Thursday 4th February is Time to Talk Day, a national event initiated by the UK mental health campaign Time to Change to confront stigma through open discussion about mental illness. I wanted to post this blog this week because the day is important to me, both for what it works for and the degree of personal significance it holds.
According to one National Union of Students survey, one in five students recount facing some sort of mental health issue during their time at university. This is – very roughly speaking, of course – one or two per flat/house, or three or four per seminar group. If this is a statistic that is surprising to you, it is probably because the majority of the people effected feel uncomfortable in talking openly about their experiences.
Seeing in the New Year in a living room jam-packed with my friends from home, I took a moment to contemplate how much I have to look forward to in 2016. There’s terms two and three, holidays and summer plans, a new beginning in starting second year and – rather frighteningly – my 21st birthday. Of all of these, it’s the latter that jumps out at me as the next twelve months’ largest milestone. Perhaps because I am – relatively speaking, anyway – pretty old for a first year. Whilst many of my flatmates and friends here celebrated reaching 18 last spring or summer, I turned 20 on a rather grey (and self-pitying) day in autumn. The phrase “in my twenties” just sounds far more adult than I feel.
Though conversations about age have seldom come up during my time at university so far, I know that being outside of the stock 18-year-old age bracket of freshers is a concern for many prospective students.
Homesickness is by far the largest difficulty I have had to face during first term. After ten weeks here things have become noticeably easier, though there are still days I wind up longing for the familiarity and comforts of the place my life existed until September. And this is perfectly natural. When you’ve been working for years toward one thing (which subconsciously you imagine will deliver you to a life of partying and sophistication a la Brian in Starter for Ten) there’s bound to be some degree of collapse when you finally get there. Sometimes starting out somewhere new can feel like too much and too little at the same time, and nostalgia for the security of the past is not a sign of weakness and failure.
Some students breeze into university life – straight from boarding school or an extended period of travelling, perhaps – without giving what they’re leaving behind a second thought. But I for one was never going to be one of those people. I have spent two decades in my small, rural hometown, living, working and learning. My friendships date back to nursery and infant school; a childhood’s worth of memories rattle around the houses I have lived in. Tearing myself from the world I had built up over the years was never going to be easy, though that isn’t to say it would be impossible.
Here is some advice I have acquired for those struggling with homesickness at university. It is a ‘sickness’, after all, and treatment exists…
“It will be the best years of your life” was something I heard a lot before starting university. The process of moving away to study holds a kind of mythical status: whilst in sixth form, it represents an ideal of independence; for misty-eyed relatives and teachers, submerged by commuter trains and a nine-to-five, it’s a rose-tinted memory of carefree freedom. Yet in the thick of life as a fresher it can feel like something else entirely. Balancing new academic challenges with a deluge of pressures on finance, image, sexuality and social behaviour can be hugely isolating and overwhelming – especially if you have to learn to use a hob and a washing machine at the same time.
Things are doubly testing if you have done them all before and have it not work out. I started at Exeter this September after leaving another institution halfway through my first term last year and even the thought of returning to education was terrifying.