Queen's University student on how she beat the college blues
When Downpatrick woman Anna Savage started her degree at Queen's University, she had no idea just how homesick she'd feel. Stephanie Bell discovers how she beat the college blues.
Anna Savage was typical of so many young people starting out in university - full of excitement as she looked forward to being part of the fun and learning that she believed was student life.
Sadly though - and also like many of her peers - Anna soon realised that the reality of being away from home alone in an unfamiliar town without the comfort of friends and family was more difficult to deal with than she could ever have imagined.
In a busy campus like Queen's where by day she was surrounded by students of all ages and lecturers bustling to and from lessons, she found herself spending her nights alone in her rented bedroom feeling isolated and sad.
A bubbly and outgoing person by nature, Anna's first year of university proved so tough that she found herself ill with depression which she is only now, in her second year, beginning to recover from.
Now known as the "post fresher blues", Anna's experience is so common among new students that Carecall - the leading non-profit provider of student counselling in Northern Ireland - has been working with our universities and colleges for over 10 years to help new students adapt to the changes. The charity which is part of Niamh (the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health) recognises that the transition to college or university presents challenges for many young people coping with the pressures of student life, being away from home or learning to study more independently.
Carecall believes that support for young people in further and higher education is key to academic success and to their life chances after study.
Katherine McDonald, director of Carecall, says: "Those first few months of settling in are often full of excitement, new experiences and new people, all of which open up positive new opportunities. However, as with any big transition, what is exciting can also sometimes feel a bit scary or overwhelming too as young people adjust into more independent, autonomous lifestyles.
"Time and again we see with our work with students that with just a little bit of emotional support when someone is feeling vulnerable and under pressure, things can turn around very quickly. Young people can pick up their studies again with confidence and resilience for the future."
Anna, from Downpatrick, found the service a lifeline when she started to struggle with her mental health during her first year studying sociology at Queen's.
Today, as the 19-year-old works hard to make changes in her lifestyle to enhance her wellbeing, she hopes her story will resonate with other young people here who will now be settling into the reality of their first year at uni.
Anna says she had no idea that university life would prove such a challenge for her.
And the fact that it made her ill took her by such surprise, and that it was only family and friends who recognised the changes in her, urging her to seek medical help.
She explains just how the reality of student life turned out to be completely different to her hopes and dreams.
"At the start it is all exciting and new," she says. "You spend the first few months just finding your feet, but after Christmas when you have exams and assignments to do it hits you that it is not just about party, party - you have work to do as well.
"I come from a small town and I wasn't familiar with Belfast so getting used to the area was tough. Trying to meet new people and make friends was something I also found hard.
"I soon realised that it wasn't all that it is cracked up to be. I am not really a party girl and a lot of student life revolves around going out. Because I wasn't that way inclined, I had to think about other ways to have fun, but ended up alone.
"I came from a town where everyone knows each other, but there are so many different people at university of all ages. It was hard to get to know people in my first year.
"I am actually only now starting to feel settled in my second year.
"As well as feeling lonely, I found the work hard. I had never heard of referencing in an essay and the work was completely different to what I was used to - it was difficult for me to get my head round it.
"I had such high expectations and it just flopped. I felt so low that there were many times when I wanted to drop out, it just felt too much for me and I wanted to give up - I am so glad now that I didn't."
It was only when her family noticed that Anna had become withdrawn and quiet and not her usually chatty self that she opened up about how unhappy she was.
She went to her GP who diagnosed depression and prescribed medication and arranged counselling.
Anna was also receiving counselling through Carecall at the university.
Recognising that she needed to find something to do with her time outside of study, she took positive steps to get herself out and joined a gym.
She found exercise a terrific antidote to depression and made a huge effort to escape the isolation of her bedroom.
"Instead of studying in my room I went to the library to study, if I fancied a hot chocolate I went out to a cafe for half an hour to get out," she recalls.
"I found the gym really good for my head, there were always people there and although I didn't make friends it was good to have company.
"I also did cheerleading for a while. I found that the hardest step is always the first one and I did ease myself gently into everything.
"When I felt lonely, I didn't know what to do about it and was unsure about what to do to help myself.
"However, once I got the confidence to go out and mix with people, it made all the difference."
Not only has she now made good friends and developed a social life, but because of her experience she is keen to help other first year students struggling with the same issues.
Anna has just volunteered to help with the new government initiative Mind Your Head which also aims to support students who are finding university life stressful.
"I have been to one meeting so far and I am really excited about getting involved in Mind Your Head. I am keeping in touch with Niamh and happy to do what I can to promote mental health," she adds.
"I felt a failure in my first year and now I am doing everything I can to try and help myself to get better. The message to others feeling the same way is that you don't have to be alone and, it's okay not to feel okay.
"Queen's pastoral care is amazing and I would urge students to talk to someone if they are feeling down. Also, get out and do something to take your mind off things.
"I think the benefits of exercise are underrated. If I feel really down, just going for a walk makes me feel 10 times better.
"What I have been through has made me stronger and now I would love to work in the mental health sector when I graduate."
Practical help on life as a student
Alongside seeking out help and support if needed, Carecall also has a number of practical tips it promotes to students to help them settle in and avoid a case of 'post-fresher blues'
- Budget your student loan and give yourself a weekly limit; this stops you from feeling financially pressured
- Don't worry if you're missing home; always make the most of opportunities to chat to new people. There is also no shame in phoning home to touch base with your family as you adjust to your new life
- Don't worry if you find that you don't make best friends with the people in your class; clubs and societies can be a great way to meet people who share your interests.
- Try to eat some healthy food, it's amazing how it can keep Freshers' Flu at bay
- Don't be afraid to ask for a bit of support if you feel that you need it. All colleges and universities will offer some form of counselling support to their students, and talking things over with someone can help
- For more advice and practical tips on adjusting to becoming a third-level student, visit Carecall's student space website, www.carecallwellbeing.com