Our contributor Leah Lines has written a very honest, open account of her experiences with mental illness at university, and some of the techniques she uses to cope. We think everyone should read this; even if you don’t suffer yourself, chances are you know someone that’s struggling and understanding is the first step towards being able to help. Over to Leah…

It’s your fourth week. Maybe you’re feeling apprehensive, maybe your expectations of university life were too high, and now maybe you’re absolutely petrified. Don’t worry, I am too. It’s rather frustrating when you’re showing up to lectures, completing your assignments, socializing and yet, feel as lonely as ever. Dealing with mental illness in a new environment can feel awfully daunting. What resources do we have? Who do we speak to in times of crisis? Luckily, Student Support will be writing a complementary article to this post in order to cover general mental health information about such questions.

Dealing with mental illness at university can feel awfully daunting. Back at home you’ve most likely created an atmosphere that you felt comfortable to dwell in. Safety zones were built and designated friends/family members became those confined in. Everything was painful but at least your environment remained the well-known, ultimately becoming the safe space for you and your mental illness to hide in peace. But poof, school began, and you’ve been stripped of your security blanket, full-blown naked. Thus, leaving you crying to your flatmate of one week at the dinner table about how you miss your cat. Yes, I did that… In fact, I’ve kind of lost track of how many peers around me I’ve shed a tear or two with whilst being here (or five hundred, but who’s counting?)

There’s no need to get ahead of yourself and start predicting you’re doomed for all eternity, because you’re not. Most mental illnesses develop due to past trauma, meaning you lived mentally ill free once, so why prevent yourself from living free of it again? I’ll let you think about that for a minute. This is why seeking medical help is a great place to start, despite any belief that you’re beyond help. You should never be ashamed of your struggle and are definitely worthy of support. My old self was convinced that I was “so abnormal and that doctors would judge me or not understand”, which in all reality was far from the truth and I soon became aware such thinking was my mental illness trying to keep me buried in its misery. When in the grips of my own disorder, I was convinced that the world was out get me. Looking back, my nutritionist in eating disorder treatment was not trying to make me fat, but it didn’t prevent my mind from conspiring such thoughts. I actually laugh at myself when thinking about how delusional I used to be.

A huge part of my recovery process, was to avoid the expectation of perfectionism (a trait found in the vast majority of people who suffer from mental illness). When we strip ourselves of the ability to make mistakes and force the idea that recovery must have no relapses (I prefer saying ‘lapses’), it shifts the journey of self-healing into another form of self-abuse. For example, there’s a high chance you took university as a chance to reinvent yourself; this is what we like to call “a clean slate.” It’s completely normal to feel that way. However, clean slates are not only a high demand, they’re also extremely hard to maintain. You can put on a new persona for a day, week, month, or even years, but your true self will eventually show through. A clean slate should never be for the purpose of hiding mental illness; it is not a crime or a flaw. If you’re in recovery, please do yourself a favour and take that burden of high expectations weighing over your back and throw it right over the freeway. Trust me, it works wonders.

Letting go of any mental illness can feel like losing who you are. When stuck in the depths of my own toxic mind, not only did I not recognize myself, but my family and friends didn’t either. I was destroying more than one person. I knew recovery was something that I had to choose for myself, but I also knew that people could only handle my anorexia for so much longer. Therefore, I unexpectedly decided the summer after graduation that I would take a gap year in order to pursue my journey of recovery. I withdraw my place at university by August and set off into the unknown. After treatment centres and much self-evaluation later, I set that part of my life free, and most importantly forgave myself. Yes, I am still dealing with an eating disorder and so forth, but I no longer tie myself to that label. I am not “that anorexic girl” anymore, I am Leah.