Monday, 23 November 2020

My experience with temporary withdrawal

Linda talks about her decision to take a temporary­­ withdrawal during her Master’s.

 - Linda

I applied for a temporary withdrawal in April or May 2020. There were many small reasons that amalgamated and created a huge mess. I questioned my intentions for doing a masters as my main motivation to do so was get a distinction to override the 2:1 I received for my undergraduate. I feared I was not employable, so applying for jobs absolutely terrified me. I hadn’t really thought through what course to study, where and whether it was the right time for me. I was very confused and tired. I was severely neglecting my mental health and ended up horribly sleep deprived and depressed. Additionally, in January, my partner and I had split up. I wanted to compartmentalise my grief and sadness into one week, but it seeped out into the following months and most aspects of my life. My identity as a ‘good girlfriend’ was stripped from me and I overcompensated by reaffirming my identity in other areas. I collected yet another part-time job, I spent more time being a good friend socialising, and studied and studied and studied. Nothing could fill that gaping hole and with all the commitments, I ended up teetering on an edge.

When the pandemic hit, everything became infinitely more stressful. I had spent months training myself to keep home, studying and work separate. My bedroom was supposed to be a safe space from the world, I could not be productive there. Additionally, my degree was moved online, and I couldn’t see my family or friends. My brain just couldn’t handle all of the changes. The straw that broke the camel’s back came with my last assignment; I could not finish it so I was granted a five-day extension. I cried on most of those five days. I was so tired and desperate. My final piece was barely a first draft, I didn’t even have time to get it checked over by my supervisor. It hit me that I was experiencing pressure so immense that it was affecting my academic performance. With my lack of motivation, sleep deprivation and depression, I could see myself burning out completely and screwing up my dissertation and mental health further. I HAD to stop.

Stop! It felt like a weakness. I saw my temporary withdrawal as an admission that I was incompetent and not suited for a masters.  I was very worried about how people would perceive me. Some people were worried that I couldn’t cope with a masters and now, I had proved them right.

By June, I was not in education or employment which was a first for me. Every day felt insignificant, wasted away by going on walks, drawing and listening to audio books. Instead of being adult, I was ignoring the massive looming debt due to my decision to take time off. I had dwindled my student loan and had little means to afford rent for the next year. I needed money but I couldn’t be bothered to work. Occasionally, I would apply for jobs as another way of filling my day.  In the early stages of my temporary withdrawal in general though, I experienced a pervasive nothingness.

Eventually, each day became easier. My best friend had the idea of starting a joint art page on Instagram to share our art so drawing started to feel more purposeful. My friend and I started small giveaways, she would make bookmarks and I postcards, and we would send them out to friends and family. Initially, it was spurred by boredom, but soon creating and sending postcards became very rewarding. I was connecting with family, friends and meeting new people. People were appreciative of my postcards; they were a little happy thing in an otherwise grim situation. A friend and local reverend who owned a small business contacted me and offered small postcard commissions and so my postcards reached even further than I thought they would. Each day on my walks, I would call my dad and we would gossip about my siblings. I would venture further on each walk, exploring forests and admiring buildings and street art. This was especially exciting as a year prior to this, an unfortunate injury had drastically reduced my mobility. During July, I was working at a local charity where I supported people experiencing isolation. Life started to feel less heavy.

I no longer feel any shame for taking a temporary withdrawal. I now see that I have nothing left to prove to people. I don’t need a masters to show that I am good at research or a distinction to show that I am smart. I am not weak or pathetic for taking a break when I needed one. I did not waste my time drawing, socialising and walking. I have had the time and space to think. Maybe I was not informed going into my masters. However, I do not regret it. I do miss psychological research however and will eventually finish my masters.

Here are some of my drawings from lockdown and my temporary withdrawal. The bottom row shows five postcards. The middle three are ones I was commissioned for.

If you feel affected by any of the issues mentioned in this story, please visit Student Minds or Student Minds blog for similar stories and support.

Student Space is also here for help related to coronavirus. Explore online resources, access direct support via text, phone, web chat or email and find the support available at your place of study.

I am Linda. I did a BSc in Psychology at the University of Warwick and now I am studying a MSc in Psychological research and working part-time at a charity that tackles isolation in adults.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

WELL at Uni?

Michael shares his experience about wellbeing at University.

- Michael 

University is a journey. For me, it has been a really rewarding road; I have learned so many things about myself and achieved things that I never would have imagined possible! But it can be challenging when you first settle in, and it took me a while to learn some tips and tricks to adjust, and get the best out of my time at university. Here is my story.

Coming from two years out of education, I always felt that I didn’t belong academically or socially at university. My application to my university had been previously rejected (twice!), and I never shook the feeling of imposter syndrome and that I wasn’t ‘good enough’ to be there. This made me anxious around others, self-critical, and develop some pretty unhealthy working patterns, as I strove to prove to myself and others that I deserved my place on my course.

Unsurprisingly, this unhealthy mindset made it really hard to settle in. I was so fixated on not falling behind with my studies that I never got involved in any clubs or societies where I could meet other people and make friends. In class, I didn’t contribute or talk to other people for fear I would expose myself as being out of my depth. I was constantly fixated with running out of money, and felt that I couldn’t afford the student social lifestyle anyway. And I was also a couple of years older than most people, and after a period of mental health difficulties which had resulted in two years away from education, I felt as if I was coming from a different background, with different experiences, to everyone else.

I found the academic culture and pressure especially difficult to adjust to. I struggled with workload and time management, I stressed about minute details and found it hard to prioritise, and I was constantly preoccupied with ‘failing’ or ‘falling behind’ and the need to be productive. I found the competitive culture and environment at university was not conducive to self-compassion, self-care, and mental wellbeing. I interpreted my whole education as a threat, never contributing to anything in class for fear that it was a test which I would inevitably fail. I worked unhealthy hours and patterns trying to feel comfortable on my course and though I belonged at university. But the harder I worked, the more that I isolated myself, the more unwell I became, and the worse I performed. 

After receiving some support from the counselling service that helped me to understand my feelings, I gradually grew in confidence and started to really enjoy my studies and my time at university. Approaching my studies differently helped to develop my sense of purpose, confidence, and wellbeing. Based on this experience, I started to question whether and how changes to university structure and culture could support better student mental health and wellbeing. And how changes to curriculum, assessment, and teaching and learning could improve student education and wellbeing.  

My experience of university inspired me to launch the WELL @ UNI study, or the Wellbeing and Experiences of Living and Learning at University study, to explore how university policies and practices can impact positively or negatively on student mental health and wellbeing, and how this is experienced by different student groups. I am currently conducting an online survey, open to all undergraduate and postgraduate students in the UK until 11.12.20. It takes approximately 15-20 minutes to complete and participants will have the opportunity to enter a £50 prize draw. Please consider sharing your story, so that we can represent and learn from the diversity of student experiences and, working in collaborative partnership with mental health organisations, make recommendations from the study for healthier policy and practice. Follow me @PriestleyMJ to keep up to date with the project and find out more. 

We know that experiencing mental health difficulties at university can feel overwhelming. Explore the support that is available at your university and further. 

Student Space is here to help you through coronavirus. Explore online resources, access direct support via text, phone, web chat or email and find the support available at your place of study.

Tips on navigating university life/Freshers: Explore tips and resources to help you navigate university life in Student Minds’ Transitions guide.

I’m Michael and I used to be the editor of the Student Minds Blog and a member of the Student Minds Advisory Committee. I am a PhD student at Durham University studying student mental health and wellbeing. I write for Student Minds to share my own experiences of mental health difficulties and to advocate for change to improve the state of student mental health.