Let’s face it. The one thing we were never fully warned about is the crippling amount of free time at university, at least for most degrees. As an English and History student, in my last semester I had barely 7 contact hours! At some points I feel as if I am paying £9,250 a year for an expensive library membership, but that’s another issue altogether. Coming to uni, we are plunged into vast and overwhelming amounts of ‘free’ time that can truly affect your mental health. And during the long summer months of our degrees, could there be a better time to discuss it?
I have to admit it. During my first year, I struggled. I came to Southampton to study the subjects I love in order to secure my future and, naturally, to grow as an independent person. Pictures on Instagram told me to expect a busy, constant three years full of friends, trips, and really engaging with the course. Yet, when I moved in, I faced the sudden reality of staring at the same four walls of a foreign bedroom. I was far from home and had lost my entire support network in the matter of a day. We are told to spend 40 hours a week studying, however that is not always possible, especially within the first few weeks.
Nevertheless, I like to think that second year brought a completely different experience. I socialised more, filled out my time, and visited home often. Still, dealing with masses of spare time is a huge thing to adjust to. Of course, like many things, it affects people in completely different ways: to some it may be a relief or an opportunity, to others it is a great weight. For me, in my first year, I was almost suspended between a state of depression and being happy. Outside – at lectures, at Jesters, even cooking in the kitchen – I looked normal, but behind my halls door, it felt quite the opposite.
I have shared this to speak out to other students who may be feeling similarly. University presents long, stretching hours of free time, with sudden stressful deadlines. Whether you are twiddling your thumbs in this last month of summer, or feel anxious about the long hours ahead in the coming year, I hope this small survival guide I have put together helps in some way.
- A happy mind is a healthy mind. Yep. You’ve heard it before. For me, whenever I am feeling down, I know it’s time to go to the gym. The simple feeling of accomplishment and the release of endorphins never fails to improve my mood. Even going for a walk or a jog helps, if you don’t fancy paying for a gym membership. Exercise won’t cure depression or anxiety, but big things start with small changes, right?
- Get a part-time job. If you’re facing long swaths of empty time, are worrying about your budget, or are finding it hard to meet new people, why not find part-time work? Check out the roles available at the university, such as working as a student ambassador.
- Look for placements. One of the big challenges I faced in my first year was the overwhelming guilt of not doing anything aside from my degree. This year, I have worked at a museum, in schools and even at Penguin Random House (check out their internships and work experience schemes here!). Also, take a look at ‘Do-it‘ for nearby volunteer roles.
- Keep busy. Easier said than done, I know. Instead of guiltily watching entire seasons on Netflix at a time, commit yourself to doing at least one thing for yourself each day. Arrange a waffle date with a friend, promise to go to a different place to shop, or visit somewhere new (read about Netley Abbey here!). Fill up your calendar. Again, this won’t change your life, but doing small things adds up to feeling accomplished.
- Contact the support and wellbeing services at uni. Everyone adjusts to university life in different ways. University services are there to help – with support available from Nightline, Student Life, Enabling Services and the Faith and Reflection Centre, there’s always someone to talk to. Take a look here.
Please note, I am not a medical expert and only speak from my own experience. If you are struggling with your mental health, please seek advice from your GP, or if you require immediate guidance, contact Southampton Nightline, the Samaritans or emergency services as appropriate.