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Don’t suffer in silence at university

Tuesday 29 September 2015 Student Mental Health

When Nicola Gee began to suffer with depression at university, she didn’t know who to turn to.  Eventually she got in touch with Samaritans.  We asked Nicola about her experiences and what she learned.

When did you start to notice there was a problem and how did it contrast with before?

I first became aware that my mood was sinking lower and lower in my second year of university and I was struggling to cope with academic pressure.  My attendance was good, but I became preoccupied with thoughts of failure, constantly feeling that I was falling behind, despite reassurance from my tutor.

As a result I became extremely stressed and spent increasing amounts of time alone in my room, ruminating about what I hadn’t done and needlessly putting myself down.

Because of the way I felt, I began to turn down invitations to social occasions and family get-togethers, which was in complete contrast to my first year at university, when I’d been quite the social butterfly. I started to feel that hiding away was easier than facing the world.

With the right support, I have learned to identify the signs that my mood might be changing for the worse. It was Samaritans who helped me work through how I was feeling at the time and in doing so I developed a support plan which I still use to this day.

I think it’s vital that freshers, or anyone finding it difficult to cope, knows they are not alone.  If you are struggling it’s good to reach out and talk to someone. Samaritans is available any time of day or night to listen and offer confidential support – for free.

How do you feel when you are suffering from depression?

When I suffer periods of depression I become very withdrawn, isolating myself from people who care about me. I also battle a torrent of negative thoughts about myself when I am depressed, which of course, causes me to feel stressed and anxious.

The NHS Choices website has good resources on stress, anxiety and depression and lists the signs of depression in-depth.

If you’re struggling to cope, please don’t spend time questioning whether or not the way you are feeling warrants asking for support. I would encourage people to confide in a trusted friend, visit their GP and try calling Samaritans.

Were you able to recognise what you were suffering from yourself?

This is a really important question, as identifying the signs that you are struggling can be the first step towards recovery. Sadly, like many others I wasn’t able to identify that I had become depressed as a student. I was unaware of the symptoms and assumed, wrongly, that the way I felt was a sign of failure. As a result, my first episode of depression lasted a lot longer than it otherwise might have done.

This is why I think it’s so important to ask for support if you feel helpless and alone. In my experience, it can be difficult to come back from a low point without the support you need.

How did it affect your studies and social life?

My depression brought with it a powerful feeling of being utterly defective. Although my grades were not affected, it made me much more anxious and totally preoccupied with the idea of failure.

Feeling like a failure, when in fact I was doing better than ever, gave me an overwhelming sense of not being good enough, which lead to me withdrawing from any social activities, including with my family.

I started to believe that hiding away was easier than facing the world at that point. But I found that cutting myself off from those I love, prolonged the length of the depression and deepened my feelings of isolation.

The fact that Samaritans were there, whenever I needed to talk, helped me break this viscous cycle of loneliness. Speaking to somebody who accepts you just the way you are, even in your darkest hour, can alter your way of thinking. For me, it allowed me to consider my feelings in the same way I would consider anyone else’s – which gave me a whole new perspective on my situation.

I’d like to reassure others that these symptoms usually ease as you get better. In fact, it was during my struggle with depression that I learned I had friends I could trust; this group remains my closest allies to this day.

How would you say friends can support people they think might be suffering from depression?

I know people can be apprehensive about broaching the subject, if they think a friend is suffering. The point is, you don’t have to be an expert in emotional health to reach out to someone who needs to talk. By simply asking your friend if they’re okay, you may help them feel less alone.

Knowing someone cares and having someone to listen and talk to can make a huge difference. 

If you do speak to someone who is struggling, avoid giving a ‘solution’, it’s better to ask open questions, to listen and reflect back. This way you’ll be giving them space to share how they feel.

How did you get help?

I first spoke to my uni housemates and trusted friends about what was getting to me. The support they offered encouraged me to see my GP for advice and to speak to Samaritans.

I visited my GP first, who helped me understand what was wrong and what I could do to get better. Although they were incredibly helpful, as it happens, it was the support plan that I developed during my calls with Samaritans that has helped me take care of myself ever since.

If you could reach back and give yourself advice now, what would it be?

Not to struggle with the way I felt all by myself. The experience taught me that I do have friends I can trust and that, while they may not be sure how to help, they will stick by my side and support me when I need it.

I wish I’d known how supportive my GP would be; they really listened and were a great encouragement while I was working out a way through.

For some, it can be difficult to open up at first but Samaritans is there day and night to listen and support you through a difficult time. I would ask students to remember that a crisis, although deeply painful, will usually pass with the right help. If you are a student and are struggling to cope, for whatever reason, please don’t struggle alone, there is so much help out there. Seek out a trusted friend, doctor, or get in touch with Samaritans.

You can contact Samaritans for free by phone on 116 123, or by email: jo@samaritans.org or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of the nearest branch.