Men­tal health is­sues among to­day’s stu­dents have reached record lev­els. Au­thor Janey Louise Jones re­veals how she coped with her own break­down at univer­sity

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‘My uni break­down was the mak­ing of me’

As I help my three sons pre­pare for a new univer­sity year, I am re­minded of a painful pe­riod of my own young life. Ben­jamin, Ol­lie and Louis are full of ex­cite­ment, but back in 1988 I felt very dif­fer­ently. I was just start­ing the fi­nal year of my de­gree course in Ed­in­burgh, and felt noth­ing but dread, over­whelmed by the whole ex­pe­ri­ence of univer­sity life.

I re­mem­ber one cold au­tumn morn­ing be­ing un­able to go into a packed lec­ture the­atre. It was a ses­sion on meta­phys­i­cal po­ets. The tu­tor was one of my favourites, but as I stood at the en­trance, my legs re­fused to take a step for­ward. My ra­tio­nal brain bat­tled against the ris­ing anx­i­ety, but I could not move. I turned and ran back to my stu­dent flat, sob­bing un­con­trol­lably.

That was a defin­ing mo­ment – the point when I re­alised my feel­ings were not nor­mal and that per­spec­tive and bal­ance had de­serted me. I – clever, pretty, sen­si­ble Jane – was hav­ing a break­down.

In the months lead­ing up to that day, I had been feel­ing in­creas­ingly un­able to cope. As a 20-year-old, the thought of the world spread out in front me was daunt­ing. What did I want to be when I ‘grew up’? Would it work out with my boyfriend? There were too many op­tions. In my stud­ies, I felt un­ex­cep­tional and in­fe­rior. De­spite hav­ing been quite good at English at school, I was, in truth, deeply av­er­age when set against my peer group in the big pond of univer­sity. I was dev­as­tated if I got a B for an es­say in­stead of an A.

Aca­demic in­se­cu­rity, emo­tional im­ma­tu­rity and fi­nan­cial con­cerns are all big chal­lenges fac­ing stu­dents. And given cur­rent debt lev­els and the un­cer­tainty of the job mar­ket, it’s hardly sur­pris­ing that a re­cent study showed a huge leap in the num­bers of stu­dents leav­ing their stud­ies early be­cause of men­tal health is­sues. The num­ber of first years re­port­ing con­di­tions such as anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion was al­most five times higher in the past aca­demic year than ten years ago.

My own de­pres­sive feel­ings didn’t fit with my sense of self – I was kind and well-be­haved, wasn’t I? I worked hard, I made my par­ents proud, and I had a close net­work of friends. I was, in short, the ul­ti­mate ‘good girl’. Yet I felt like a fail­ure, that I couldn’t be loved just by be­ing my­self. I felt I was too ‘girly’ – not the so­phis­ti­cated, aca­demic young woman I wanted to be. I was trapped in a cy­cle of feel­ing I had to earn love and re­lent­lessly prove my worth.

The neg­a­tive thoughts plagu­ing my mind were re­in­forced by phys­i­cal con­cerns. Af­ter my ef­fort­lessly skinny teenage years, I had de­vel­oped hips, a bust, and I felt fat. I hated my body, and I felt su­per­fi­cial for car­ing how I looked. My boyfriend was a dash­ing sol­dier; we didn’t meet very of­ten and I felt that he didn’t know the real me – and surely wouldn’t like me if he did.

As that stormy au­tumn term went on, my men­tal health con­tin­ued to spi­ral down­wards – I was of­ten tear­ful, list­less and de­feated by sim­ple events. I be­came un­able to keep my di­ary in

check, miss­ing ap­point­ments and so­cial events.

By the time I ad­mit­ted to my par­ents that I wanted to move from my stu­dent flat back to our house in the sub­urbs I was in chaos. Friends had be­come con­cerned be­cause I kept cry­ing or was dis­tant and pre­oc­cu­pied. I was start­ing to fall be­hind on dead­lines and my lec­tur­ers at univer­sity were wor­ried. My par­ents, deeply con­cerned but calm, took charge and booked me in to see the fam­ily doc­tor. He was kind – sug­gest­ing I keep a di­ary of my thoughts and gen­er­ally rest un­til I felt bet­ter. Per­haps I had just ‘over­done it’. At this stage, there was a sense that this would all pass with a bit of TLC.

The prob­lem with ‘rest­ing’ is that it gives some­one in men­tal dis­tress the one thing guar­an­teed to make mat­ters worse – time to think. End­less un­struc­tured days and hours to fill be­come a void where neg­a­tiv­ity eas­ily takes hold. While I was rest­ing, I was re­ally fu­elling my self-loathing – I was not good enough, per­fect enough or nice enough, and any kind­ness felt un­earned. De­pres­sion is an ego­ma­niac – it’s all about you.

I re­turned to univer­sity af­ter Christ­mas, but just two months later I went back to the doc­tor in tears say­ing I couldn’t cope. I was pre­scribed an­tide­pres­sants and they helped to sta­bilise my mood and gave me the strength to take my re­cov­ery se­ri­ously – I asked the univer­sity for some time off from my de­gree and I started reg­u­larly see­ing a ther­a­pist.

I spent a lot of time in bed, read­ing. My bed­room at my par­ents’ house was my sanc­tu­ary – here I felt safe. I cher­ished let­ters and cards from friends. My fam­ily co­cooned me – my par­ents’ care was un­end­ing, my sis­ter was kind and un­der­stand­ing, my grand­mother – a big in­flu­ence in my life – would sit and talk with me for hours.

My weekly vis­its to my ther­a­pist quickly be­came a life­line. To­gether we ex­plored the trou­bling pat­terns of my thoughts, from self-im­age to my in­ces­sant striv­ing to please oth­ers in the pur­suit of per­fec­tion. We dis­cussed the ‘good girl syn­drome’ as an un­achiev­able ideal cen­tred around con­cern for the well­be­ing of oth­ers rather than ful­fill­ing your own needs and am­bi­tions.

Over the spring of 1989, I worked with my ther­a­pist to de­velop cop­ing strate­gies. I told her how I felt bor­ing for not be­ing a party an­i­mal at univer­sity, and she helped me see that be­ing hon­est about my­self was ac­tu­ally a strong thing. I was brave, not bor­ing. My ther­a­pist ad­vo­cated ‘fac­ing the world’. Some peo­ple, she told me, try to min­imise risk in their life as a strat­egy against suf­fer­ing, to avoid be­ing hurt. The ‘os­trich’ strat­egy, you might call it. If one never tries to fall in love, one can never have one’s heart bro­ken. I knew that this was not how I wanted to live my life. If I lived a full life, I knew there would be re­grets, em­bar­rass­ments and emo­tional dilem­mas, but I knew this was prefer­able to not liv­ing at all.

My ther­a­pist told me to iden­tify a ‘pri­mary con­cern’ at any given time in my life, and to pri­ori­tise that con­cern, let­ting go of other com­mit­ments. I de­cided my first pri­mary con­cern was to get bet­ter and I made my re­cov­ery a pri­or­ity.

I learned to re­train my brain, to recog­nise neg­a­tive, per­va­sive thoughts as dis­pro­por­tion­ate and to get rid of them. I cut ties with peo­ple who made me feel bad about my­self, by grad­u­ally fall­ing out of touch with them, which was bru­tal but nec­es­sary. I also learned about deal­ing with re­jec­tion. It’s not a per­sonal thing. Life is about tim­ing and per­sis­tence. If you dis­tort one re­jec­tion into some­thing more sig­nif­i­cant, it re­ally might hap­pen again, be­cause you be­come neu­rotic about the pos­si­bil­ity.

Dur­ing that pe­riod of coun­selling and re­cov­ery, there were still des­per­ate days with no sense of a fu­ture beyond them. But grad­u­ally, as spring bloomed, I started to feel hope­ful. I threw my­self into the minu­tiae of my daily life – what I was go­ing to eat, the linen on my bed, tend­ing the herbs on the win­dowsill. I made my en­vi­ron­ment or­dered and nur­tur­ing. I start­ing plan­ning my di­ary, be­ing more re­al­is­tic about

I was fall­ing be­hind on dead­lines and my lec­tur­ers were wor­ried

Janey dur­ing her con­va­les­cence in 1989, left, and, above, with her sis­ter Vicky in 1991. Be­low: Ed­in­burgh Univer­sity, where Janey stud­ied

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