Surviving Depression at University

16/09/2012 21:09 BST | Updated 16/11/2012 10:12 GMT

Depression and anxiety are both such ugly words. In my eyes they had always conjured up images of a lonely middle aged woman whose husband had just left her or perhaps a suited and booted businessman who had just lost his job at some hedge fund and was relying on an unhealthy amount of port to get him through.

Not me, a 20-year-old fresher whose life had previously revolved around Coronation Street, chicken tikka baltis and an unhealthy amount of Apple Sourz. Having watched family members, boyfriends and friends struggle with bouts of depression of varying severities, I came to the conclusion that emotional health issues were for the weak, that anybody claiming to be depressed just needed - to use the clichés so oft repeated - to "snap out of it" and "pull themselves together". How very wrong I was. My own brush with anxiety and depression issues earlier this year taught me that the stigma we attach to these problems needs to be removed- we need to talk about these things - we need the world to show us that we are not alone.

My anxiety issues began after moving to university, an experience to which I had been looking forward ever since my GCSE years, and was triggered by a bad break up with a boyfriend who had himself suffered from depression for all his adult life. My days stopped being about enjoying my life as a fresher with my flatmates, and started revolving around spending the best part of every day on the phone to one of my ex's friends whilst they reassured me he was still alive.

What started off as simply a bit of worrying quickly filtered into all aspects of my life - I stopped eating, I couldn't sleep and I felt completely trapped in my own head. Although my ex-boyfriend seemed to be coping with the break up well, I couldn't stop worrying - and soon the anxiety transferred to other parts of my life. I worried that I wasn't smart enough for university, that my flatmates hated me, that my family were sick of me- solace never came and quickly I found myself in the midst of a breakdown.

This downwards spiral caused me to become tearful all the time - to feel lost and confused, devoid of energy - most mornings when I woke up it became a genuine struggle to convince myself to get out of bed. I constantly ruminated over the point of living, if years of emotional agony were all I had to look forward to.

The worst part of my experience were the times I felt completely barren of emotion altogether - as if my brain had snapped and shut off the side of me that had feelings - I couldn't experience joy, excitement, hope and worst of all - love. The people and things that had once been so dear to me did not seem to matter anymore, and the pretence that I actually cared about life and all the things that fill it became exhausting. I felt out of my own body, disconnected from reality - as if my entire life had become the worst kind of nightmare. At times I genuinely felt as if I'd rather not be alive. In short, in the space of just a few months I had transformed from a bolshy, headstrong and confident girl to a wreck of my former self, who could easily go for days without leaving my room.

No one ever seems to talk about the physical sides of depression and anxiety - and believe me, there are plenty. From the near constant headaches to feeling dizzy every time I stood up and the pervading feeling that I was going to be sick - depression and anxiety not only made me mentally ill, they made me physically ill. It was in fact, the physical effects of my illness that finally took me to the doctor - convinced (in my anxiety) that I had some terrible incurable disease. The doctor was sympathetic when he reached the root of my problems, diagnosed me with major anxiety and depression and prescribed me a course of low dosage anti-depressants.

In addition, he recommended I started seeing a University counsellor- and thus my recovery began. Counselling enabled me to challenge my negative thoughts by using various cognitive techniques- but most importantly, it allowed me to see that I was not alone.

What I would like to say to anybody who finds themselves in a position similar to mine - never identical, no two cases of depression/anxiety are the same - is that, hopeless as life may seem, there are so many tools to help you get back to the person you once were. Exercise, writing and the support of my family and current partner were, and still are, the things that made my days a little brighter. The Dean of Students (all universities offer this service) were so supportive and gave me extensions to deal with essays that seemed insurmountable. Don't be frightened of taking anti-depressants if you need them - they can be an absolute lifeline, and though they won't magically fix your problems, they can provide you with the clarity needed to deal with them.

Six months on from beginning treatment, I not only feel like I have my life back, but that I have actually been bettered as a person through my experience. Depression makes you challenge the very essence of who you are - and the struggle to regain that sense of self that I felt I had lost taught me more about myself than countless Freshers' nights out would have ever managed. Depression and anxiety are no longer words I am afraid of- they are illnesses from which far too many students suffer in silence. To them, I urge - Speak out. It will be the most brave and life-enhancing thing you have ever done.