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How to do University With Depression

If you, like me, have the same insane notion that I began my university career with a thorough determination to learn rather than drink and have sex with almost everything in a mile radius, then it is not a wasted one. Yes, I have thrown up at uni, it was a delicate mixture of cider and instant noodles, I’ve stumbled home in the early hours of the morning, I’ve laid out on a dew-covered lawn staring at the stars discussing life with strangers – and I’ve smoked some things. The aim of gaining a healthy balance of partying and education though shouldn’t seem too hard – you have free will, use it – but what complicated matters was when I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety and Depression half way through my first year.

I remember Fresher’s Week very well. The large majority of it I spent in my room, my box-set of ‘Friends’ at hand, whilst avoiding my new flatmates at all costs. I was lucky in many respects to be in the more modern accommodation on campus, not only were our rooms and kitchens large, clean and not infested with sexual disease or bubonic rats, but I could also get away with ignoring the chaos going on outside. I of course did go out, and I still remember the bar crawl I went on in the first week, making friends with a kid who referred to himself as “Northern Paul” (which, in the South East of England, was presumably considered safer than allowing people to find out for themselves) and finally making my way back to accommodation, glad to be done with a night of socialising. Some anti-climactic nights of pre-drinking and clubbing later, I found myself having something I later found out was a panic attack, curled up in the corner of my en-suite bathroom (a very middle class panic attack, perhaps).

Over the coming weeks and months I was to be found not sleeping more than three or four hours at a time, using the kitchen at 1am so as to avoid being seen or spoken to, drinking alone and in worrying quantities, and finally missing seminars and lectures because facing the outside world was just too much. I made few friends, I stored my food in my room so as to avoid having to cook alongside people, and I spent almost every night alone, listening to music and playing games online with headphones on, so no one would know I was in my room at all. The night I spent alone, drunk and not wanting to wake up the next day was the night I realised something was wrong. The following day I rang the on-campus medical centre.

Despite the myth that doctors just want to medicate everyone, in my experience, this is just not true. In fact, it was some weeks after that initial appointment that I finally had to request to be put on anti-depressants. I began counselling, a weekly event in which I spent more time trying to downplay my feelings rather than discuss them, and I began to email lecturers and seminar leaders explaining why I was so seldom in their classes.

A lot of people refer to depression and anxiety as solely mental illnesses, but that never helped me, I wasn’t concerned about the medical definition – what helped me was viewing it as an addiction. Like smoking – or, to use a more culturally relatable issue, vampirism – you need to feed the monster inside to keep it alive. Since that realisation, I have been starving my depression, shoulder-barging my social anxiety as I walk out the front door of my student house.

University should be fun. I know of no other environment that allows so much freedom to express yourself and to be who you have always wanted to be. I have so far learnt during this unpredictable and incredible two years that you never know what is around the corner and that conforming to what you think society wants you to be is the last thing you should do. At the beginning of my second year I made appointments with lecturers to inform them of my problems, and whilst things aren’t perfect, everything is easier now. I get more support from both staff and friends than I could have ever imagined possible, all without having to get drunk and wake up in a field with a curious selection of empty alcohol containers and tired farmyard animals.

Because I was honest about what had been happening my head, I now find myself the President of a student society, a published writer and the recipient of a journalism award at my university. There’s no magical cure, but mental illness isn’t a curse either. If you’re considering going to uni, or you’re already there, don’t let your fears or worries overcome you, talk about them, and don’t stop until you get every bit of support you need.

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