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How I Managed OCD and Depression and Still Achieved a First-Class Degree

No one's ever described their final year of university as easy.

All-nighters, tears and unashamedly rolling up to lectures in your pyjamas are entirely normal. So, when my mental health deteriorated to an all-time low in my third year, it honestly felt like I was beyond rock bottom.

Yet I still managed to gain a first-class degree.

After being diagnosed with depression in second year and then OCD in third year, life was a roller-coaster of medication and waiting for therapy. With next to no motivation and my time being taken up with anxiety and panic, university seemed impossible.

But it wasn't, and although there's no quick fix for mental health issues, especially when you're a student, there are things you can and should do to help you through it. 

 

 

Don't suffer in silence

The first positive step I took towards managing my mental issues was to get some help. It's easy to fear that you won't be taken seriously, or that you're being a burden, or that whatever treatment you do receive won't work, but reaching out is so important.  

I went to the doctors the first time in my second year and was prescribed an anti-depressant. I was also urged to refer myself to therapy, through a system called Improving Access to Psychological Therapy (IAPT). Each area of the country has their own system for therapy and you can find out more from your GP. 

After an over-the-phone consultation I was transferred to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a type of therapy that works on counteracting unhelpful behaviours that feed mental illness, such as staying in bed when you feel depressed, which ultimately makes you feel worse.

The therapy wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination; turning up is only the tip of the iceberg. On top of coursework for university, I also had homework to complete for my therapy which I had to do in order to progress. For example, to help my lack of motivation my therapist told me I had to say yes to every opportunity, whether that be going out with my friends or doing some exercise with my partner. 

But, as difficult as it was to juggle therapy with my studies, especially on days where you're tired and stressed about essays and exams, the effort does pay off. In fact, tackling my depression whilst at university made me realise if I could manage it under pressure, I could manage it whenever.

 

Take the ups with the downs

Amongst the many downsides of suffering with mental illness is that it waxes and wanes. In spite of successfully completing my therapy for depression, when my final year rolled around I felt myself slipping back into a cycle of unhelpful behaviours. 

I started to become irrationally obsessive over relatively insignificant things, to an extent that it was affecting my day-to-day life - and in turn my chances of achieving a first. I was anxious to the point where simply watching a horror film would have such a strong emotional impact on me that I couldn't get out of bed.

Suspecting that I needed more help than a simple push to "pull myself together", I sought medical advice once more. Diagnosed with OCD, I was referred for more CBT and received all the advice and resources I needed to juggle mental illness with university life.

It would have been so easy to bottle it up out of shame for feeling like I needed help again, or think that I was just being dramatic or exaggerating things. But if there's one thing I've learnt it's that if you feel like something is wrong, something probably is. 

If you are struggling in any way, whether it's the first time or the fifteenth, make an appointment with the doctor. 

 

Involve your university

Just as there's no shame in reaching out for help from your doctor, there's also no shame in confiding in your university, and it's imperative that they know you're struggling. 

I had more than my fair share of days off where I would stay in bed all day. Not out of laziness, but out of sheer depression. By creating a support system out of my tutors and uni friends, who were all aware of what was going on, I didn’t have to come up with an excuse, or tell them every time I wasn’t coming in because of my mental health. A quick ‘I won’t be in today’ sufficed. 

This also makes it much easier to get an extension on work if you need it; it’s much better than telling your tutor you are mentally ill and asking for an extension all in one go. 

It may not be easy to tell somebody you’re struggling in the moment, but it alleviates a lot of anxiety in the long run. 

 

Have your own back

Not being able to predict when my bad days would fall, I regained some control by becoming very efficient in my work. 

I turned up to uni as much as I could, engaged in seminars more than I ever had before and actually absorbed everything my lecturers said rather than copying notes off the PowerPoint slides. I participated in library sessions, looked ahead at assignment questions and, where possible, chose which texts to write about far in advance.

In the grand scheme of things, these were all small actions that, let's be honest, we should all be doing anyway, but they helped massively when it came to managing my mental health. 

I didn't feel so overwhelmed and knew if I didn’t feel so good one day, I could make an informed decision on whether I had to go to uni.

 

Be kind to yourself

You won't get far down the road to recuperation without accepting that mental health issues, like depression and OCD, require lots of rest. I left my job in third year because I knew I wouldn’t be able to cope and then I had my weekends to visit my family and relax. Of course, this may not be a viable option for everyone, but if you can, do.

Eating healthily is vital, as is finding a hobby or extracurricular activity you can lose yourself in. For me, this was running, but it can be anything you want.

Do things that make you feel in control, as this defies mental illness that makes you feel like you have no authority over your life or choices.

Love yourself, force yourself to partake in your hobbies even if they feel like a tremendous effort. It will make you feel more positive and you will be more productive for it. 

 

Believe in yourself

When I opened my results in July last year, I cried. I had gained a first-class degree, something I was not expecting. By accepting that I was struggling, and in turn doing what I could to make life easier for myself, I had excelled in my studies. 

Despite missing sessions (and also having time off for appendicitis in March!), I had managed to have an extremely successful university career. Suffering with an illness doesn’t have to hold you back academically, it just means you need to manage your time differently with therapy, support and a routine.

I realised taking small steps to manage your mental health actually helps to set your whole life in order. Unfortunately, mental illness is something we have to live with; it never really goes away. Therefore, it is important that we do what we can when we can in order to be happy and successful. 

 

 

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