Hello hello, Zara here again! Conversations around mental health in university is super important and the 14 March is University Mental Health Day. For those of you who may not have read some of the other blogs I have done, my name is Zara, I am a second-year psychology student and I have been in Exeter for 3 years as I also did my foundation year here! Mental health is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about, before uni and especially during uni. 

University, for most people, is the first time we will live away from home. Most don’t arrive with lots of people they know from home; most will have to make new friends, get comfortable with a new town or city, settle in to new routines, do their own shopping and laundry, and make the effort to go out and meet people and interact. Of course, there can also be lots of excitement and giddiness involved, it’s obviously an incredibly exciting time as we will have more freedom than we could have imagined when we were younger. However, along with that freedom comes responsibilities and possible unmet expectations of what that freedom looks like. From personal experience, I arrived in Exeter at the tail end of COVID-19, I had just had some incredibly difficult times as a close family member had just passed away and I was arriving midway through the academic year. Making new friends and adjusting to the new responsibilities I had were all really fun, but also really difficult at times. It can often feel like we’ve been pushed onto a winding waterslide (stick with me here, it’ll make sense I promise). We’ve left the stability and familiarity of the platform and we know we are in control, we know there is stability around us but we can’t help but feel like we are falling, and going the wrong way. Yes, it may all be controlled and we may know that we are supported and it will all be okay but the panic, fear, novelty, uncertainty and loneliness can persist. 

Just another example; you’ll often hear people say “First year was awful” or “Oh don’t start about second year” or “Third year is insane”, basically quantifying what year they found the most challenging in university. For me, I resonate a lot with the first-year discourse as I did find the first year the most challenging and I have found my second year to be the best for growth and learning about myself, but that’s so anecdotal and so different for everyone. The fact of the matter is that everyone grows at their own pace and it’s super rare that someone’s university experience will look even remotely similar to someone else’s. Yes, there are commonalities but we all have different hobbies, interests, levels of maturity, and understandings of ourselves. I know many people who spent their first year feeling lonely and lost and found themselves in their second year, I also know many people who had a great first year and then started reconsidering the groups they joined in their first year and spent their second years readjusting and in a conflict which can be really difficult. Similarly, lots of people get completely swamped in their third year and struggle to find a work-life balance, though as I am only a second year I can’t pretend to know much first-hand of the struggles of third year! 

My point is this: any year in university could pose challenges, and the point at which you face your ‘challenge year’ depends on how well you knew yourself before university, what your strengths are, who you are and a plethora of other things that are super personal. Now, some common issues in university are 1. loneliness, 2.  feeling lost or confused, 3. feeling bad about academic achievement and self-worth, and 4. feeling overwhelmed. I’m going to chat about each one separately: 

Loneliness

The first thing I’ll say about loneliness is it’s more common than you may think. I can name many who struggled to make friends and many who had friends but felt lonely in their presence. The best, absolute best advice I can offer as someone who has felt this and knows many people who felt this is to go out and try to prove yourself wrong. This looks different for everyone, for me, it was joining societies such as the Expedition Society, several political societies and the Christian Union, and making an effort to arrange coffee dates, for a friend of mine it was getting stuck in with events relating to their course and meeting more coursemates whom they are now best friends with. The main thing is; that you may not find your people immediately, and even if you have people, it’s quite common to not stick with the first people you meet in university. 

Feeling lost or confused

With feeling lost or confused, I find it’s super important to take a step back and remember that it is literally the most cliché feeling to have as someone who is either a teenager or someone in their 20s. It is, quite literally, the main plot of every coming-of-age film targeted at young adults. It’s okay to just go with the flow, to sit with the discomfort of “what the hell am I doing with my life?” – we will all be there, we have all been there if we haven’t already and it’s absolutely normal and okay to feel that way. The best thing that you can do is to keep marching on anyway, whilst leaning on either personal tutors (who are SO happy to help!), the wellbeing team (who offer appointments the week of or after you’ve requested) or the GP. There is so much support here in Exeter which is so wonderful, it’s good to remember you never have to struggle alone. The university is really great at dealing with this sort of stuff, and offering support to those who need it. There is no problem too small and no problem too large, if you feel you need extra support there are lots of avenues to explore and lots of people willing to listen and take that weight off in any way they can. You have to remember that those working at the university were students once too and are so understanding as they probably were in your shoes, or can at least empathise with how hard it can get.  It’s also super important to talk about these feelings with people in your life. If it’s an older adult they could provide some insight on how they dealt with it in their youth, if it’s someone your age, there’s a pretty solid chance they feel the same way you do. Sharing that worry and talking about it makes it more manageable and someday, it will lift. 

The pressure to achieve

Now, academic achievement is a big sore spot for so many of us. At a Russell Group University with a reputation for high achievement, lots of students are used to being top performers in school and struggle in university as they are average in comparison with other high achievers. Grades also seem so much harder to attain as assessments are more frequent and there are so many more plates to balance as nobody else is cooking dinner, doing laundry, cleaning or doing anything for us anymore. With less time available to devote to academia and the comparative average performance, lots of people can feel really demoralised and beaten down. It’s important to keep in mind that many people feel the same, and whilst it’s a lot harder to talk about, reminding yourself that you are more than your achievements academically. Most people will graduate with an average grade, as it’s the AVERAGE! People who graduate with an average get jobs, are successful and find happiness. Academics aren’t the only way one can feel fulfilled and feeling that it is isn’t healthy or balanced. Happy individuals get their sense of self-worth from more than one avenue. Getting stuck in with hobbies, societies, social gatherings, getting out and not staying in your room studying all day can actually be better for your performance and it will be better for your perception of your performance. I personally go for walks around Reed Hall on campus, or to the city centre. When I lived at Duryard closer to Exeter’s Quayside I LOVED to go and see the little ducks and swans, though now I live near Duryard hill which is also wonderful to sit at! I have recently also gone to lots of cafes with friends in town and sat at St Luke’s (where I am writing this now!) even though I have no lectures or anything here. It’s just a gorgeous building and sometimes just being somewhere cosy and pretty is so nice.  

Relaxing walks by the Quayside

Feeling overwhelmed

Finally, feeling overwhelmed is sort of inevitable as finding the balance between being too free and being too busy involves figuring out when you are too busy. This, again, looks different for everyone (I know I keep saying that but it’s true!!!). This is probably the easiest one to solve, as all you have to do is deescalate your commitments for a while and evaluate what you want to keep doing and what you can give up. I once heard someone say “We are all juggling balls, some are glass and some are plastic- the important thing is to know what is glass and what is plastic”, i.e. what you can drop. Figuring that out takes some reflection and trial and error, but eventually, you’ll come to an understanding and it will feel a lot better and more comfortable. For me, I found I was getting way to wound up about every assignment and worrying that whatever I submitted wasn’t good enough. I was trying to do everything I could to get a good grade, I was trying to keep working 16 hours a week at my job, going to a few societies per week, go to the gym and get in a workout and also eat well and not buy food out, keep to a tight budget. At the time, I felt “I need to do this to be on top of things” but that’s so not true! And looking back at everything I was doing now feels exhausting to think about really. Life is about balance and its totally fine to buy lunch on campus to spend time with friends, it’s fine to skip workouts to watch YouTube and unwind and it’s fine to not feel 100% happy with everything you submit. Not everything should be an absolute MUST, I love the 80/20 rule where, sometimes, you can just let things drop, and it’s not the end of the world!   

Of course, sometimes things can get incredibly dark and difficult. Sometimes people feel so low, hopeless, lost, confused or overwhelmed that they may think of leaving university altogether. If you feel like you can’t do it yourself, there are wellbeing services at the university you can contact to get an appointment ASAP, most of the time you can get one within the week. The university offers counselling after a consultation with a member of the wellbeing team. If you feel you want to explore medication or other services, you could submit a consultation request with your GP and speak to them about what other interventions and support they can offer. When these challenges go untreated, sometimes it’s hard to pull yourself out and that is also okay! Knowing when something has been left too long to tackle alone is so important, lots of people would really love to help so please reach out! A strong person can’t bear the weight of the world, and asking for support shows resilience, bravery, intelligence and self-awareness. 

Now, with all that said and done, university provides an amazing opportunity to resolve all these qualms in a controlled and safe environment with lots of support and avenues available. Resolving all these difficulties, questions, challenges and whatever else will ultimately give you answers to things you may face later on in life. The transferable aspect of all these lessons learned is massively understated because anyone could struggle with these set-backs at some point and learning this early on in such a great place is really helpful. After a windy, topsy-turvy slippery and unpredictable ride in the waterslide, you’ll reach the pool at the bottom and wish you could do it all again because despite all the anxiety and discomfort, it was fun, exciting, exhilarating and worth every second. I’ll sign off with one of my favourite quotes; everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.