By Alex Eagles
There’s a commonly held belief among students that everyone must make a choice: Good grades, an active social life, and plenty of sleep; every student wants these three important things… but we can only have two.
We all want something to show for our student debts, so most of us will sacrifice either sleep or a social life; discarding an essential pillar of mental health.
Factor in the poor diet and tight budget the average student has to live on, and it’s easy to understand why so many of us fall victim to mental illness, particularly depression.
Many students won’t talk about or seek help for their depression, so the statistics can be difficult to pin down, but demand for mental health services has more than doubled at some of the country’s top universities.
Depression can be a tricky thing to describe to people who have never had it. Doctors and psychologists can describe the chemical imbalances in the brain that characterise it, but to know what depression feels like, you have to talk to someone who has experienced it, like Rachel; a 3rd year law student:
“Having depression isn’t about being sad; it’s about a complete shift in perspective and outlook. You suddenly can’t see the point in doing anything, and you get what I like to call ‘life lethargy’, which quickly destroys any enthusiasm or motivation you might have, even for the things you love most, making everything more difficult. Even the smallest tasks become daunting hurdles. Imagine wearing a coat every day made out of lead that you can’t take off no matter what you’re doing but which no one else can see is so heavy, and at the same time you have a voice going around in your head over and over again, reminding you about just how worthless you are. That’s how depression feels.”
Hold on! - I hear you rudely interrupt - Isn’t university supposed to be the best years of your life?
It’s a rhetoric that we’re fed as teenagers; that university life is a blur of alcohol and sex, with only the occasional all-nighter needed to catch up on all the work you’ll miss because of the alcohol and sex.
3rd year student Bethany, who suffers from depression, says the reality can be very different:
“University can be difficult enough for people in good mental health; for those with moderate to severe mental health difficulties it can be absolutely detrimental,” she says. “The pressure of deadlines, lack of wellbeing support and practical issues most students face such as sleep deprivation, financial difficulties and social pressures all culminate and are a challenge for even the strongest of people. Far from being the ‘time of your life’, university can be the hardest experience you’ve ever had to face.”
Any student whose university experience falls short of expectations is bound to feel let down, but this disappointment can be especially hard on students who are already vulnerable to mental illness.
“Not enjoying my course and the student life has seen me spiral into the longest bout of depression I’ve ever had,” says Bethany.
While university life may be a lot tougher than it’s made out to be, students with depression find it tougher still. It’s an illness that saps energy and motivation, making even the smallest everyday tasks demanding. When something as simple as getting out of bed feels difficult, a 3000-word essay or end-of-year exam starts to look like an impossible task.
“The urge to stay in bed all day is higher when you’re closed off in your room on campus and away from your family,” says Adam, who’s taking a year out of university to try and overcome his depression. “It’s much harder to attend classes, or maybe just easier to slack off when you’re feeling down, which defeats the purpose of being at university in the first place.”
Thankfully there are forms of support available for students struggling with depression, or any other mental illness. While not all of the students I interviewed used the services available, those that did were full of praise for them.
“The mental health services people here are very nice and easy to talk to,” says Adam. “The thing is, you have to be willing to accept the help they’re offering. If I hadn’t decided to respond to an email and set up a meeting with a mental health professional then I probably would have dropped out.”
Peter Eldrid, Deputy Head of Counselling, thinks that Brunel’s mentoring schemes provide important support for struggling students, particularly those who are anxious about living away from home for the first time and might have difficulty adapting to their new lifestyle:
“I would hope people would be looking out for each other and talking to each other. You don’t have to come to counselling to get help. I think one of the things that’s good here at Brunel is that there’s mentor systems, there’s buddy schemes . . . because I think a lot of people crash land; If you’ve never left home before, you’ve never lived independently, that’s a big deal for a lot of people.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom if you do suffer from depression, even though the very nature of the illness will have you thinking that way.
“University is a great place to meet and friends,” says Adam, “most people I have met since starting here have been pretty understanding when it comes to depression.”
Having so many new people to meet and so many things to get involved with may seem overwhelming, but it’s also great for keeping you busy and taking your mind off your troubles.
If nothing else, remember this advice from 2nd year student Sam, who has found ways to help manage her own depression and anxiety:
“Remember it’s not permanent, seek out the company of good friends, and a cup of tea never hurts.”