Coping with university when you have anxiety

May 12, 2016
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While most of us tend to imagine people with disabilities having wheelchairs and guide dogs, it’s not always so obvious.

Lily Davison is a 21-year-old fine arts student from UNSW who loves baking and designing her own clothes. Her friends describe her as a bubbly chatterbox with a wicked sense of humour.

But when she steps into a crowded lecture hall, it’s an entirely different story.

“I can hear my pulse in my ears, my heart is slowly getting faster. I look around and things become blurry and bright,” she says.

“I try to take a deep breath to calm down but my lungs don’t seem to expand, I can feel sweat dripping down my spine and every sound around me feels ten times louder.”

Thousands of Australians like Lily are living with an invisible disability. According to the Australian Network On Disability, a disability is an “impairment or condition [that] impacts daily activities, communication and/or mobility.” An invisible disability is when that impairment isn’t easy for others to see, and includes chronic pain, epilepsy, diabetes and mental illnesses.

Lily suffers from severe anxiety and depression, which makes it difficult for her to attend lectures and hand in assignments on time.

Almost one in five Australians will experience a serious mental illness before the age of 25. University students are four times more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to other people their age, with many saying they feel overwhelmed with the pressures of studying, working and keeping up with friends.   

It’s a worrying trend, as a 2014 joint report from Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institution  found suicide had taken over car accidents as the leading cause of death for young Australians aged between 15 to 24.

I try to take a deep breath to calm down but my lungs don’t seem to expand, I can feel sweat dripping down my spine and every sound around me feels ten times louder.

Gayle McNaught, a spokesperson from the Black Dog Institution, notes students are often reluctant to seek help for their mental illness.

“Young people with probable mental illnesses [are] uncomfortable seeking info, advice and support from phone lines, online counselling or drop-in community services,” she says.

“They prefer to seek help from friends and the internet and, to a lesser extent, parents and other relatives.”

But people like Michelle Kerr from Disability Services, Student Life & Learning at UNSW are there to lend students a helping hand. Kerr is the university’s senior Student Equity Officer, and says they offer a wide variety of services that can counteract anything that’s preventing students from completing their studies.

“In addition to putting in place reasonable adjustments for students, we refer to other services that we are co-located with, such as the Educational Support Advisors, or we link the student to Counselling and Psychological Service on campus,” she says.

“That way we can work together to develop a holistic approach to mental illness and the impact on study.”

...to hand in an assignment on time without having a breakdown is something that I’m very proud of every time I achieve it.

While universities such as UNSW are implementing risk procedure plans that’ll see academics being trained to recognise signs of mental illness in students, support for students with invisible disabilities still has a long way to go.

“I've asked for extensions and been told to ‘withdraw from the course’ and to ‘manage my mental health’," says law student Sara*.

“It's as though the second you feel yourself struggling with work you should withdraw from the course. That's what they seem to prefer, it’s like they don't want you to try.”

Sara has anxiety that affects her concentration and ability to complete assignments on time. Her experience shows some universities may not know how to properly deal with students in a similar situation.

“[University] counsellors I've talked to have implied they can't get [some] faculties to cooperate with students with disabilities,” she says, “the services themselves seem good and the counsellors are wonderful but it's… the faculties that don't seem to understand.”

Although Lily agrees more needs to be done for students with invisible disabilities, the support she has received so far has meant she’s finally able to take pleasure in one of the most mundane aspects of university life – handing in an assignment.

“Even though I know for most of the student population, handing an assignment in on time is normal, for me to hand in an assignment on time without having a breakdown is something that I’m very proud of every time I achieve it.”

*Name has been changed and unviersity has not been disclosed for privacy reasons.

Samara McCann

Samara is a Masters of Journalism student from Macquarie Uni. She likes politics, LGBTI issues and being covered in cat hair. You can tweet her @Samara_McCann

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