Monday 15 February 2021


Michael shares how his experience of university informed the WELL@UNI project and welcomes more to join the conversation about wellbeing at university.
- Michael Priestley

Do I ‘fit in’ at university? Am I the only one finding things hard? Why does my course seem impossible no matter how hard I try? Am I doing enough or should I be studying more? Should I be studying in a different way? Will this all be ‘worth it’ in the end? Will I even get a job after I graduate? How can I feel well mentally at uni? How I do well academically at uni? … These questions plagued my mind when I first started university. 

Coming from two years out of education, I always felt that I didn’t belong academically or socially at university. My application had been previously rejected (twice!) and I never shook the feeling of imposter syndrome and that I wasn’t ‘good enough’ to be there. I felt like I was coming from a different background, with different experiences, to everyone else. I became anxious around others, self-critical, and developed some very unhealthy working patterns as I strove to prove to myself and others that I ‘deserved’ my place at uni. 

These thoughts and behaviours led me to feel unhappy, isolated and still no more confident or competent on my course. 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 always be productive. 

The competitive culture and environment were 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 I would fail and expose myself to be an imposter. 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 university counselling service and my academic advisor, I started to both feel better and do better in my course. 

Years later, I have learnt to challenge the feeling of not be going enough and although it’s something I still struggle with, I have learnt strategies to cope so that I can still make the most of all that uni has to offer. I can recognise in myself the critical voice and know how to distract myself to drown it out. I can see more clearly when perfectionism might be impeding productivity. 

This 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, practices and cultures can impact positively or negatively on student mental health and wellbeing, and how this is experienced by different student groups. Working in partnership with multiple stakeholders, I want to find out how universities can proactively coordinate holistic change across the whole university to promote better overall wellbeing and learning for everyone, and prevent some difficulties from arising. 

I am currently recruiting for the WELL@UNI online student consultations, exploring student experiences of wellbeing and living and learning at university. If you are currently an undergraduate or postgraduate student in the UK, please consider signing up and sharing your story! 

We as students are best placed to understand and lead the change. As a thank you, all participants will receive a £10 amazon voucher. Visit this online form for more information and to express your interest. Follow me @PriestleyMJ to keep up to date with the project and find out more.  

Whether you are looking for support for your own mental health at university or supporting a friend, help is available

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. 

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