Everyone who has experienced one can remember their first panic attack. Mine came in my third year, while on a year abroad at UCLA, when I stopped on the side of the road on the walk home from another long shift at the coffee shop I worked in, partially hid myself in some bushes (no idea why) and hyperventilated and sobbed while passers-by awkwardly skirted around me. After calming down somewhat and walking home, I climbed into bed fully clothed and didn’t leave for 24 hours.
I’ve spent a lot of time in university at this point – seven years and counting – and about halfway into that time I started seriously struggling with anxiety and depression. For various reasons, mostly tied up with my black womanhood and expectations of strength and silence, I've had to work long and hard to have my mental health difficulties recognised and taken seriously by my family, my university, my doctors and especially myself.
Academia has long been a breeding ground for mental health problems – a problem that has unfortunately only worsened in recent years, which isn't surprising when you factor in rising fees, falling job security and the general deterioration of the political and environmental world. According to a report by the IPPR, around three-quarters of adults with a mental illness first experience symptoms before the age of 25, and in 2015/16, 15,395 UK-domiciled first-year students disclosed a mental health condition – almost five times the number recorded in 2006/07.
It’s clear that something deep-rooted in academia needs to change, but before the culture has been revamped, we still have to survive (and hopefully thrive) in these institutions. Here are some tips and suggestions to keep you going while you are on a low budget, high workload lifestyle at university.
Prepare Before You Arrive
I was unprepared for the force of depression and anxiety that set in while at university. But many of my friends had been experiencing mental health issues from their teenage years. If that's the case for you, you might benefit from making a treatment plan prior to going: get signed up for your term-time GP right away, advise the disability services at your university of your condition so they can set up provisions for you, like extensions on essays and longer library book loans, and get yourself signed up to counselling services outside of your university.
If you are comfortable doing so, alert your personal tutor at university. They are supposed to be your support system, and if anything goes wrong with your exams or essays they will be invaluable when it comes to applying for special circumstances or extensions. On that note, you should absolutely check out what the services are like in your city, particularly if you are from a minority background, as they can sometimes offer free and unlimited counselling.
If you have disclosed a disability to the university, check if the university will allow you an early move-in date, if that will make you feel more comfort in your new home. Bring food, cutlery and crockery you have at home if home represents a safe place for you. Then you'll be all set to...
Build and Sustain Your Support Networks
Both at uni and back home, you need people who can empathise with you, and who you can work with to keep each other healthy. Whatever that looks like for you, try not to overload each other with heavy stuff, and make sure the conversations are two way if you would like to keep those friends. Always ask if the person has the energy to listen to you in that moment. Your friends can’t just absorb pain, so make sure you are checking in with the people you lean on, and that you aren’t leaning overly on one person.
One fantastic system I heard about from a person living with PTSD was that they had given the people in her network numbers, so that when she was suffering she could call them one by one, and if someone was not able to take the call for various reasons she could pass over onto the next number. This meant that no one in the group felt solely responsible for her wellbeing.
Also – because these people exist – avoid those who constantly perform their stress simply because it’s the "done" thing, or to seem terribly important, or whatever. Remember: it’s also OK to not be stressed. Don’t feel like you have to participate in the fiction of stress or force yourself into stress just to feel as though you are doing university properly.
Prevent a Crash
The party culture of university is something I would recommend. I got it all out of my system very early, and now I spend my evenings with my cat and a glass of wine, which I would not trade for the world. But if you don’t want to be middle-aged at 24 like me, try to look after yourself while you live it up. When it comes to drinking and drugs, keep an eye on your consumption levels and don’t feel like you have to do either to have fun if you don’t want to. I have plenty of teetotal friends who prefer to stay sober because of how that stuff interacts with their mental health or medication. Don’t shame or pressure your friends who make this choice if it isn’t your personal choice either.
Simplify Your Studying
Check what your university and, more specifically, your department offers in terms of deadline extensions. Knowing the policies and what you’re entitled to is pretty helpful. I didn’t realise until my fourth year that my department had a no-questions-asked one week extension policy on essay deadlines, which saved my degree when I finally figured it out in fourth year.
Forget #selfcare and all that Tumblr stuff; if you reach a point where you can reasonably stop working, get up and tidy your workspace. Have a cup of tea and a cigarette. This will reset your mind for the next chunk of work. Try not to procrastinate and let the break become the rest of the day, but if it does, no big deal. You’ve done something productive like cleaning, and it means you have a nicer space to return to. Don’t waste more time regretting wasted time; refocus on the time you have left and how you can use that effectively.
FYI, if you can’t work in silence, try listening to white noise playlists or something similar. Music or TV can be a distraction, but chill-hop / trip-hop on YouTube is really comforting because the music is static and repetitive enough to ignore and get work done, but quite decent too. Meanwhile, make sure you...
Get That Nourishment In
Who has the time to work out, get your ten-a-day, or whatever it is now, have a part-time job and keep up with academia? Try to cook in bulk, and in as few pots as possible. Tidy as you go while something is boiling, then plate up directly into Tupperware. This minimises clean-up, you can eat from the Tupperware, it’s transportable, just an all-round winner. I’m also a sucker for bulk-buying household products like wet wipes (you will need mountains of these) and loo-roll from Groupon. It’s a bargain and you can get that good shit like Cusheen instead of wiping with sandpapery one-ply like the broke student you are. Finally, if you hate exercising as much as I do and will find any excuse not to do it, sleep in your activewear, so you can roll out of bed and go directly to the gym. If all of this wasn't enough, know how to...
Look After Yourself While You’re in the Middle of a 'Breakdown'
Now is the time to start modifying your tasks. You can’t be as productive as you usually would be while in a depression slump, that’s just a fact. If you can’t write right now, can you read? Can you take notes? Back to that support network: ask your friends to take photos of their notes so you can at least copy or digest them in your own time. My friends will always notice when I’m en route to collapse before I do – if your friend tells you about your triggers and checks in on you, take heed! If you have to stop, you have to stop. If you fell asleep, you had to sleep.
As a black woman, one telltale sign of my depression is difficult to hide – I lose the energy and will to moisturise, and ashy skin is unforgiving. Some products that really help me are Lush’s "Scrubbee" and "Buffy" bars (not #sponcon), or if that’s not accessible or affordable, plain old coconut oil or baby oil will do it. You can wash, rinse, apply oil (rinse again if you choose) then step out and go about your day without fearing judgmental looks from fellow black women on the street. In a similar vein, try to put your hair away. I pull my hair out when I’m anxious, so if I feel a slump coming along, I put my hair in braids so I won’t do too much damage to my edges.
You survived another bad patch and you’re feeling better. Probably time to start some...
When you're well, make a doctor's appointment. You'll need a trail of doctor's notes in case anything goes wrong with your grades and you need to apply for special circumstances. Also, contact your tutors when you're unwell – the email trail will be useful. Remember, people can’t help you unless you tell them what's wrong. These emails can be an anxiety-ridden experience to send. Time to call on that social network once again: draft the email, get a friend to read it and hit send if you aren’t able to. Can you give your friends permission to act on your behalf with your doctor, in regards to making appointments for you?
Take some time to think about what changes you can make to your lifestyle to avoid your triggers. Do you need to think about time management, cancel some things? Take more time to eat healthily? Exercise more? Whatever it is, try to build some time to reflect on how you can feel better. If that ends up being medication – on doctor’s advice – I would recommend starting over the summer holidays. They can take some time to adjust to and find your dosage.
If there’s anything I've learned about mental health, it's what a ~journey it is for everyone as it interacts with our personalities and identities in such unique ways. I still don't manage to take all of my own suggestions (who does?), but put some of this into practice and you'll be a long way from talking about your first panic attack and wincing about diving into some bushes.
Rianna Walcott and co-editor Dr Samara Linton edited an anthology about black, asian and ethnic minority experiences of mental health in the UK called 'The Colour of Madness'.