Mental Health Awareness: A Durham student's experience of anxiety at University

20% of university students consider themselves to have a mental health problem. That’s according to a NUS study from 2013, which also revealed that 13% of those students admitted to having suicidal thoughts. According to Heads of University Counselling Services, around 5-10% of students attend counselling, too.

For someone suffering from a mental health issue, the figures aren’t comforting. The stigma still associated with mental illness means that people in general are often unwilling to share their experiences with others, despite counselling services often encouraging them to be open about their illness. If no one talks about it, how can the 20% of students cited above get support from each other? Peer support is particularly important for those suffering from mental illness, especially at university, because it shows them that they are not alone. It also helps to have a friend who can help you when you’re away from home.

This was definitely the case for Anna*, a third-year student at Durham who talked to Her Campus Durham about her experience of mental illness at university. ‘My anxiety started just before my second year of university, and has gradually intensified over the years. My mom is my main source of help, having been through mental illness herself, and so being away from her at university means that I have to try and seek other support. I’m quite used to bottling up my feelings until they explode – usually into a fit of crying – and so it’s really, really important for me to talk to people about how I’m feeling. Luckily, I found that support in one of my friends, who’s dealt with her own issues in the past.’

Anna has not yet used the university counselling service, because she doesn’t feel that she suits it. ‘I feel like I would be taking up valuable time by using the service. Some days I feel absolutely fine, and I feel like if I was to go to counselling on one of those days, there would literally be no point. I feel like there are students with far worse problems than me who would benefit more from the service, especially when mental health resources are stretched as it is. At the moment, I’m just trying to cope on my own and teach myself ways of stopping the anxiety, and of course talking to my friends and family.’

Her coping methods are quite refined, and set in a strict routine that she tries to follow. ‘I made myself a strict timetable because constantly preoccupying my mind helps me to stop thinking about things that make me anxious. Work actually helps in this way, when I can concentrate. I also use art a lot – I have a therapy colouring book that actually does help, and I try to set time aside to draw whenever I can. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I rely on self-care, usually after a good cry on the phone to my mom. I have a box of things that make me feel happy and recall nice memories, and I spent time with that until I calm down.’

So how does she deal with day-to-day life during periods of high anxiety? ‘Sometimes I get so scared that my anxiety is going to be bad that I physically can’t move from my bed. I’m too worried that any action could trigger it. It takes some time to reason with myself before I can move. Occasionally I get distracted by bad thoughts in lectures and end up missing out on half of the content, but I’m working on stopping that – I use my laptop to take notes as it helps me focus better and has websites I can browse to distract myself from those thoughts.’

University life is already stressful enough for the majority of us, especially now, when deadlines are looming and work is piling up. It’s impossible to imagine the added difficulty of dealing with mental illness on top of that. Her Campus Durham is grateful to Anna for providing an insight into living with mental illness at university, but it’s also made us aware that things need to change to help students in the future. There is a lot of help available within the university for those who need it, but it’s often the steps to getting this help that are scary for someone seeking it. We need to fight the stigma of mental illness and make Durham a safe space for people to talk about their problems and get the help they need.

If you need to talk to someone, Durham University has a wide range of resources you can use


* Names have been changed.