Breaking the silence on student mental health

Talking about mental health is on the up as we recognise more and more the significance of our wellbeing, especially in light of lockdown. Student mental health is no different. With that in mind, I interviewed three pals of mine from university to hear their takes on this massive subject. Grab a cuppa and read what they have to say. 

Can you give a brief overview of your uni days? 

Anonymous: I came to uni in 2016 and graduated in 2019 – like most I was straight from school and pretty hyped at the thought of experiencing the ‘uni-life’ where you could define yourself more as an individual. I had a lot of ups and downs, but my final year was the best. By then I had built solid friendships and actually discovered how much I loved Brighton! 

Becky: I moved to Brighton way back in 2014 and have stayed in the student bubble ever since – which makes me feel pretty old! I studied Sociology at Sussex and ended up on the CU committee followed by an internship year working for the CU (the Sussex CU is pretty great!). Turns out Brighton life is the one, so I’ve stayed, gotten married and had a baby, as well as working for aHolland Road Baptist Church as the student worker. 

Christina: Similar story here, I came to uni in 2014 to study Neuroscience and graduated in January 2019. I feel like I really threw myself into the whole uni experience and love the student community, so I’ve been interning in the student world with Emmanuel church.  

What were some of your experiences in dealing with mental health throughout this time? 

Anonymous: I came to uni with pre-existing mental health conditions. I had suffered a big loss in my life and it took a downward turn from there. I struggled as a guy to process these emotions, and by the time I was a Fresher I wanted to create a new identity for myself and pretend that it didn’t exist. As a student there are always big uncertainties hanging over you: What are you going to do when you graduate? Can I hack a 9-5? Is my degree actually leading somewhere? These bigger questions were always weighing heavily on my mind. 

Becky: Similarly, I came to uni having struggled with low-mood and anxiety as a teenager and my depression really hit in my first year. Being extroverted, I hid it well, until it came to a breaking point when I really couldn’t handle it anymore. Things improved as I took CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] and went onto antidepressants (medication was literally life-transforming for me). 

Christina: I had tendencies of depression and anxiety before coming to uni, but it became far more prominent living away from home and I was eventually diagnosed in my second year. For me, it looks like having one day feeling great and full of energy and then taking another seven days to recover at home. People don’t always see the full picture as I was high functioning, but behind the scenes I was struggling to leave my room and my sleeping pattern went out of the window. I joke that I was an alarm clock to my friends as I used to sleep at the strangest times, so I needed sleeping tablets to help me out as well as regular counselling from uni. Nights out are part and parcel of student life, but sometimes they can be a mask to hide your worries and fears. That’s not uncommon. 

How did you find it dealing with all of this as a Christian? 

Anonymous: I’ve struggled with it a lot in church and Christian culture. The idea that Christians are constantly happy, for example. Struggling to feel that same sense of being happy made me feel as if I was ‘missing it’ – until I realised that joy and happiness are not the same concepts. As Christians we have a sense of joy despite hardship, and this is deep-rooted in God, not our feelings. 

Becky: My church community were amazing. They were the people who checked in, asked the difficult questions and helped me through the hardest days – even something as simple as checking whether I had gotten dressed for the day. My housemates were the same. I found strength in reading God’s word and feasting on the sure and certain hope we hold as Christians. 

Christina: God became the one thing that I could hold onto; my faith pulled me through the hardest days, including the days when I felt suicidal. I learned that God is involved in every aspect of your life, so God is not separate or absent from your mental health. 

What about in positions of leadership? 

Becky: Absolutely. I spent two years on the CU committee while battling depression and anxiety and this was a struggle, especially at the beginning. Yet the more I opened up, the more it encouraged me and the leaders around me. We see vulnerability as a weakness, yet vulnerability is really about strength. Plus, it really blesses those around you to see that your life actually isn’t perfect, and we aren’t the ones nailing life 24/7. It removes that hierarchy that can creep up. 

Christina: Leadership is an extension of my life, and I have always aspired to lead from a place of transparency and authenticity. God has since allowed me to share my story to bring light to others’ situations – from the CU events week with well over a hundred attendees, to a struggling student who was at breaking-point. Being open about my own struggles has allowed others to follow suit. As a leader don’t be afraid to say no if you don’t have the capacity. Sometimes a season demands that you just receive and enjoy at church once a week – that may be what is needed the most. 

Can you talk some more about guys, masculinity and mental health? 

Anonymous: We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. As a guy, it seems that we are more high functioning in dealing with mental illness as it’s drilled into us that we need to be working, productive, useful and that emotions are ‘women’s work’. Essential conversations need to take place to change this narrative. If you have the energy and capacity, take a stand for this in changing the game. And if you don’t, that’s okay too. Be aware that men and women deal with mental health differently – and that needs to be reflected in our response too. 

What advice would you give to a fellow student or a Fresher who is about to head to uni? 

Anonymous: It’s a buzzword, but find community. Find the people you feel comfortable sharing with, which let’s be honest is a daunting prospect in a roomful of fresh faces. If you’ve never opened up about what you’re really battling, open up to one person. They may not have huge amounts of wisdom or advice to share – but the very act of opening up and allowing them to listen means more. 

Becky: I would second everything about community, and the best place to find community is within a church family. So, make that your priority as you enter the first few weeks. Also don’t shy away from modern medicine if it’s needed, register with your GP and access the wellbeing services that are out there. It’s easy to make comparisons: I’m not as bad as them, at least I’m still doing XYZ etc. Putting your own mental wellbeing as the priority is the best thing you can do for yourself. 

Christina: Most important: let the people around you know. From a practical point of view, the fact that it is recorded on your file allows people to better understand and support you from lecturers to pastors to managers. Don’t neglect the basics; building up a routine as much as you can, eating well (even just cooking once a week with your housemates) and working out (mood-boosting endorphins!). My lasting word would be that better days are coming. Cling onto that.

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