How to get through university with depression

Dealing with depression at university can be incredibly isolating. But we want you to know that you’re not alone. To help get some perspective on the topic, we spoke to Oxbridge student Anne* about how to get through university with depression. Read her story below.

A young woman is struggling with depression at university. This is a wide-angle image.

Getting stressed about university exams

The term before my university finals was stressful. I was contributing to the student newspaper, working on my dissertation, doing a module I hated, and, to top it all off, I still had family life to deal with. By the time I reached the end of term and got away from all the college students and campuses, I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was go home and spend my Easter holiday switching my brain off. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. I was staring straight down the barrel of three months of revision – all day, every day.

But the thing is I didn’t start revising. I told myself it was fine to take it easy, that I deserved a break after the previous term. I subconsciously acknowledged the fact that I had experienced a little bit of depression and anxiety. Besides, it felt like I had ages before I needed to start getting serious about work. So I told myself that I’d find the motivation to study closer to the exams.

For more advice on study motivation, see this article.

How to get through university with depression: The first signs

It still amazes me how quickly the depression started spiralling. I knew I was tired, stressed, and lethargic, but it was like my life crumbled apart within a couple of weeks. But at that point the question of ‘have I got depression’ didn’t even cross my mind.

Seemingly overnight I went from always being busy and working hard, to sleeping up to 17 hours a day. When I was awake, I just watched TV in my room. The best way to describe myself during this period is probably a lifeless robot. I only saw people when I cooked dinner, and even then everyone would be talking about work and exams. So I eventually stopped joining in. I believe there was a stretch when I actually didn’t talk to anyone for five days. What was I doing, you ask? Basically, I just sat in my room and only left to make food when I knew no one was in the kitchen.

The breaking point

I also began eating a lot. I’d watch TV with a huge bar of chocolate or packet of biscuits to make me feel better. It was obviously a temporary fix though. When I saw the changes to my physical health, specifically my body and skin, it made me feel so much worse. In two short months I’d gained a stone and a half. None of my clothes fitted me. But I wasn’t all that fussed since I spent everyday in pjs. Basically I looked like the ‘reality’ bit of an ‘expectations vs reality’ on social media. 

A couple of my friends started to notice that I was going MIA. To make sure I was doing ok, they came round to watch a film. For them, the film was a break from a long day in the library; for me, it was the first time I’d got out of bed that day. The problem was that even though they were there, I still couldn’t talk to them. I knew how much pressure everyone was under and I didn’t want to burden them with my mental health problem. Not to mention I was feeling increasingly guilty about doing no work. But, no matter how guilty I felt, I simply didn’t have the motivation to do anything.

Struggling with depression at university

About a month before my final exams it finally hit me that I had to learn three years’ worth of information in a very short period of time. Suddenly, I was confronted by just how much work I had to do. My first reaction was to cry uncontrollably because I was scared shitless. That was the moment I knew I had been experiencing a mental health crisis. 

To help make up for the missed time, I signed up for a mock exam. Unfortunately, I ran out of it. Truth be told, I found it hard to have the energy to care at this point. All I wanted to do was crawl into bed, turn out the lights and never have to face anything again. I’d barely visited home and felt disconnected from everyone. Feeling utterly defeated, I called my mum in tears and she drove to see me immediately. From the moment she walked through my door, she said she knew that girl wasn’t her daughter.

For more info and support relating to depression at university, see this article.

Getting help for depression at university 

She immediately urged me to see the university doctor. Point blank, I asked the doctor ‘have I got depression?’ and got diagnosed. The next step was seeing my tutor and discussing my options. I knew I couldn’t go through my exams just yet, so I arranged to take a year off and focus on ways to improve my mental health. This spring, I’ll be returning to university to take my finals.

In the meantime, I’m getting counselling and taking each day as it comes. Honestly, from the moment the work pressure was gone, I felt better. Gradually, I’m getting back to the person I lost during those months. Looking back, I realise that I should’ve spoken up earlier – not going to my tutor when I first had worries, not talking to my family, not speaking to someone impartial like my university’s Nightline or a mental health professional. 

A piece of advice

That’s what enabled this to last for as long as it did. So I really don’t want people to make the same mistake I did. Students especially, I urge you to talk to someone about your mental health. Especially, if you’re experiencing depression, any symptoms of mental illness, feeling low or pressured by uni work. In the back of my mind, there’s still the fear that the depression could come back. Unfortunately, I think that’ll never really go away. But at least now I know I have a strong circle of friends and family around me, and that exams and grades aren’t everything. 

So, how to get through university with depression? You talk to people and get the support you need. That could mean doing something as difficult as opening up about a long term mental health condition or even just reaching out to a mental health service. Whatever feels comfortable at the moment. As long as you put your mental and physical wellbeing first, and the rest will follow.

*Name has been changed

Next Steps

  • Student Minds is the UK's student mental health charity. Search their website for information, research, and to see how you could get involved.
  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.

By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 06-May-2022