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Why Taking Mental Health Leave From University Doesn't Mean I'm Giving Up

“You’ve only given it a week” — the comment I have heard over and over and over for the past few days since arriving home. In all honesty, it wasn’t even a full week I was at university, but it only took a single day before I began to think I didn’t even want to be there in the first place.

As much as I would love to sit here and tell a heroic success story about how I was the one girl tackling her own mental health and managed to get out on the other side with a degree and with everything so much better, as a massive inspiration to all – I can’t.

I have struggled with education because of mental health most of my life, so I knew there wasn’t going to be a magical change where all those problems would have just gone away once I started university, but I still wasn’t expecting them to hit so hard. I have depression, anxiety disorder and insomnia, which I have been getting treated for since I was 13. This made university kind of a big deal — moving away, being totally independent – stuff I never would have thought I’d be able to do.

Within the first few days, the struggles started to seep through. I was running off little sleep, had almost hourly panic attacks in the night and no motivation to attend any of the welcome week activities. The weight of all of this and starting to feel myself slipping back into dark places I had climbed out of, all added up to my decision to leave. I was struggling to manage my meds and my nights consisted of crying myself to sleep, along with the other usual suspects.

Instead of withdrawing fully, I decided that I wanted to just give myself the option to come back, so I have taken a temporary suspension from study. That is basically just a fancy way of saying that I’ve taken a gap year and, if I wish, I can go back next year. I was leaving halls, officially on study leave for the year, saying goodbye to some amazing new friends. I was gone — all within the hour.

Throughout the ride back, I was having my little music video moment just looking out the window thinking I may have just made such a massive mistake and I should have given it a little more time. There were so many financial and emotional implications with giving it a little longer, but I knew the second I walked back into my own home that this wasn’t a mistake — it was exactly what I needed.

The one thing I feared more than anything was letting everyone around me down — my parents, friends, boyfriend, other family members. After all, I had only given it a week. I just needed someone to tell me that it was OK that I was leaving, because I knew myself and my mental health better than anyone else around me, and far better than any of the university advisors that had known me for a matter of hours.

So, what’s the plan now?

I’m going to go back to therapy as soon as the list will allow me to. I’m going to get a job so I can get some money – which is another challenge for me. I’m going to use this year as an optimum chance to make myself better, and leaving university, for now, was a perfect set up for me to do so. I refuse to see deferring the opportunity to get my dream degree as giving up. I refuse to see that me leaving halls after a week is me giving up. Me leaving university for the year is nothing more than another opportunity for me to develop myself and then go back to university as a better and stronger person. I am not a quitter.

I’m quite lucky to have an amazing support system around me who were lining up to tell me that they were still proud of me and they were going to support me as much as they could as I went through the messy transition of leaving (and now the even messier transition of what to do for the next year). My mental health will always have to be a priority in my life and it will be for the rest of my life. I am fully aware that.

If you are reading this right now as a person who’s thinking of heading to university, someone who is already there, or someone who is thinking about leaving the way I was because they may be struggling with mental health issue(s) — I’m telling you it is OK to put yourself first. As much as university is a great opportunity, you are never giving that up by leaving. Even if it comes to next year and I am still struggling, there is always the year after that and the year after that. It is never too late. My story is just a little one in the pond of a number of people who go to university with mental health issues, and although it is not typically successful in terms of staying there, I am a success to myself. I know one day I will get there, and so will anyone else.

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Lead image via Brad Kerr