Today marks the first day of Depression Awareness Week, and also the first day of a campaign I've been organising called Mind Your Head - a month long mental health awareness campaign at Bristol Students' Union.
The main message behind Mind Your Head is that whoever you are, whatever you're studying, we all have mental health and it is something that we need to be aware of and look after, just as we do with our physical health. Despite the fact that one in four Bristol University students have a previous diagnosis of a mental health difficulty, 10% of students are seeking support from the student counselling service and an estimated 78% of students nationally are experiencing mental distress, talking about how we're really feeling with others continues to be a difficulty.
May last year brought about one of the worst episodes of depression that I had ever had, and since then it hasn't really gone away. I had spent a whole fortnight hurriedly bashing out a string of essays while struggling to keep my head above all of the seminar work I had to catch up on. It wasn't until I emotionally exploded after I realised that my final essay was 1000 words under the word count after the deadline had passed that I realised something was really wrong with me. I convinced myself that things like showering, making hot meals, brushing my hair or even sleeping were a non-essential waste of my time. I would shut myself away in my room or go out for midnight to early morning sessions at the 24 hour library.
This probably sounds familiar to a lot of students. The fear of time slipping out of your fingers that comes around every time a deadline looms. The anxiety around being able to actually complete something; wondering the whole time if you're actually good enough to be at a Russell Group University or whether they let you in by mistake. The voice in your head telling you that if you're not working you're not doing enough, that other people are working harder than you, that you're not making the most of it. Frustratingly, struggling through like this just seems to have been accepted by students and staff as part of university culture. It really doesn't have to be this way.
I don't think we give ourselves enough credit for actually how difficult and emotionally exhausted undertaking a degree can be. It's very likely that we've moved away from home for the first time, away from all of our support structures, our friends and family. Then we're chucked into a situation where the pressure of performing academically is matched with the pressure of making the most of the best time of our lives. Suddenly we're not just worrying about how much work we're doing but we're also worrying about how much fun we're having, how many societies we're trying out, how many things we can do to improve our CVs. All the while, we're having to manage our finances, health and finances for the first time and it is really hard.
Another thing that I don't think we seem to talk about is how hard it really is to have so little contact hours. Students from the STEM and professional courses will most likely scoff at that, particularly as they often have such a packed timetable it is pretty much a full time job. However, I think we forget that having huge gaps in our timetables can be just as challenging for your mental health. Not only is it more likely for students to drift into isolation, working alone in their room or heads down in the library, but it makes it incredibly difficult to keep up a healthy routine. This is what happened to me, my sleeping pattern went out of the window and for a while I thought I might be nocturnal. Even now, almost a year after I graduated and took up a full time job I'm still struggling to get used to having a real routine. I want one too, it's difficult to manage your mental health when you're just drifting through your week.
I look back on my three years at Bristol and I now realise that I didn't prioritize what was really the most important thing. Myself. I stopped taking time to do my hobbies, I stopped looking after my body and my mind and I didn't take time to think about what was happening to me because I was too busy worrying about performing. Today I got back on my bike for the first time in several months. I can't tell you how empowering it felt to pedal through the feeling of my body being as heavy as lead, ignoring the voice in my head telling me that I was too tired, too down, too depressed, too anxious to do it. As difficult as it seems at the time, don't let the worry about performing stop you from forgetting your hobbies.
You are not your grades. To struggle at University doesn't make you weak and it certainly doesn't mean that you're not good enough, it means that you're just like everyone else and that's okay! You're allowed to struggle and you're allowed to find it hard, because it is! So cut yourself some slack and take time to do something nice just for you. You deserve it.