Starting university is like nothing you’ve ever experienced: the heady mix of partying, social anxiety and the general sense that you’re drifting around in total instability at the precipice of something great. It’s equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. But for many of us, the thrill of living in total self-indulgence falls away as the novelty of it wears off, and you’re left with just the terrifying part.
Research released earlier this month found that students at some universities were waiting as long as 84 days for mental health support, and the most up-to-date research from YouGov found that one in four students suffers with a mental health problem.
The same research found that while many universities spend upwards of Dhs 4.6 million on mental health services, others have less than half of that budgeted for student well-being. Some could not even provide a number for how much they spent on mental health services.
Part of the difficulty in affecting change, is that student life is often considered an easy ride. But the reality is often one of debt, loneliness and terrifying uncertainty, which can be extremely tough for many of us.
Here, five people share their experience of grappling with mental health problems while studying at university:
"I'd struggled with my mental health for years and when you go to university you want to showcase the best version of yourself, so I’d already decided that no-one was going to want to be friends with the girl who was often crying or feeling down for no reason.
"But bottling my feelings up for my first year took its toll, and it was only when I moved in with close friends in second year that I really let my vulnerability show. They encouraged me to actually talk to someone and discuss medication. They could see that I wasn’t myself; I lashed out, cried for no reason and eventually started removing myself from social situations.
"I was scared to open up, but when I did, I discovered that I had massively underestimated those closest to me. Their support was invaluable and it turned out you’re never the only one at university – it’s a massive upheaval and although there’s the good, there’s also a lot to adjust to. Looking back I’ve realised just how brave it is to ask for help and admit how you’re feeling, because you might just help someone else do the same."
"I didn’t struggle with my mental health because of university itself; I was assaulted during my third year which impacted how I coped, especially with the stresses of final year.
"I spoke to the counselling service but had a terrible experience. The only options my personal tutor and senior tutor had given me were to take an interruption (which I didn’t want to do) or get extensions on assessments – they said that when applying for assessment extensions, it would help my case if I’d been see the university counsellor, so it felt more like I was playing the game than it actually getting help.
"I waited about nine weeks to have the initial assessment, even though my personal tutor had tried to prioritise me, and I had to keep chasing them myself. When I did get to see a counsellor, I was only given five sessions and found that the counsellor was really not equipped to deal with sexual assault. She had only really dealt with anxiety and depression, and issues with exam stress. But I had to keep going to the sessions just so that she would write a letter to support my request for extensions.
"When my counsellor tried to arrange my final session, I didn’t reply to her for a week because I was busy writing my dissertation. After a week, she emailed me saying she had closed my case because I hadn’t replied – I found it so careless given that she hadn’t made any effort to contact me again or check on my wellbeing in the interim.
"In my situation, university itself wasn’t the reason I was struggling – but I think the pressure of assessments and deadlines can be really hard to deal with if you’re already struggling with your mental health. I don’t think that extensions are the best way to help either; it doesn’t make anything easier – it just prolongs it."
"I was in the midst of a dissertation when my boyfriend broke up with me and the combination of the two pushed me to my limit. I couldn’t concentrate on work and that exacerbated the stress I felt about meeting my deadline and getting a good mark. My friends and family were supportive but far away and my housemates had only known me for a couple of years, so weren’t a solid support system.
"I didn't have had a clue who to speak to at university about my mental health, so I went to my GP. They were really supportive and sympathetic, and advised me to commit to exercising at least a couple of times a week and cutting out caffeine (which I’d been relying on to cope with workload). It sounded flippant but I stuck to it and it really worked, it's actually helped build a process of coping mechanisms I still use today."
"I went through regular bouts of depression and anxiety at university. It was a combination of break-ups, worrying about family back home, friendships and my accommodation (I had horrible housemates at points). A bad diet and no exercise definitely didn’t help either, but I didn’t realise that until later.
"I tried counselling through my university but felt like I didn’t gel with the counsellor at all. I mainly attended so I could get a letter explaining I needed mitigating circumstances for extensions on deadlines.
"I think student lifestyle makes it really easy to fall back into depression if you have those tendencies (and maybe if you don’t, too). My course only had 10 hours of contact time a week, so I often went through cycles of not getting out of bed for days on end and crying.
"It was only after having a breakdown a couple of years ago that I figured out the pillars of my own self-care: eat well, keep your body and mind busy and don’t chase unfulfilling relationships. Basically, just be nice to yourself. I can’t believe it took me so long to wise up to that."
"University was particularly hard for me. The combination of being in a new place, a breakup and the stress of workload took its toll and in second year I was forced to go home for a few months to recuperate.
"University is hard enough with being away from friends and family, let alone all the stress, work, going out and lack of sleep. While I undoubtedly had the best years of my life there, there were some very low points too.
"I didn't actively seek out help, but I do feel like help wasn’t as openly available as I would have liked. I didn't know how to go about getting the help in the first place so I'd like to think that in the future universities will make these services as easy as possible to access."
"I did a pretty shocking job of taking care of myself at uni. My diet went out the window, my sleep schedule became completely erratic, I struggled to manage my random class schedule and I only exercised sporadically. I didn’t feel up to the challenge of navigating this new world by myself.
"Luckily I was in counselling at the time, otherwise I would have completely collapsed under the weight of trying to navigate that experience by myself.
"I struggled with the transition from living under my parents’ roof with rules and a routine, to having to make my own. I floundered, and didn’t seem to be able to create that structure for myself. I was depressed a lot of the time which had a knock-on effect towards my motivation to recover – it became a vicious cycle. I also felt immense pressure to decide what my career would be, and I often compared myself to others who seemed to have a clear plan.
"If I could do it over, I would prioritise my health better, and ensure I was in counselling from the start. Older me would tell my younger self to pursue my dream career from the get-go. And girl – just start your assignments earlier!"