In 2007, when I was 19, I started my BA (Hons) in Drama and English Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London. Goldsmiths is a quirky, art school with an area of excellence in the arts. It was the perfect place for me to study, despite the distance to South London!
Having grown up and gone to primary and secondary school in Bushey, Hertfordshire in a close knit Jewish community, leaving my comfort zone behind was both nerve wracking but exciting. I was thrilled to be studying what I loved and being on a new journey. In my first year, I lived in halls and made lots of new friends .
However, it had only been 3 years since I had been diagnosed (at the age of 16) with bipolar disorder. Bipolar is a serious mood disorder where you can get low, depressive moods and at the other end of the spectrum- high, manic moods. Bipolar can be medicated with mood stabilisers and anti depressants, and I was very good at keeping to my medicine regime and of course avoiding alcohol, not so easy in a student environment!
Throughout my 3 years at Uni, although my Bipolar symptoms were largely kept at bay, I did suffer from social anxiety which impacted slightly on my Drama degree. Anxiety is something that I have lived with for a long time. When you are diagnosed with a mental illness as a teenager, you don’t want to be different. As I had been in hospital as a teen due to a bipolar episode and had to go down a year at school to catch up, getting to university was a victory for me. In fact, just three years before I began my degree, doctors had told my parents that due to the severity of my illness, I may not make it to university. I was so pleased to prove them wrong!
Yet, I did still feel different and although I loved my course, I did have times when my anxiety impacted. Studying Drama was (and is) a love and passion of mine. I loved creating characters, learning acting theories and forming performances with my fellow drama students. However, when I was feeling at my worst throughout my 3 years at Uni, there were times when I felt I couldn’t perform on stage.
In those times, my university tutors were hugely supportive and I disclosed to them that I was struggling with my anxiety disorder. I only ever had positive support and was set an alternative writing assignment instead, which meant I could still get my degree.
My advice if you are struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions at university is to do the following:
Disclose your condition to your tutors (and particularly a supportive form tutor) if your illness is impacting on your work. It is not weakness to disclose, rather if you do, then the University can help. University has a duty of care to you to make sure you are safe and well. Once disclosing, you will often find that you will be highly supported by staff. Sometimes too, the University pastoral department can get involved to help you and refer you to counselling If needed. You are not alone.
Be honest and kind to yourself. If you are living away from home, there is temptation not to tell your family or friends what is going on. You may think that you will be worrying them but actually having a strong support network really helps, so speak to those who are supportive and get some advice as to what you should do.
If you are really struggling and cannot continue on the course, speak to University about it and see if you can defer a year. Also, make sure you make a GP appointment to discuss what is going on with your mental health- or if you are under a psychiatrist- go and see them.
Try not to isolate yourself. At uni, I found strength from joining Goldsmiths Jewish society and later becoming President of it, working with local Rabbis and meeting Jewish students from all over the world. Its important if you can and are feeling well enough, to make new friends and try out new clubs in the Student Union. In London, we have UJS- Union of Jewish students, which I found really helpful to join. In my third year, I was on the events committee and organised a bar night, Booze 4 Jews London. Having those connections was really helpful to me and I enjoyed my time at university even more.
Remember there will be times when Uni can be challenging. Whether its being away from home, meeting new people, having difficult assignments and lots of independent work, writing a long dissertation… know you can and will get through it but make sure you have the right support in place.
If you are really struggling ie feeling very depressed, suicidal or want to harm yourself- please do share this with your doctor, family or someone you trust, so you can get the right support. You can also call Samaritans and various helplines. It may help you to take time out of university to get well.
In my experience, my universities (after Goldsmiths, I did a year at Royal Central drama school) really supported me with my anxiety and mental health. Remember to speak out, get help and support and know you can still get your degree despite your health challenges – you are not alone.