The Power of Putting Yourself First.

Shay Gray explains, from personal experience, the importance of taking care of your mental health at University.

Warning: this article discusses topics of anxiety attacks and suicidal ideation.

Let’s not sugar coat it: University is kind of scary. You’re away from your family and living alone for quite possibly the first time in your life, you’re surrounded by total strangers, you’re studying more than you’ve ever studied before, and you’re paying a bucket load to do it. Because of that, students tend to put their mental health in the back seat. I’m here to beg you not to do that.

When I entered my second year in 2017, I was excited, but I was also overwhelmed. This was the first year that actually counted towards my overall graduation grade, and that was terrifying. It all started off fine, but suddenly deadlines began creeping up, and I felt my mental health deteriorating under this pressure to be the best student I could be. I wanted to have good grades, I wanted to be social, and I wanted to have as many extracurriculars under my belt as I possibly could, just to prove that I belonged here. That left me with no time to focus on myself and my wellbeing. Eventually, that started becoming too much to handle.

I started having more anxiety attacks than I could count in a day. I was afraid to leave my room because I became afraid of other people: what were they thinking of me as I walked past them? Were they judging me? Were they laughing at me? There was no logical explanation, but it was just how I felt. So I stopped going to lectures, and I started shutting myself in my room. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to go to my lectures, I wanted to learn, I just couldn’t. This started a little spiralling domino effect: I couldn’t go to lectures because I was too anxious and afraid to leave my room, so I felt horrible for missing important lectures, so my self-esteem lowered, all culminating in me questioning my very right to exist at all. 

You don’t need to pretend that everything is okay if you don’t feel okay.

It was then that I decided to do something I never thought was possible, and something I knew many people would see as a form of giving up: I took a leave of absence. Which meant I decided to defer my second year for another two years while I went home in the hopes of getting better. I decided I had to put myself first, and I’d reached such a low point that it was impossible to do that without specialised help. So I went home, spoke to my GP, and enrolled on an 18-month therapy course. I wondered if I was running away instead of facing the problem head-on, but I knew in my heart that I had to do what was right for myself, instead of what everyone else thought was right. In that therapy course I tackled my fear of other people and their judgements, I tackled my unbearable need to seem worthy of being at University, I tackled my anxiety and the pressures I kept putting on myself, I learned how to practice mindfulness, and I learned about the variety of healthy outlets that exist to channel my emotions into something more positive. Things I didn’t know it would ever be possible to learn. And when that two-year course was over, I was finally ready to return to University with a whole new outlook and a whole new set of skills that I could carry with me through the next two years of my studying. I’m healthier now, happier now, and I have a much brighter view of myself and my existence here at Royal Holloway.

So I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to put yourself first. You don’t need to maintain a facade, and you don’t need to pretend that everything is okay if you don’t feel okay. Don’t neglect your own mental health in favour of studies, and extracurriculars, and social events you don’t want to go to. If you need help, there are a wide variety of outlets available on campus, so don’t hesitate to pop your head into the Student Wellbeing service, or Disability and Dyslexia service. They’re here to help you, and they can. Take it from someone who didn’t take advantage of the opportunities on campus until it was too late, you can get better. Just put yourself first.