Jack: University Challenge
What if I pretend it’s not happening? Jack reflects on his decision to keep his panic attacks to himself when he started university.
For anyone currently at University, I doubt it’s any sort of a surprise that the number of first year students with mental health conditions rose from 3,000 to a mere 15,000 between 2006 and 2016. Mental Health conditions appear to be the norm for the country’s next generation of students, and on the face of things, it seems impossible that an academic lifestyle and any form of mental health problem could be in anyway compatible. Yet, many of us with those conditions continue to go to university in an attempt to work towards our desired education and it’s not always the smoothest of journeys.
I started my University life following an extended gap year in which I was struggling to bring myself to walk to the shop in fear of having a panic attack, let alone enjoying my academic break by backpacking around Europe in uncomfortable accommodation. But, I’d happily accepted by this point that my gap year was going to consist of cups of tea, blankets and mindfulness rather than shots, sleeping bags or any type of rave. Anyway, after a short, (what I thought was successful) batch of psychotherapy, I started University and from day one, I made the biggest of errors: I made the conscious decision not to tell anyone about my anxiety.
I’d been diagnosed for well over twelve months by the time I started University. However, I was in a mind-set where, after several blissful months of managing my mental health, I thought if I told anyone about it I would trigger the beast that was my anxiety. My concern was that if I panicked mid-lecture and people knew about it, then I’d have to give into the panic and leave the lecture to go panic elsewhere in private (the only place that any British person is allowed to show emotion), whereas, if nobody knew I could successfully hide my panic.
And that’s what happened – my anxiety & I lived happily ever after without any problems at University.
Alright, alright…it went completely the opposite direction. By not telling anyone about the situation, not only did I consistently have panic attacks in classes due to the pressure of attempting to be whatever ‘normal’ was, but I also had no idea who to turn to for help with my assessments and exams. It got to a point where I eventually ended up leaving University after one semester. But…then I had to tell the University what was going on. The cliché is that the minute I opened up to the University, everything began to get better. I was able to re-sit my entire first semester (for free!) with parameters in place so that if my anxiety came to say hello again, I knew who to turn to and assessment extensions were available to ease the workload.
From my experience, Universities usually have the facilities to accommodate people with a range of problems, and whilst the situation is improving, they don’t always advertise them well enough. The advertisement of the support services is essential because no one knows if they’re going to see a mental health condition rear its head. Whilst I’ve always advocated for everyone to be open about their health, like a lot of people – I was terrible at taking my own advice. Yet, when I did – things seriously got better. So I wanted to end this on a serious note, not about botched gap years, anxiety-happily-ever-afters or free tuition – future and current students: just tell someone. A tutor, a faculty member, your head of department – anyone.