Trigger Warning: Anxiety, PTSD, bipolar, suicide.
I am a fourth year student, and I have been dealing with mental health challenges for over half my life. I have been engaged in the mental health system since I was 14 and have experienced anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder from an assault that happened when I was 17. My experiences have changed a lot over time when it comes to mental health, and I finally feel like I am in a space where my concerns are validated and heard by mental health professionals.
I have dealt with a range of mental health challenges which have changed throughout my life, some of which became particularly severe in my first couple of years at university. The first week of my second year of my Bachelor of Arts degree, I was diagnosed with bipolar type 2 disorder. This is the type of bipolar which has less extreme ‘highs’ or mania, and more prolonged periods of depression. I didn’t take this news particularly well and could not see myself coping with a degree for another two years (at least), and the next week I attempted suicide, ending up with some very serious injuries. Fortunately for me, after I survived this ordeal, the medication I had started began to work. I could see a future in which I could cope with university and the other pressures in life. The preceding six months I had tried many times to end my life and had been let down by a failing mental health system which was reluctant to label me with a diagnosis that ultimately saved my life.
Going through university, I felt like I was the only person who had bipolar. Sometimes when a topic around mental health came up, I felt like I was the elephant in the room! After surviving such a traumatic experience in 2018, I spent the next year and a half learning how to use my new coping skills, but I was always worried about how this would affect my university work. I felt like there were huge risks in trying to live a normal life and being able to balance my mental health as well as university work; it seemed like a never-ending struggle.
In 2019, I had a job that I was working alongside the university and was learning how I could finally be a functioning adult. During this year, there were a lot of experimental coping mechanisms used, and while I had my slip ups, I ultimately had a far more positive year than the one before. Due to being on several medications, including mood stabilisers, antidepressants and antipsychotics, I was quite tired all the time and found it hard to get out of bed before 11am to go to class. I maintained my place in a flat, however I was withdrawn a lot of the time even while feeling like I was in a better space.
2020 has been a difficult year for most students, with COVID 19 undoubtedly having an impact on many students’ mental health. Fortunately for me, this year has been my most positive year yet. While having to move back in with family due to financial issues, I remained in a good space mentally and did not feel distressed by the changes that were taking place. I am a person who likes to get out of the house and feel like it is a good self-care strategy for me, so staying in the neighbourhood is probably what challenged my mental health the most during this time.
Having mental health struggles, and even a diagnosis, should not stop you from studying. It could indicate that it is a good idea to pace yourself, however I have maintained a positive recovery journey over the last two and a half years while still studying, even getting a degree during this time. I have received support from mental health advisors in Student Disability Services even if it is just to check in regularly. This is something that has contributed to my success in studying during the last four years. It is useful to have someone on your side before you get into a space of stress and more intense struggles, so I have used their support to request extensions for assignments where I have needed them.
University is such an intense experience, and I think that attempting to be kind to myself is one of the best decisions that I’ve made during this time. I have recognised that recovery is possible and that a diagnosis is not a death sentence, or an indication that you will not be successful in an endeavour such as studying. Mental health is something we should all strive to look after constantly, because it is something that we all experience and enables us to cope better with the challenges that crop up over a lifetime.