For some, attending university is the dream of a lifetime, and for others, it can almost kill you. Lara’s* mental health plummeted over four years at university and she wants to tell others why you should always trust you gut.
Throughout her teenage years, Lara, now 22, had been battling with mental health issues with varying success. A vicious eating disorder was about to cement itself in her stomach for many years to come.
As high school ended, she thought university would be a much-needed escape and give her freedom from the small village in the north of Scotland which she had grown up in.
However, this was not the case.
She said: “In first year I had the drive; my mental health wasn’t quite so bad, and I was able to do things. I think with OCD symptoms though, they were just getting worse and worse, basically impeding my ability to write [essays].”
Lara excelled throughout high school, earning good grades in English and History, so being unable to write was a new and challenging experience for her.
“When I went to do the essays, I got a mental block and would rewrite things millions of times, and I just couldn’t get things down.”
Although supportive, her family were unsure of how to help her as they lived so far away, and it was easy for Lara to create a happy life on social media.
The symptoms slowly increased until she reached a breaking point at the beginning of third year.
The longer it went on it was just unmanageable, it doesn’t matter how much extra time I had for essays, there was nothing I was going to be able to do. I was thinking ‘it’s so miserable, it’s not worth it, the degree’s not worth it’.
A silver lining at first, Lara got a new job in a bar. At first, earning more money was great news for her. But soon the party life took a toll on her body, and her personality was slowly disappearing to the bright lights and thumping bass.
“If I had been working anywhere else, I don’t think I would have plummeted so badly.”
After realising that she needed a break from everything that was causing her stress, she quit her job and decided to fill out a Leave of Absence form. This is a short hiatus from university, with the intention of returning at a later date.
In talks with her university, they were initially supportive, she believes.
“I think they tried [to help]. The first time I left university they promised all this help, therapy and all the rest of it, they gave me extra time in exams, and they also said I didn’t need to go to seminars [of modules she had previously taken] because that was one of the things I was working hardest on instead of my essays.”
They made this list of things they said I wouldn’t have to do and when I came back this year, they basically said ‘oh no, you do have to go to seminars, we will cap you’. They were taking away the thing that was helping me go back.
Forced to repeat seminars and having less time for essays made Lara feel very distressed and unable to cope.
“After about two or three weeks I was constantly lying on the couch. My personality completely changed. I stopped finding any enjoyment in anything and all I had the energy to do was lie down horizontal 24 hours a day.”
As well as all this academic pressure, she split up with her childhood sweetheart, her flatmate moved away abruptly and she became distant from all her friends.
This was the wake-up call she needed. The stress she felt from all her mental health symptoms was ruining her life. For her, being at university was not benefiting in any way, shape or form and decided to leave permanently.
“I went to see my tutor, who was actually quite happy for me to leave as I was kind of set in my ways that day.”
“I think the Leave of Absence stuff is brilliant, but the reality is with mental health illness it doesn’t take a year, and if it’s taken a year it’s only half fixed.”
These days, Lara is doing much better. She does not bottle up her emotions anymore and speaks out when she feels lost and helpless. She has left university completely, sees a therapist and found a job in sales which she hopes will go well.
I actually want to go and do things now but before I didn’t, even if it’s just a walk or going to the gym, but there are still things I’m needing to work on. There’s definitely been a big change and I just wished I left university sooner.
And future plans?
“I’m just going to work for the next five, six years. I need a break. Then I might go back into education in later years. Even after 30, I’m in no rush. I’ve got 40 more years to work!”
Looking back on her experience, she wants people to avoid doing what she did.
“Don’t do a degree just to prove that you can do it. If you’re doing this to please other folk just get out now because there’s no point.”
Uni is never going to be totally, wholly enjoyable but if you find you’re going deeper and deeper into a hole, it’s time to ask for help or leave. It’s not worth it.
If you or someone you know needs help with their mental health, click here to find out how to access it.
* Name has been changed to protect identity