Culture Editor Ilina Jha reflects on her struggles throughout the first few months of university and the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Written by Ilina Jha

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’: My First Term at University. 

When people ask me how I found my first term at university, I usually quote from Charles Dickens’s 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ It was the ‘best’ because of my course – I loved my modules, and the assignments were no more stressful than I could reasonably expect. It was the ‘best’ because of the societies I joined – I met fellow Whovians at the Doctor Who Society and found I had a passion for writing articles for Redbrick. It was the ‘best’ because, despite my slightly unusual situation (I was going straight into the second year of my degree course), I was welcomed with open arms by my fellow English students, and made new friends both inside and outside of my course.

But it was the ‘worst’ because I found independent living – cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry – very difficult to manage alongside my studies. It was the ‘worst’ because the stresses of moving to a new place and trying to juggle independent living with studies and socialising (not to mention getting enough sleep) took a toll on my already poor mental health. It was the ‘worst’ because, despite not feeling sad at all when my family dropped me off at the beginning of term, I realised how much I missed them – whenever I visited home, the mere thought of leaving them again would be enough to make me break down into tears.

When my family dropped me off at the beginning of term, I realised how much I missed them

Part of the problem was that, as the initial start-of-term excitement abated and the colder, darker months drew in, I began to feel the effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) (a topic on which I have written about previously for Redbrick). I have known for some time now that this affects me on a mild level, so I take steps to manage it. However, the added stresses and difficulties of university, alongside the homesickness I was feeling, exacerbated my symptoms and made managing SAD more difficult. Another problem was that I was adjusting to a huge change, which can be especially challenging for an autistic person. Plus, despite all the excitement and opportunities that a big city like Birmingham has to offer, it is a hugely different environment from the small-town life I was used to.

But what I found hardest was that I felt isolated in my struggles. Everyone seemed to have a much better grip on university life than I did; it took a long time for me to realise that it was perfectly normal for students to struggle during their first term at university and to cover up their feelings because they thought they were the only one feeling that way. I’m sure I hid my feelings a lot of the time because I was worried about what people would think. 

I hid my feelings a lot of the time because I was worried about what people would think

So with this in mind, my advice to new students is this: if you are feeling sad, or stressed, or you are struggling more than you expected, and you are worried that you are the only one feeling this way – please trust me when I say that you are not. You may just need time to adjust to university life; you may need some extra help – whether that’s just through talking to friends and family or seeking the professional help of a therapist or counsellor. I needed all of the above. You may need help for the first term; you may need ongoing support throughout university – and that’s okay. 

I still put off doing my laundry for too long and struggle to eat up fresh vegetables at the right time before they go mouldy (I’ve found that frozen veg is the way to go). However, I am much more adept at living independently and have come to feel at home in Birmingham. A year on from my low point last year, I am more mature, more confident, and (I hope) more wise.

For more Comment articles on this topic read here:

The Cost of Becoming a Student 

Maturing Through Studies 

Sunak’s plans to cap ‘rip-off’ degrees will leave many students without enough options