By Abbie Mitchell
The first time I went to university I broke down. Physically and emotionally. I remember vividly, lying on my dorm room floor, crying. Sobbing. Wishing I could be ‘saved’ from the trauma in my head. I was so scared.
This was strange to me. My life prior was super outgoing, although sometimes this was to escape the sadness, loneliness, and fear I felt deep within. I did a pretty good job of masking it though, to a point I’d even fooled myself, and most my friends and family. I was clubbing and socialising regularly before going and thought ‘Freshers’ and I would be a match made in heaven from what I’d heard about university life. This could not have been further from the truth. I remember attending a welcome party and just freezing. I felt numb and stood statuesque in the sea of people around me. I left.
“I’ll try again another night,” I said to myself. Except I couldn’t. I couldn’t face it.
A lovely girl I met was making a big effort to befriend me but my anxiety was all consuming by this point. I was eating minimal amounts of food, which was unusual for me, and my mental health was deteriorating at a rapid pace. I felt frightened to leave my room with little idea of what it was I was even scared of. I reached out to my best friend and family who came to collect me and when things weren’t getting better back home on their own, and self harming thoughts and behaviours were entering the picture, I went into hospital where I was safe and accessed some treatment.
I left my course and university to be back in a familiar space where people I knew and loved were not too far. Could I have stayed at my university and got the help I needed? Potentially. But I can’t deny the social factors at play here. It would have taken a tremendous amount of effort from my support network and I for me to have kept going so far away physically from my loved ones, I can’t even begin to imagine how the pandemic may have affected my experience and those of students now.
Looking back, I think it had a lot to do with my unprocessed trauma. I was already 5 years into grieving a secure and stable life I had before when my primary care giver took her life and my world was turned upside down. Moving away to a place where all things and people familiar to me were not in sight and there was a lot of change to get used to, took me back to losing my mum so suddenly, where I knew even more change were to come.
When I came out of hospital, I was still unwell, but no longer a risk to myself as before. When a psychiatrist asked me who I was, prompting me to describe myself, traits, interests and more, and I couldn’t answer, I knew it was time to start rebuilding, ‘Abbie’.
I began volunteering which led to paid work that made me understand more about who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. I signed up to go to university again. I was more, ‘ready’, this time. I’d accessed therapy and knew it was important I did this in my new university town so I registered with the GP straight away. I attended the university counselling service as and when I needed it and managed to complete my degree. It was one of the most memorable times of my life that has helped shape my career.
It’s okay that university didn’t work out the first time for me (or even if it didn’t work out at all). It’s okay that I went back to study years after my peers. I will not carry shame. My experience helped me to get help. It taught me a lot about my mental health.
If you’re at university or contemplating going away from home, and have had a history of mental distress, I’d encourage you and/or your support person/network to look into what mental health and well-being services are on offer. Register with a GP and try and stay connected to your loved ones who may be able to support. Try to calm some of the pressure you may put on yourself. Your mental health matters and is the priority.