Warning: This article discusses depression.
I started studying at Victoria University of Wellington in March 2017. I was planning to complete a BA majoring in Sociology with a minor in Theatre.
Both my parents had studied and graduated from Vic. A few of my high school friends were also going there. I was set to succeed. But there was one thing holding me back: my depression.
I started experiencing depression in my early teens after the suicide of a school friend. From there I bounced from counsellor to counsellor, from medication to medication. Six years on, I'm still trying to find the right fit.
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I was excited about starting university. No more all-girls high school, no more uniforms; there would be more people, more subjects and more choice. I had some anxiety about the new environment, and about passing my courses, but what new student doesn't? Mostly, I felt ready.
I soon found I'd been far too optimistic. The first day at university was how every single one would go for me: getting to class already behind because I was unable to keep up with pre-readings. Feeling spaced out in a sea of 400 other undergrads in my lecture. Taking what I thought were detailed notes only to not know what they meant when I reviewed them later. Heart racing a mile a minute as I made my way from point A to point B on campus. Having anxiety attacks in the bathrooms and always being incredibly tired at the end of each day.
I tried to fight against my illness for a full year of studies. I remember crying when I couldn't do the readings – they didn't make sense to me, especially when I didn't know what had happened in class that day, even though I'd been there. I had appointments on and off with Vic Counselling and Disability Services; I got some help, but just not enough. I took exams in separate rooms, and achieved grades that had me barely scraping by. I lost connections with most of my friends. I lost my own sense of self. Every bit of my energy I had was focused towards getting through each trimester.
I started again in March 2018, after only just passing my first year. I reminded myself daily that "C's get degrees" and "I am not my illness". Two weeks in and I finally knew what had been coming for a long time: I was ready to drop out. Forcing myself to keep up with the curriculum was making me sicker and sicker. After a year of constantly being pushed to be better and know more, when I was already falling apart, I was finally ready to say "no more". I talked to my parents and the friends I still had left. I called StudyLink. And then it was done. Officially un-enrolled. But what now?
Since dropping out I've been doing volunteer community work, working on my own art projects, attending weekly therapy sessions and dialectical behavioral therapy groups. I still write for Salient. I've starting carving my own place in the world where I can be sick and succeed at the same time. I often get asked when I'm going back to my studies but I don't know if I am yet. I'm still really unwell, so it's not something I have the privilege of being able to even think about. The most important priority for me is my mental health. I'm still not balanced, at peace, content. That's what I'm working on. If I study or not doesn't concern me right now.
But I am concerned about other students, at Victoria and around the country, who might be experiencing dilemmas similar to mine in March 2018. Do you stay at uni and ruin your health, or drop out and ruin your education and potential future employability?
The New Zealand Union of Students Associations (NZUSA) released a report in July on student mental health called Kei te pai?. The report found that 557 of the 1737 students surveyed had considered dropping out of their university studies due to mental illness. A total of 784 said they had considered dropping out due to feeling overwhelmed in their studies.
Students want and deserve better access to counselling to support them during their studies. The quality of university counselling services aren't necessarily the problem – more so the difficulty accessing them.
A lot of students currently using support services aren't clinically ill. They're using them for academic-related reasons – they're feeling stressed, anxious and are becoming ill from the pressure of being at university. This isn't a bad thing, it's just important to note the difference between having mental illness and being in an a high pressure environment that gives you symptoms of mental illness. Because that's the reality of university pressure: it can make you mentally unwell and also worsen pre-existing illnesses – of all kinds.
Part of my issue with the current student mental health movement is that a lot of what's being focused on sits within New Zealand's general mental health system and shouldn't be assigned to universities. It goes back to the question of how much care and support are students paying for when they enrol in a university. Sure, universities should offer support to those who are struggling with academic pressures, but if the root of the problem is deeper than that students need to be referred to the even-harder-to-navigate public mental health system.
It's important that tertiary students know that a lot of the stress they're feeling is normal – normal, but also unhealthy. New Zealand universities and other tertiary education settings can be quite toxic and unhealthy environments that breed a lot of unnatural anxiety and stress. They focus on success rather than learning, on outcomes rather than engagement. I think it's important for students to know that it's not a sign of their lack of worth if they're struggling. The fault lies with how these educational systems are run.
Unfortunately, right now it's up to students to choose how they want to operate within these systems. Universities have proven in the last few years that they are focused on getting bums on seats and sending you off with your degree as quickly as possible. They are not centres of health and wellbeing, even when they claim to be.
Kate Aschoff is a young artist and activist living in Pōneke