’t really want to exist anymore, because existing was shitty and unfulfilling.

I finally got enough credits to pass the year with the bear minimum, and just took it and graduated. My illness and my education were so intertwined that I just needed to take a step back and breathe.

After graduating, I took a year out to try and allow myself time for healing, and it’s certainly had its ups and downs. When my flatmates leave in the day to go to their jobs or university, I get both very lonely and sad. I feel angry at myself for not being able to join them, but when I struggle to bother feeding myself in a day how am I going to manage the commitments of a university course?!

I was left with a great deal of confusion over what to do with myself and floated about til around March, having some deep lows and fleeting highs. Fortunately for me, it was at this time I finally got a spot for face-to-face therapy with the NHS. I’d been waiting since the year previous, and had given up hope for it ever being of any use.

In these few short months I’ve really made leaps and bounds.

My therapist has given me tools to deal with my life in ways that should seem obvious but are impossible when you’re as deep as I got. I go to the gym now (which is still the worst ever but hey, I’m doing it), have actual daytime commitments that I’m sticking to, and have goals that don’t seem impossible anymore. I’m by no means cured and still have major problems with my sleep patterns, but we’re working on it.

Nowadays my biggest problem is hoping education will take me back. With my low grades and gaps in study, I’m not a very good prospective candidate for any Masters courses I’d like to apply for. As such, now I’m capable again, I’m focussing on cramming as much experience into the summer as possible. This is of course partly to pad my CV for any applications I’m going to submit, but really the biggest benefit has been getting me out of the house and mentally active again.

It’s been a long time since I held daily commitments, and even longer since they were relevant to my degree; it feels damn good to be doing what I love again without all the brain murk that previously clouded my mind. From helping old course mates with lab work to volunteering with the Northumbria Wildlife Trust, to even writing for Verbal Remedy, I’m flexing skills which have gotten a bit tarnished and rusty.

If any of my story resonated with any of you, I have a few thoughts. Please seek treatment. Don’t be like me and dismiss concerns, go and see a GP because it’s really nothing to be ashamed of. You break your arm, you receive treatment. Why should our brain be any different?

And just be kind to yourself. I have a diary from my second year that I never open because it’s absolutely hateful. It’s from before I was diagnosed and is filled with diatribes aimed towards myself which are god-awful.

I keep it because I want to a reminder to never speak to myself like that again, but maybe one day I’ll do a ritual burning and get rid once and for all.

Symbolism, right?

Laura Staniforth is a Marine Biology graduate whose passions include science, gaming, writing, and awesome mermaid hair.

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