For Youth Mental Health Day (19 September 2023), we wanted to share this wonderful blog written by Chris, MFT supporter and regular blog contributor, and Mental Health Champion for End Stigma Surrey about his first year of University and how it measured up to the hype. He explores a number of issues that affected his wellbeing at the time as well as dives into more personal issues – his sexuality and Bipolar Disorder. Follow his story on his website: https://www.chrispratt.uk/
University: the best years of your life. But what if they’re not?
It’s now over 20 years since I packed my bags, flew the nest and headed off to University and it’s got me reflecting on my first impressions of University and how they didn’t necessarily meet up with my expectations. I’ve written this blog to provide some balance to the “it’ll be amazing” narrative that often goes alongside the preparation and expectation of Uni life in the hope that it might provide some perspective for other young people embarking on or thinking about University.
In the years before going to university, I listened to those who had been before or those that were currently there. In a similar ways to how people curate their social media posts to be the edited highlights of their life, the descriptions of University life I was hearing were the same edited highlights and built a hedonistic dream in my mind. This, as we’ll see, all happened at a time when I was not only struggling with engrained, yet unrecognised or diagnosed anxiety and wellbeing issues, but I was also deeply impressionable. I believed in the dream.
Before it all began
University was the light at the end of the tunnel during my A-Levels. If there was ever two years of my life that I would never want to repeat again, it’ll be my A-levels. I’d done well at my GCSEs, well enough that it allowed me to move schools from the local Comprehensive to the Grammar school in the adjacent town. It had its benefits, but it was tough as well. I left all my friends behind and had to break in to existing and established friendship groups at the new school. Most people by that point had made their friends during their preceding years at school and weren’t particularly interested in me.
I distinctly remember my first day there dressed in my cheap suit from Sainsburys, new shiny black shoes and leather satchel style briefcase I’d got from TK Maxx to try and look grown up. The hot topic of conversation was GCSE results. Now, compared to my peers at my previous school, I’d done well with a smattering of grades across the spectrum. But then this all changed as I started listening in to the conversations others were having about their grades. It was all 10 A*. No one, it seemed, got anywhere near any smelly B grades. I gulped, and quietly hoped the wouldn’t ask me how I did.
Back at home, my brother who is two years ahead of me, had just received his A-Level results that summer. Let’s just say he didn’t do so well. He is actually really smart, a quick learner and I’d just spent the last 16 years of my life having to put up with him beating me at practically everything. If he couldn’t do A-Levels, what hope did that give me?
An inferiority complex was born. A seed of anxiety was planted. During this period I thought of little else other than ‘getting in to a good university’. So I worked. I worked so hard, studied twice, three times as much as I needed to – just to be sure – so that I would get those grades. I studied every night except Friday – that was Explorer Scouts night. I studied at least a day at the weekend. When I wasn’t studying I felt guilty that I should be.
I got seriously stressed before exams and I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep the night before. I was miserable and I hated it. It was amazing that my Bipolar Disorder didn’t make itself known; that was saving itself for another time. But, I told myself, all this is only temporary. Once I’ve got in to University it’ll all be worth it and life will be better.
The sales pitch
Whilst studying for my A-Levels I also visited various Universities and met students that appeared to be having a great time enjoying their courses and Uni life. Also I recall family friends, relatives and other influential figures in my life reflecting on their own student experiences and waxing lyrical about how they were “the best years of their lives”. They’d yarn on about having little responsibility or commitment; long, free, sunny afternoons spent in the bar or how they met so many of their best friends at Uni. Some even met their now husband/wife partner while there. It was like Uni solved all their problems and was a euphoric oasis before the grind of working life started a few years later.
This to me, as someone who, at the time (and only now on reflection) was suffering with Generalised Anxiety Disorder for the past few years brought on my GCSEs and A-Levels, created a vison of pure nirvana – the final escape I’d been looking for.
But just like an oasis far away in a desert or a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I hadn’t thought about (or wanted to think about) the fact that the oasis could be a mirage and the pot of gold may get further away the closer I got to it. But, to me, University was what all my hard work had been about and it was going to be amazing!
What’s nice about University is it’s an opportunity to make a fresh start. To embrace the person you are. You will be seen as the person you present yourself as today. No-one knows anything about you except what you wish to share. You can shake off character traits that you feel hold you back. You can let go of behaviours that are expected of you by your parents or school. You can really be who you are or who you want to be. Want to be known by a new nickname? Go for it! Want to come out as gay? You’ve nothing to lose – people will just accept you as you are.
So much of my hopes and dreams around University were based on it being that fresh start and meeting new people who you’ll form new friendships for life. I thought this would be quick and I thought this would be easy. At least, compared to my change to Grammar School – everyone was in the same boat – no-one knew anyone else and everyone wanted to make new friends. Did I ‘click’ with everyone I met? No, not by a long shot.
This was the part of my experience which was much harder than I thought it would be. For some reason I thought I’d immediately become best mates with everyone I met, certainly the 10 other people I shared a house with in my student halls. And, it’s here when the challenges started for me. I just struggled to find anyone in my halls I could connect with. I’d unwittingly found myself in a house with no-one who would be going to the same lectures as me.
Then there was the general chat: the courses people were doing in my house were sporty and for those that weren’t, football was all they wanted to talk about. I never enjoyed sport at school and I don’t ‘support a team’ or have any enthusiasm for it at all. I immediately felt like an outsider. I wasn’t part of the cool crew.
This was a setback for me and was a hard hitting ‘first impression’ of University life. A few stitches that held together my university dream were coming undone.
I’d just joined a University of c10,000 students. Most Universities are very big places, with inconceivable scale compared to school. My Grammar school, I think was about 800 pupils. This makes it a daunting prospect for finding friends. So many new people are around you who are all different in their own ways.
The first people you meet might not necessarily the ones you stick with, and that’s ok. You need to meet a lot of people before you find the ones that become you’re new besties. If you’re lucky, you’ll find someone in your halls. If you don’t, maybe you’ll be well matched with someone as a lab partner on your course. But maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll strike up conversation with someone after a lecture, or meet someone through a club or society.
What I learned was it’s best not to ‘expect’ to just be able to ‘replace’ your friendship group you had at home. Finding friends like those you’ve known for a long time will, I’m afraid, take time. But the best bit – you friendship group ‘back home’ is still your friendship group. It’s easy to get caught up in your new Uni life – don’t forget about your old friends. Dial them up from time to time. They’ll likely be going through the same struggles during their first few weeks, so catch up with them and share how you’re doing.
Room for living
It’s odd how just having some familiar people around creates an easy feeling of company. You don’t need to be doing anything in particular or even talking. Just being there is enough. That’s often the case with family at home. You could spend time in your room but you knew you could just burst in to your brother’s room and interrupt whatever he’s doing or sooner or later you’d be getting together for lunch or dinner. Before going to Uni I always thought that people would leave their doors open and always be easy for a chat. But this didn’t seem to be the case.
After meals, people would either go straight to their rooms or head out. And if you didn’t want to go out drinking or clubbing with them (cos you weren’t part of the cool footie crew) you were left on your own, in your room. And there wasn’t much to do.
I’d go home for the weekend every few weeks. It was odd how going home for the weekend seemed to make me feel so much less alone. I wouldn’t necessarily ‘do’ anything when at home to occupy myself any more than I would while at Uni, but the familiarity and just having people around was enough so I didn’t feel isolated.
Being isolated in a connected world
We now live in an ‘always-on’ society. The issues that I faced with staying connected have largely been overcome by the advent of smartphones and wifi everywhere. But, even with the tech at your fingertips, it’s still possible to feel isolated in an otherwise connected world. These are my tips to help. They’re nothing radical but worth stating:
- Use those free minutes. Call home from time to time. Call your mates from school. Don’t wait for them to call you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got nothing to say other than “was feeling a bit bored so fancied a chat”. I bet they’d appreciate it.
- Texts/Whatsapp – same applies – just message your mates to say hi. See what flows.
When asking your mates how they are, ask them twice. Just like I was struggling with loneliness and low mood, they may be too.
- Don’t be afraid to be honest about how you feel and your experience of Uni. Although I was struggling through my first few weeks at University, because of the ‘dream’ I’d been set, I felt compelled to tell everyone how great it was and how much of a good time I was having. This doesn’t help anyone, least of all yourself. If you open up and show some vulnerability you may find your friend is similar and you can help each other.
- Don’t pay too much attention to social media. People post their life highlights on there and it’s easy to think everyone else is having a much better time than you. It’s often not the case. Focus on real conversations with real people. Sometimes you can feel that you’re up-to-date with someone because you saw their latest post on Insta. Don’t use this as an excuse no to call them.
Dancing on my own
Adapting to some elements of student culture came as a challenge for me too. I thought that maybe I’d enjoy clubbing, all night drinking and the like. But actually, I found it very confusing and learned not to like it and at the time I didn’t really know why. When you break down the fundamentals of what parties and clubs are about – they’re about meeting people. But not about meeting people to debate the hot topics of the week – no, it’s to dance, to have fun, and find someone to leave the club night with that you hadn’t arrived with. In short, people don’t go looking for friends, they’re looking for dates.
And what I hadn’t worked out, at the tender age of 18 when I started at Uni, was that I had no interest in girls. I also didn’t understand how I felt about guys. This made clubbing very awkward for me. I’d agree to go along with a group of friends. What I didn’t know is was at the back of their mind, they were looking for girls. I wasn’t. I wasn’t looking for guys either. I just went along. And as such I found night clubs not to be particularly interesting ways to spend an evening. Sure, I’d play along. I’d dance with girls as that’s what everyone else did, but I had absolutely no intent of making any moves on a girl. I was fearful, even, of anything happening. I didn’t know what to do or how to do it, or as it seemed, be very interested in finding out.
I didn’t think I was gay because I didn’t think I was different from anyone else. And I didn’t know how to make sense of my emotions, or lack thereof. Looking back – I had gay tendencies. Some signs were there but I didn’t know how to deal with them. I can always recall walking down the street – and I’d turn my head to look at a good looking guy, and completely breeze past the tall blond bombshell that all my mates were looking at. It was a bit like football to me. In the same way I found myself with a group of people that bonded over talking about football – to which I had no interest – it was the same with girls – they’d all get excited chat for hours about them and I just didn’t really understand why, nor feel at all interested in contributing to the conversation. I just accepted it as one of those things. I didn’t understand how I was different or what it meant, nor was I able to process these thoughts. Sadly, I wouldn’t suss this one out until a good few years later, and well after University had finished.
It got better
As we got in to the second semester, I’d started to feel more comfortable with Uni life. I’d got used to taking responsibility for my daily living, and the mundane tasks of shopping, cooking and washing. I got more involved with clubs and societies and I formed a wider base of friends and was less reliant on those I’d been put with in my halls. I’d made friends across a number of different student halls as well as with people on my course. I’d also got involved helping out at a local Explorer Scout Unit that was round the corner from the University – somewhere that I really felt at home. They were very welcoming and I very quickly felt like I fitted right in.
I’d found a small group to live with as we moved in to year two and we’d be renting a house in the city together.
Before it got worse (for me)
From the start of term, I had this niggling feeling in the back of my mind that I was on the wrong course. I was doing Electronic and Electrical Engineering.
It was also what my Dad had studied, albeit not at University, and what my brother was doing too. But as we got in to the term, I felt no passion for it. Of course, a lot was changing at the start of term, and the general advice was to stick with it – you can’t drop out a few weeks in. And so I did. But this niggling feeling didn’t go away. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to talk to the Physics department. Physics was the subject I enjoyed most at school and it was always a toss up between studying Physics or Elec Eng. It was agreed that I could do some extra study during the summer holidays, and then continue in to year two at the start of the next academic year. This was a great relief, and felt like a good plan. But, I still had to pass my first year in Elec Eng.
As the end of the first academic year drew closer, I started burning the candle at both ends. I was studying hard – and previous anxieties around GCSE/A-level exams had returned. I would go out for late night parties. I would do all-nighters to get course work finished and the same for exams. I was feeling energised about life and my mood, at long last I was feeling good.
That was, until my world came crashing down around me after I’d packed up and headed home after the final exam (and probably final party!) of the semester. Only a few days later I found myself in a mental health ward where after a few weeks I’d been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar disorder is a disorder of mood, and it means that people with it can experience extremes of mood – elation or depression and swings between the two. Had this been happening to me, at a lesser extent from getting through my A-levels – and experiencing the relief and high, to then hitting some lows when faced with the realities at Uni? Then as I settled in, my mood started to improve, but then went too far? It’s difficult to say. But none-the-less, it’s possible that my Bipolar Disorder may have also played a role in the challenges I faced in my first year at Uni.
I remember wandering about campus of an evening during my first year. Not really knowing where to go or what to do. I’d often ring home at one of the phone booths, or be checking my emails in the library, and then not be in any particular rush to head back to my room.
There was one sign that I remember seeing, again and again, but I failed to take action on it.
Now, I don’t remember quite what the wording was, or even the service it was advertising – only that it felt like it spoke to me. It described some traits that matched how I was feeling – low, isolated, lonely, overwhelmed, unsure of what you’re doing – and gave a phone number and said speak to your Students’ Union. I never did.
Seek help if you need to. Start with your Students’ union or your Universities student support services. It’s likely they’ll have a helpline or counselling service. If no-one used them, they wouldn’t be there. Genuinely – they’re waiting to help you if you need it.
The right advice
I write this piece because I’m sure there’s others out there, like me, who are or who have struggled with adapting to University life. I’m also sure there’s others out there that feel like they’re ‘living the dream’ but from time to time will still have their doubts. The world is a big place, and finding your place in it can be difficult and confusing. Yet for so many they find themselves trying to work this out in unfamiliar surroundings, on their own with in sufficient information or support to guide them – at University.
There’s so much expectation put upon our young people these days, and the levels of pressure they are put under from their early teens through to their early twenties to do well at school, A-levels and University is immense. These are external pressures put on our young people by teachers, parents and society at large – to conform – to follow this ‘default’ path that is supposed to lead to fulfilment and happiness – but can’t possibly for everyone.
Unfortunately this neglects to consider the diverse wants and needs of each individual caught up in the process. There’s a lot to work out as you struggle with puberty, choosing your ‘options’ for GCSE, choosing your A-levels and learning to drive. As you get your first job and you try things like alcohol, your first smoke and have your first liaisons with girls – and try and work out whether you like it or not.
Choosing your degree subject feels like the biggest and most important decision you’ll ever make in your entire life, although it isn’t really. You’ll think it’s one that will affect the job you get and the life you lead for decades to come. It’s a lot to deal with and it’s too much to deal with at such a young age. It’s so hard to work out who you are or what you are, and sometimes you’ll have thoughts or feelings that don’t sit comfortably with you – which you may not understand or know why you get them. Outwardly everyone else might look like they’re ‘sorted’ and it’s just you in this wibbly wobbly mess – but everyone goes through it in one way or another – to find out who they are, what they want from life and how they want to lead their lives. It’s different for everyone and the sausage machine that we stuff our young people through from 13-23 really doesn’t make it easy.
As I grow older, I’ve come to realise that I’m an ongoing project. One that changes every day. When I look back at the ‘me’ of twenty years ago at University, I see a very different person, as I do when I look at the me of ten years ago or even last week or yesterday. I’m always learning, changing, and evolving and making sense of who I am and my place on this planet will never stop. I write personal journals and entries to this blog because it helps me encapsulate my life experiences at different times of my life and I can look back at how I’ve changed. Yet as I approach 40, I’m still struggling with some fundamentals of who I am, what I want to be and how I should live my life. That’s how it’s always been, how it always will be and how I like it. If it stops, then I’ve probably stopped living.
University is a phase, not an end, nor a beginning. It’s a time-bucket of life where you’ll have a set of experiences. It doesn’t mark ‘the end’ of learning or of growing up and becoming an adult. It won’t solve all your problems and you’ll still have a ton of stuff to work through when it’s over. Enjoy it the best you can; prepare for uncertainties and difficulties; expect that at least at one point you’ll need to call on some emotional support from a helpline/chat service or some counselling.
Life has just thrown one hell of a lot at you all in one go – but you will get through it. And it will be fun, most of the time, just not all of the time.”
If you’d like to find out more about Chris’ journey and read his other blogs, visit his website: https://www.chrispratt.uk/
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Bipolar Information and Support
If you’d like to read more of our blogs about being bipolar, check out the following:
We also run an Online Bipolar Peer Support Group on the first Thursday of every month, 7pm-9pm. Download poster.
To join, no need for a diagnosis, you can register as a new client on our website. We will contact you within two working days to set up an initial appointment where we’ll discuss your needs and how best to support you. Then you’ll be able to join our Bipolar Peer Support Group.
Join our Young People Peer Support Group
If you are 17-25 years old, live near Epsom, Surrey and are struggling with big feelings and emotions, you can join our Young People Peer Support / Social Group facilitated by our mental health practitioners. You’ll be able to meet other young people, make friends, support each other, learn some self-help techniques and have some fun taking part in activities designed to support your wellbeing (arts and crafts, meditation, gentle physical activities and outings).
It runs on Wednesdays, 3.30pm-5pm, Brickfield Centre, Portland Place, Epsom KT17 1DL.
No need for a diagnosis, you can register as a new client on our website. We will contact you within two working days to set up an initial appointment where we’ll discuss your needs and how best to support you.
Want to write a blog for us?
If, like Chris, you’d like to share your mental health story and advice to inspire and guide others, we’d love to hear from you! You don’t need to be an experienced blogger or to have ever written before, we can guide you through it. Blogs can be written prose, poem, videos or artwork – whatever speaks to you!
Contact Connie, Communications Lead at MFT, at firstname.lastname@example.org