Friday 16 July 2021

Understanding my mental health: Leaving university (part one)

This is part one of Natasha's experience with coping with mental health at university. After a year, Natasha realised she needed to leave university to understand how to live with her mental health struggles.

- Natasha

In October 2019 I did something I never thought that I would do - I dropped out of university. Up to that point I was driven by education, I lived and breathed it, probably too much. I had always wanted to go to university; it did not matter what degree I did, as long as I got there. Then here I was dropping out and thinking I failed, thinking, “how did I let this happen?”. I have lived with depression probably since I was 13 years old, although I did not understand what depression was until I was 15 years old, and a GP did not prescribe any anti-depressants until I was about 17 years old. I always asked myself: “What is wrong with me?”. My first year of university was probably the period where I asked myself that question the most, I would guess about 5 times a day. What is wrong with me? Why do I not fit in? Why can’t I open my door? Why can’t I stand the taste of alcohol? Why do nightclubs induce panic attacks? Why does socialising with my flatmates in the kitchen exhaust me? What is wrong with me? 
I worked so hard. University was going to be my big fresh start – meet ‘my people’ and live. So why couldn’t I do it? I got onto the course I loved, but I hated university. Again, the thought of ‘what is wrong with me?’ ran through my head. The stereotypical freshers drink, party, make lifelong friends and repeat. But this was not my experience and I only recently discovered that very few students actually experience university that way. My experience consisted of isolation, increased anxiety, and grief. In December 2018 I lost one of the most important people to me, my grandad. Peter Smith. We shared so much. I got my love of education from him. Despite the odds, he was the only one in his family to get into Grammar School and he went on to tutor those who struggled, including me. My family descended on my grandparent’s home for six weeks and we all cared for him, so when it was time to leave that bubble I did not recognise a world without him, or know how to navigate it. I had never experienced grief, so I dealt with it by putting all my energy into university and I got my first ever ‘1st’. A few months after I was about to do something pretty major for me: I was going on a trip to Krakow with people from my course. Major! Five days of socialising all day and night (nightclubs were on the itinerary) with nowhere for me to escape to and breathe. But suddenly it felt like Fate intervened; I was involved in a minor car accident and developed concussion and whiplash which meant bye-bye Krakow. Goodbye to my chance to actually experience university for what I felt was the first time. 
My depression was the worst it had been and this time my body physically reacted to it. My body started to reject food and two years later I still cannot eat a Dairy Milk bar without my body hating me. I dreaded the idea of returning to university. I was not sure about the house I had agreed to live in (with six others), and so far university was not working for me. But I would not let myself quit. I got to a place so many people fought for, and an opportunity not available to all. I had to be grateful, I could not waste it. I could not be ungrateful for the opportunity I had. I had lived with depression and anxiety for years and still managed to function, so I felt this would be no different. I moved into the house and the isolation set in. In a house of six people I had never felt so alone. I could not bear going to lectures or seminars, I turned off my lights and pretended I was going to socials. I got a job to avoid being in the house, but I actually only managed three shifts and had panic attacks before and after. Every night I either called, my mum, sister, or my boyfriend – for the first time I was scared of my depression. It had never controlled me like this. For the first time my depression and anxiety was crippling me. Three weeks into my second year myself, my family and the university realised it was not safe for me to stay, so I gave in (or that is what it felt like) to my mental health and left within the space of three days. I slept for the next two months and refused to go to therapy. I simply was not ready. I hid at home and told no one that I had suspended my degree, I was so ashamed of my ‘failure’. I had no idea how to navigate or understand my mental health. How do you address something you have tried to ignore for years?

Click here for help with your mental health, whether related to University or not. You can also learn more about loss and how you can support yourself through it on Student Space.

Hi, I’m Natasha, an undergraduate studying History at the University of Southampton. I have struggled with knowing where I fit in the world and what brings me joy, but since embracing my mental health struggles I have discovered that I love to read (mainly historical fiction), draw and talk honestly about mental health.

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