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Sad Girl in the Real World: Managing Your Mental Health at University

Writing by Jodie Matthews // Photograph of Lucía Pereyra

Writing by Jodie Matthews // Photograph of Lucía Pereyra

Sad Girl in the Real World: Managing your Mental Health at University

Managing your mental health at university feels like a monumental task. Mentally stable and physically prepared students struggle enough, so those of us that feel like we’re tip-toeing along the line of sanity are in for a real kick in the ass.

Here are five quick fire steps on how to survive the beginning of the school year, and how to make sure you’ve got the right people on side.

Step one: Head straight to Student Services and get yourself a free therapist.

Try and do this at the beginning of the year or you’ll end up like I did, fighting for a space with a therapist amongst a load of other students who were struggling with the work load. If you’ve got mental health issues, get in early and let them know that you’re going to need year round support (plus a little extra when it comes to the end of term because hand-ins are hard for everyone).

Don’t be scared of approaching student services, it’s literally their job to help you. Walk right up to the desk and say, “Hello, I was wondering what mental health support services you offer. I have *insert diagnosis/disorder/whatever you want to call it here* and I was wondering if I could see a therapist/support worker/psychologist on campus.” Make a date for an appointment, grab one of those free sweets from the desk and skip away, happy in the knowledge that you are in control of your life! Go you; you’ve just booked your first appointment!

A fair amount of my time at university was spent crying in my therapist’s office. Luckily, Jenny was a really good therapist. She was blonde (like every other mental health professional I’ve come in contact with– why are they always blonde?) and she wore clashing patterns and statement jewellery. Her office was full of plants, LGBTQ literature, and multiple places to sit, which is always A+. The strategically placed box of tissues was in reach of each chair too. Basically, it was a pretty comfy set-up.

She possessed the amazing ability to make me feel less stressed, at a time when standing up left me feeling pressured. When my personal life got too much to handle, Jenny would speak to the student support team for me, and they would contact my tutors. Everyone was kept in the loop and the most difficult bit– opening up to strangers– was taken out of my hands.

Step two: Email your lecturers and let them know what’s going on.

I know, I know, I totally just said that Jenny did this for me and it was great because I didn’t have to do it. You should still try though! Even though the student support people might let your lecturers know what’s going on, it’s up to you to follow this up. It really is in your best interest to speak to them yourself; after all, these are the lecturers and tutors you’re going to be working with every week for the next year, so it’s probably best they know you pretty well.

Sending an email is a great way to go. It’s a lot less stressful than speaking face to face, and you have plenty of time to prepare what you’re going to say in advance, so you don’t blurt out something unrelated and/or start crying through sheer panic (been there, done that, got the Sad Girl Crying on Campus t-shirt).

It’s up to you how you format your email; it can be as long, short, or detailed as you like. Try to avoid oversharing, or bombarding your lecturers with an email the length of a dissertation. They’re people too, and for all you know they could have a personal life as messy as yours. Try to keep it easy, breezy, and quick (as easy and breezy as mental illness can be, right?!).

Thanks to my stunning propensity to suddenly feel like I’d been hit by a bus, I had a habit of random panic attacks in my second year of uni. These would happen at any point, so obviously they’d spring up during lectures and seminars. Luckily, I was open with my lecturers about what was going on, so we came to a deal. If I felt like I was going to break down during class, I could excuse myself, take a walk, and come back when I felt better, no questions asked. If I had to leave a class completely, I’d send an email afterwards and catch up what I missed. It was great system. If I hadn’t been honest with my lecturers from the start, that kind of thing wouldn’t have worked. They would have wondered why I was always leaving class, and maybe even penalized me for it, because they wouldn’t have known the reason.

Try something along the lines of:

Hi *name of lecturer*,

Thanks for the bangin’ cultural theory seminar the other day [You can omit this].

I’m just writing to let you know that I’ve recently contacted Student Support and will be attending weekly/fortnightly/monthly therapy sessions on campus. I have been diagnosed with/I have *mental illness*. I thought it would be best to inform you of this in advance. I’m struggling at the moment and have been having some difficulty focusing during class. I really enjoy your class and want to get the best grade I can, so I was wondering if we could meet up outside of class to discuss some options?


*your name*

The prospect of meeting up with your lecturer might be scary, but like I said, they’re people too. They just happen to be taller and better paid than you. And remember–you aren’t the first student that’s approached them with a similar problem. It’s pretty likely that you’re one of a handful of their students in that same boat. I sent an email similar to the above to my creative writing teacher and we ended up meeting for coffee on campus. We sat outside in the sun, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and talking. It turned out she’d had similar problems when she was at uni, so she had loads of great first person advice to share. She agreed with the things I asked (“please can I step out if I feel like I’m gonna vomit”) and I agreed to the things she asked, which included extra office hours to catch up and regular checking in. It was a win-win situation.

Step three: Sign up to your local doctors.

This one is kind of obvious. Let the local GP know what’s going on, and you won’t have to travel all the way back to your hometown whenever you need to refill your prescription. If you’re in England, lots of towns have Community Mental Health Teams, which provide decent mental health care. They can refer you to psychologists and psychiatrists, inpatient and outpatient facilities, and get you hooked up with some CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or DBT (dialectical behavior therapy). They can also help you find local support groups. Although living in the bubble of campus and student-hood can be helpful, it’s good to know people in the wider community, and support groups can give you the time away from uni that you need.

It’s always handy to have a doctor close by who knows your situation too, just in case you need to apply for extenuating circumstances (pushing back an essay deadline, for example) and require a note from a professional. Speaking to a new doctor can be terrifying; you never know quite how they’re going to act. You expect health professionals to be empathetic and understanding of mental health but that isn’t always the case. The good news is you aren’t stuck with a rubbish doctor. If you feel uncomfortable with the person that’s meant to be managing your health for the next year, you can opt out and go for someone different. Just ask at the front desk or call up and request someone else. If you’d rather have a female doctor you can specify that too. The most important thing is to be as open with your doctor as you possibly can; they need to know exactly how you’re feeling in order to give you the best help.

Step four: Don’t drink, binge, or take drugs. Or at least cut down.

You’re at uni, you’re free, you’re independent, you’re at least 18 and you can do what you want! You’re also stressed, you’re depressed, and you’re weighed down by crippling mental health problems! For most of you, when you add all these things together, the answer is booze. Or drugs. Or both. I get it, I do. You want to drown your sorrows and silence your head. You want the Dutch courage to go and socialise. You want to feel like a carefree student.

Sweet pea, I understand, I really do. I wish I could tell you to go and indulge with gay abandon, and party your sad socks off, but when you’re ill, it’s just not a good idea. Alcohol is a depressant. It’s simple going to exacerbate the mood you’re in. But hey, maybe you’re a fun drunk, right? Maybe it opens you and transforms you into a social butterfly! It doesn’t matter. Alcohol is a depressant and it’s still shit for your mental health.

I’m not telling you to never ever do it. I’m not your mum or your therapist (but do listen to both of these people, unless they’re really mean) and I can’t stop you from doing anything. I’m definitely not advocating that you lock yourself in the library and study whilst all your friends go out, just because you have a mental illness. What I am advocating for is knowing your limits. I had friends who liked getting extra pissed by drinking loads whilst on anti-depressants. The medication knocks your tolerance for alcohol right down, so what would previously make you tipsy ends up annihilating you with meds. It should be obvious that prescription drugs and recreational drugs do not mix well together. You never know how your medication is going to mix, so don’t risk it.

Step five: Don’t date the fixer-uppers.

At uni, you will meet people who think they can fix you. The Psychology students who’ve just finished Intro to Psych and think they can talk you out of your problems, the writers grilling you so they can write a character study on “someone crazy,” the literature students who’ve just learnt about Freud and want to blame everything on your mother. Everyone likes a good project. But you are not a project, and nor is any other person. A project is making a zine, or arranging a charity collection. You can’t love someone into good health.

They think that they can cure you, but what they don’t realise is you are not broken. If you feel a little lost, it can be appealing to attach yourself to someone who wants to “fix” you. It’s important to spend time with people who care and will talk with you about your thoughts and feelings. Once someone starts obsessing over your mental illness more than you, it’s time to get out. If your partner starts blaming everything you do on “your disorder,” question why. Maybe you’re a bit bummed because you got a low grade on your essay, and now you don’t fancy going out tonight. If your partner views this completely understandable change of plans as a major-depressive mood swing, they clearly don’t get it.

Don’t let anyone use you to make them feel kinder or more compassionate. You are perfectly good and loveable without the person you date psychoanalysing you. That’s your therapist’s job. Tell them to get lost, and go hang out with your friends, or watch some films with someone cute.

Jodie Matthews

Jodie Matthews is a queer Cornish writer and poet, living and working in the West Midlands as a gardener. She runs a bookstagram account @jodierhianmatthews. Meet Me At The Surface her first novel, is forthcoming from 4th Estate in 2024, and it was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and the Blue Pencil First Novel Award 2021.

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