The end of university is a strange and conflicting time. With deadlines done and exams taken, ideally, the only feelings we should be experiencing are joy, relief and giddy excitement at the prospect of new beginnings and fresh starts. No more all-nighters in the library, no more terrible campus coffee, and no more anxious waits for delayed student loan deposits…This is supposed to be the time where the childish notions of classmates and homework are stripped away to reveal a professional, industry-ready graduate, fresh faced and ready to take on the world.
But with every one in four university students suffering from mental health problems, this expectation can seem like an impossible dream for many of those graduating this summer. During their time at university, many students will experience complex mental health issues and disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression. For a smaller percentage, these mental health problems can be even more serious, with many suffering from deeper seated illnesses like bipolar and schizophrenia. And whilst most universities are well equipped to deal with these issues internally, and do offer many forms of help, for most, the student experience can be a major contributing factor to their struggles with mental health.
From my own personal difficulties with anxiety and depression, the student lifestyle was incredibly difficult to cope with. The academic pressures, the looming deadlines, the impression that a completed university degree was the only thing that would ever bring me success really played on my mind. It eventually warped my thinking into something I could barely even recognise. The stresses of living away from home, with new people, from different backgrounds with different routines, made my home life difficult, with seemingly no escape to just be myself. And the more anxious and depressed I felt, the more jobs I added onto my to do list just to distract myself. Over three years of university, the number of unfinished projects, unattended events and unaccomplished achievements I had weighing me down really did affect my lifestyle, to the point where my free time was virtually non-existent.
But then it ends. All of sudden, after submitting that final essay, there’s just nothing. You’re left with a void that is pretty much impossible to fill. Suddenly, everything that you hated about university becomes your favourite thing, and you long to go back to library sessions and damp student housing and cramped lecture theatres, just for something to do. And for some students, this is the time that their mental health will be at its worst.
The counselling and support of university that could once see you through any number of anxiety attacks or depressive lows is suddenly mentally off-limits. It seems odd to still visit a counsellor at a university you no longer attend, so you’re forced to search further afield for that critical psychological help. The safety net of extensions and student loans is pulled out from under you with such rapidity that you can easily stumble into a panic of financial crisis and impulsive job seeking. The pressure, now, is on you to be a grown up, to survive in the world completely alone. Of course your mental health is going to suffer.
Mental health is a precarious thing, teetering on the edge of sane and insane, and healthy and ill. Big changes like the end of university require some serious planning and support, so if you feel a little out of your depth about the looming end of education, here are a few tips that might just see you through it.
- Look into local therapy or counselling options. This can be done pretty much from the start of university to the end of it, but if you’re heading out into the big wide world, there’s no shame in being supported through the tough bits. So many services are available, both public and private, and there are a variety of talk therapies and behavioural counsellors available to anyone who is struggling with the change.
- Give yourself time to adjust. Plan something that you’re really looking forward to immediately after the end of university. Whether that’s a holiday, a shopping trip, or even just a visit home to see your parents – don’t let yourself sit around the house and stew in your own terrified thoughts. Until you’ve truly come to terms with this new phase of your life, let yourself just enjoy being free for a while, and save the worrying until later.
- Don’t jump too soon. This can apply to every ‘next step’ that a recently graduated student might be considering right about now. A Masters might seem like the safe choice to get you through the next year, but if you really don’t enjoy studying that much, then why put off leaving the nest? An internship is a great way to get some experience, but if you take a terribly underpaid role simply to avoid committing to a proper job, it’s only putting off the inevitable. And if you accept the first role that comes your way, ok it might work as a stop gap, but if that job just isn’t right for you, then it might be worth waiting for the perfect opportunity to come along. It’s scary to be alone and adrift in a world without knowing where to go next, but don’t just take the first thing offered out of fear – look around and explore. Your mental health will thank you for it.
- Accept where you’re at in life. If a large part of your mental illness is the unhappiness of personal circumstances, then now is a good time to challenge that. To come to terms with the fact that university is over, and yes, the mental health problem you had when you started is still there. But there is so much ahead, and so much you can do to improve your own life, without needing to prioritise essays and exams first. For the first time, your mental health can be your number one priority, so take the chance for a little self-care, and ready yourself for the big journey ahead.
It’s natural to feel terrified at this change in your life. As students we’re trained to submit coursework, not socialise in office complexes, so it’s perfectly normal to feel out of your depth right now. But it’s also an extremely exciting and life-shaping time, where nothing is off limits and everything is achievable. So if you feel like your mental health is stopping you from moving on, or the thought of leaving university is having a bigger impact than you first expected, there’s nothing wrong with getting a little help through this difficult transition.
With mental health charities such as Student Minds, UNHAM and the Mental Health Foundation offering personal services for students and graduates, there is always someone you can talk to if times are tough. So don’t let leaving university be your downfall. Make it your stepping stone to something better, with a fresh new perspective to follow.
By Nikki McCaig