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University and mental health: how to prepare for the big transition

When first moving away I was terrified, convinced that there was no way an idiotic little girl such as me could survive. Now, when I talk openly with others, have a good time, and find myself coping more and more every day, I know that I was wrong.

Moving away from home can be a scary experience for anyone, and it’s perfectly normal to experience some low mood and anxiety at first. Unfortunately, having prior low mood and anxiety due to mental health difficulties such as depression can worsen this experience.

I believe that coping and surviving aren’t about being ‘recovered’, because to me this is a goal state to strive towards. Thinking that you can’t be healthy unless you are completely free of the worrying thoughts that have plagued you for years is in fact maladaptive.

I learnt this during my first months at university, where I experienced several relapses in my eating disorder. At first, I was convinced this meant that I could never be healthy and could never lead a normal life.

It turns out that healthy and normal aren’t synonymous, and the number of wonderful people I have met who are also struggle with various difficulties has shown me that ‘normal’ is not only a fantasy, but a silly one. Happiness and health should be understood as a goal states; and as transient experiences to be enjoyed and obtained through whatever means necessary.

Moving to university can be a somewhat surreal experience; and, unhelpful coping mechanisms related to mental health issues may re-surface or worsen as a result. I have found that the best thing to do in those situations is to talk to someone, even if it is not about the issue at hand. Sometimes leaving the shell of your room and talking about music with friends is enough to calm an episode. When that is not enough, then you should seek immediate help from close family and friends.

It hurts to admit that you’re struggling, especially if you’ve been doing well for a long time. Especially if you don’t want to worry or disappoint your loved ones. But they would most definitely rather you talked to them. That’s what friends and families are for.

If you do have an episode, don’t let it bring you down enough to start another cycle of illness. Try your best to remember that relapse is a part of recovery. In some way, relapse means that you are getting better. Episodes during illness are not relapses. They are a frequent occurrence. Know the difference.

For anyone who is struggling; it is important to remember that most people are good people who would want to do their best to help you. It is also important to remember that you are one of those good people too, and you deserve to have help if you need it.

Moving to university can be difficult, especially with mental health problems; but it helps to prepare you for living independently in a setting where help is always still available in emergencies.

It forces you to meet people, which is especially helpful for those with depression and anxiety issues who may isolate themselves. I have to put my hands up and admit I’m one of those. But moving to university meant that I had to interact with people, and I am forever grateful for that. If I hadn’t left my comfort zone I would never have met the friends I have now.

Whether you have mental health concerns or not, going to university is a transition which you should prepare for. Things to be anticipated are homesickness, an overwhelming number of people, noise and the stress of having to manage your own workload.

To prepare for homesickness, it’s a good idea to first stay away from home for a while when you first move; going home too soon doesn’t give you time to settle. After you feel adjusted, going home and having dates in your schedule for seeing family can help you get through days where you miss home.

Noise can be a huge issue, especially for those with sensory issues and anxiety. There unfortunately isn’t much getting away from that at university. Earplugs can be helpful, and another useful technique is to prepare yourself for noise by working out what times of the day and night are most noisy, and recognising that during these times you may need to call a friend or get some fresh air.

Overall, for anyone in recovery, I believe that university is a good place to be where you can have a stable routine and meet new people. To begin your life away from mental illness. I feel terribly lucky now. I have wonderful people in my life, a great opportunity at university, and a future.

For those who are truly struggling it may be necessary to defer a year to receive proper treatment, but when you are in a position to fight the battle of your illness everyday instead of losing it, you should benefit from the experience.


Victoria Lendon

Victoria is an aspiring writer and psychologist.

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National Centre for Mental Health, Cardiff University, Hadyn Ellis Building, Maindy Road, Cardiff, CF24 4HQ

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