We spoke to graduate Constantinos Kyriacou about his struggles with mental health at university and work. Constantinos was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in his first year of studying economics at UCL, transferred to Royal Holloway for his second year and finally became a chartered accountant. He shares how he coped with his mental health condition while studying and offers his insights into what students can do if they find themselves in a similar situation.
You can find out more about mental health and wellbeing at university from our blog post on student mental health, which includes a list of useful resources and helplines.
Constantinos’ story: the first year
When he started at university, Constantinos found it difficult to balance social and academic life and adjust to his new environment. He says: ‘A big trigger of my anxiety – and it’s unavoidable at university – is new social situations, so when I was around a lot of people I didn’t know in the first few months, even if the group was small, I felt uncomfortable and tense.’
Academic pressure was also a source of stress. He recalls: ‘At school I was good at the subjects I did – I knew answers to stuff, I knew what I was doing. Then, when I was thrown into university, it was a whole different ball game. You go from being at the top of the class to being at the bottom again and not knowing what you think you knew, because it’s a completely new subject, completely new stuff you’re studying and you feel out of your depth.’
After the first few months at university, Constantinos was really struggling, but it took some time for him to realise that he needed to seek professional help. He remembers: ‘I found it very difficult to get out of bed in the morning. I had to be forced to get out. Bad times would be when I was travelling on trains and having recurring thoughts about committing suicide. Not being able to concentrate, not being able to socialise or talk as I generally would in a group of people that I’d usually feel comfortable with, and a lot of self-doubt were all symptoms of my depression and anxiety.
‘At first, I had no idea that the things I was feeling were symptoms of a larger issue. At that time I started researching a bit and that’s the first time I came across the word depression – I was like, wow, this describes exactly what’s happening to me.’
Constantinos says that after realising that he needed help to reclaim control of his mental health, he went to the GP for a diagnosis. ‘I started seeing a therapist and it started to get a bit better. Getting a formal diagnosis was a massive help when I was at university. At Royal Holloway in my second and third year, I got a form from the doctors for extra time in exams and assessments, which helped lift the burden a bit.’ He was also prescribed antidepressants and began exercising again, which lifted his mood.
Students who have a diagnosis of a mental health condition may be able to access other support in addition to adjustments such as extra time in exams. University welfare services can provide advice on what’s available.
Talking about mental health
In recent years people have become more open about talking about their mental health. However there is still a taboo. Constantinos says opening up a conversation with friends, family or a counsellor can really help offload some of your anxieties, and make you realise that you are not alone.
He explains: ‘You genuinely don’t know how many people are going through the same thing as you. You’re put into a bubble at university, but you’re all experiencing similar things at the same time. Even when I went to the GP at university – he didn’t tell me who – but he told me the number of students who were on anti-depressants and it was mind-boggling.’
When Constantinos was dealing with depression and anxiety after transferring to Royal Holloway, he admits to hiding his illness: ‘I thought it was taboo. I lived with a girl in my third year: we lived together, we shared a kitchen in the same block of flats and not once did we even speak about it or know that anyone was going through anything similar. It was only three years later through social media that I found out she was going through exactly the same thing.’
Constantinos’ advice to students is: ‘Don’t be afraid to talk. Find someone you feel comfortable talking about things with, whether that’s your GP, family members or friends. When you open up a conversation about mental health, you’d be amazed at the amount they open up as well, and the connection you feel.’
The next stage: after graduation
After graduation, Constantinos struggled with the pressure to have a steady career and life plan sorted. ‘I was in a pretty good place in my third year when I finished, but I had no direction. You’re working towards a degree and then suddenly you’ve got that degree and you’ve got to work out that next step of your life when, in a lot of instances, you have no idea what that is. For me, that definitely exacerbated my depression and anxiety. I just ended up applying for anything and everything.’
But over time, he says he learned to accept that he didn’t have everything figured out, and needed to gain experience and see what worked for him. He says: ‘I think it’s best not to sit around trying to figure out too much what you want to do in life. It will come to you at some point. Just go for a job that you’re interested in, and by doing stuff you can rule out what you don’t want to do. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, thinking that you need to have everything figured out in the next eight to twelve months, because you don’t.’
He also suggests that it’s important not to compare yourself to others. ‘Everyone’s path is different. You can’t compare yourself to anyone else because you don’t know what’s going on inside their life.’ This applies to starting work as well as to applying for jobs: ‘It took me six months to find my feet in accountancy. Give it time. Don’t compare yourself to the intake that’s with you. You’re all going to develop at a different pace. Just enjoy it as much as you can.’
Tips for freshers
He also has some general tips for any fresher who finds it difficult to adjust to university life at first. ‘It’s important to remember that no one knows each other yet, and it’s likely that everyone you see feels just as shy as you do – some are just better at hiding it.’ What about students who struggle to adapt to the academic pressure of university? He suggests: ‘Give yourself time to catch up to new material. If you knew everything already you wouldn’t need to go to university in the first place. If you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to approach lecturers and supervisors. Their job is to teach and, at the end of the day, they want you to do well.’