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Universities Cannot Continue to Ignore the Needs of Students With Mental Illnesses

Before I started university, I had a vision of myself as a brilliant academic, navigating the world of higher education as naturally and smoothly a fish in water. I envisioned it to be just like high school but without the petty dramas and politics that had bogged me down. I came from a small town, so plenty of people knew myself and my family, and so my struggles with mental health, depression in particular, had been well-accommodated for to ensure I would be able to achieve all I was capable of. I had been sheltered by this wealth of support and had no reason to believe this would not carry forth into this new realm of academia. I was sorely mistaken.

The city I moved to and the fast-paced nature of university life were huge culture shocks for me. I wasn’t used to the noise, the bustle, and felt like a stereotype of a small-town girl in the big city. I felt embarrassed, my hopes of making a quick adjustment burst in the instant I had arrived. I struggled to adjust to a lonelier life without the friends I had grown up with, and I found the transition from high school student to university student almost impossible to navigate alongside my mental health problems. I had not yet been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD); that would come a year later, and so I found it hard to communicate exactly why I was struggling so much and how the university could help.

After three arduous months of living in residency halls owned by the university, where I was bullied for my introverted, quiet nature, I moved back to my hometown and commuted in for lectures and contact time. Moving out was not something many students did and I had to go through a lot of bureaucracy, citing my mental health as a reason to be let out of my rental contract, to be allowed to go home. On the one hand, I was back amongst the people I had known almost my whole life. and the familiarity was comforting, but I was also incredibly isolated and felt a huge separation between myself and the university life my peers were enjoying so much. This only exacerbated my mental illness and particularly played upon some of my BPD traits, making me feel as if there was nowhere I fit in, that I would never achieve anything of substance, and that I had been in some way abandoned, be it by my rose-tinted optimism of university life or by the institution itself that had failed to offer me any support.

After giving evidence from my doctor that my mental health would not permit me to stay at the residency halls, I expected an email, a letter, something from someone within my school that would offer me the help I desperately wanted but could not access. Instead, I found that, as typical with many large universities, individual departments were not very much in contact with one another, and so I took responsibility for myself and contacted the Disability Services. Even there, I was held back from the resources I needed to access by the ocean of paperwork I had to get through, and even when support was offered, there were waiting lists that became increasingly harder to hold out for as I began to slip into a period of crisis. While I understand university mental health provisions lack sufficient funding and are increasingly under strain from the sheer number of people who need that kind of
support, I felt as if I had been failed; nobody could point me in the direction of emergency services available in my city or any financial advice provisions I could access, as I was severely low on money. As my depression became more overwhelming and I eventually developed serious suicidal ideations, I was forced to take an interruption from studies.

This was not a decision I took lightly. To interrupt my studies meant surrendering the all-important funding I was receiving for studying. It meant telling my parents I simply “couldn’t cut it” at university, that I was not the brilliant student I had pretended to be. It meant losing a group of friends who could not maintain contact with me as my mental health got worse. It put huge strain on my relationship as my partner became my whole social life. It was something I felt forced into, unable to sit and pass my upcoming exams because of absences and an utter lack of concentration and focus when I was present at a lecture. I was not really told of any other options, and it seemed to be all I was left with.

While I needed that eight months, as it turned out, to allow myself for the first time in seven years to just collapse and breakdown, it had devastating consequences on my life. Throughout the eight months I was not studying, I had almost no contact with the university and was offered very little in the way of interim support. In fact, they failed to appropriately deal with the financial side of my interruption that they were responsible for, and I ended up, for a time, completely penniless but unable to work, so I had no income.

Mental health is not taken seriously enough in any institution in society. From education to healthcare to the workplace, mental illness still unfortunately carries a great stigma, and there is a belief that it is something one can just shake off – be positive and strong and it will get better. My experience has taught me the importance of asserting myself and my needs, understanding what it is that I want and striving for it. Students with mental health problems do not receive the appropriate support, and often, accommodations are not made to ensure they can achieve their potential as their peers can. Disabled students are at such a disadvantage within the world of academia, and institutions have a responsibility to ensure every student is afforded the same opportunities to succeed. Now in recovery, I aim to use my experience of the system to advocate for those in crisis now and those who need access to life-saving resources and mental health provisions. Students with mental illnesses are just as capable as their peers. We just need to right kinds of support in place, and we need everyone to get alongside this and fight for us.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo by Wavebreakmedia Ltd