Monday 18 May 2020

My Experience of Mental Health as a Fresher with Chronic Illnesses

Charli shares her experiences of starting university with a chronic illness, and her tips for finding support.

- Charli Clement

I want to begin by saying that I genuinely think we need to hear that it is okay if Freshers’ Week isn’t the best week of your life – because chances are, it won’t be. And yet, very few people acknowledge how stressful it can be to find yourself in a brand-new place without established friendships, being pulled about from talk to lecture to night out. And if you’re chronically ill, this can cause symptoms to flare as there isn’t as much rest time as you’d normally have. It can also cause your mental health to dip, so I want to advise that you make sure you listen to yourself and if you feel like you can’t do something, be kind to yourself and don’t do it. Personally, I addressed this problem by using Thursday and Sunday to take rest time, and I didn’t really go on nights out. 

That's because I definitely pushed myself too far during my first term and burnt out. As a result, the biggest thing I learnt during my first year is that I can’t do everything, and actually, sometimes I have to do nothing. It’s okay to have days where you can’t go to your lectures or have to stay in bed all day. Sometimes I manage my lectures but can’t go to the society meetings and although I hate that, I’ve learnt to look after myself. I highly recommend learning about other people's experiences before you go to university, whether they are chronically ill or not, to give yourself an idea about the sort of routines and habits others might have. I recommend University and Chronic Illness: A Survival Guide by Pippa Stacey, which is full of useful advice about everything from academics to living alone, and it contains anecdotes from lots of other students too (including me!). There are also lots of university vloggers on YouTube who show their daily lives. 

What I Learnt as The Year Went On 

Throughout the year, I had multiple periods where I felt that my mental health issues were heightened, usually in the middle of the term when I hadn’t seen my family for weeks and I was tackling multiple deadlines. I withdrew from my friends and stopped going to lectures, and I wish I hadn’t because my friends were so supportive of me and would help me in any way that they could. However, throughout the year, I've tried a few different things to support my mental and physical health and one of the best things I've tried is cooking dinners with my friends. We meal-planned at the start of the week and started cooking at the same time each day so I knew the routine, and it also supported me because it made sure I got some social interaction each day; if I was struggling significantly with my chronic pain and fatigue the girls would make me rest, or only let me help a little bit if I was insistent. So, I’d highly recommend making dinners alongside a few of your flatmates! 

Coursework and Exams 

Within my disability support plan, there are details about my different symptoms and the support I should be given. I also introduced myself to my seminar tutors after the first session so that they could put a face to a name. I’ve had to access extensions on nearly every piece of coursework, and as the year has gone on, I’ve worked on feeling less embarrassed and guilty about this. It doesn’t make me a lesser student and accepting this allows me to embrace the resources offered to me. It also helps me to enjoy the fact that using these resources means I don’t struggle as much with my health; I shouldn’t feel bad when accessibility resources put me on a level playing field with other students. My exams this year aren’t going ahead due to COVID-19, but if they had, I would have been in a separate room writing on a laptop. I personally think it’s really worth declaring as much as you feel you can to the disability support team to get the best support for you possible, and it’s worth getting this put in place before you arrive (but it’s never too late to access it if you haven’t already!).

My first year at university has been a massive learning curve for me as a chronically ill student, and whilst my mental health has been up and down throughout it, I’ve enjoyed so much of it. I’m really passionate about what I study, I’ve made some amazing friends, and I love the society that I’m part of (and now Vice President of!). My main piece of advice would be to find people who support you, whether they’re friends or within your department or the disability team, and never feel pressured to do something that you can’t or don’t want to do.

For more resources on finding support for your mental health with Student Minds, click here.

I’m Charli, a first-year history and politics student at Lancaster University. I have multiple chronic illnesses along with autism, dyspraxia and mental health issues which all mean I have had to navigate supporting my mental health whilst studying and getting used to living alone.

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