Posted 22 June 2020
Interview by Indi Davies

“I considered leaving all the time”

University can be an emotional and testing time, and in recent months these challenges have been intensified. In our latest Insight Report, we explore mental health in higher education from every angle; including tutor experiences and a greater overview of the issue, to initiatives in tech making a difference. In this second extract from the report, Ravensbourne graduate Rosa Kimosa shares her experience of anxiety while studying, reflecting on the potential triggers and support she received.

A 2018 graduate of the Ravensbourne Fashion Promotion BA, Rosa’s first encounter with anxiety came during her art foundation, and followed her through the duration of her degree. Fortunately, through her openness with a tutor and a wealth of available support at Ravensbourne, she was able to access the help she needed early on. As a result, Rosa became something of an advocate for open conversation on the topic, and even started her own initiative, Aware Online, a safe space for discussion around mental health.

Now, with some distance from student life and work experience under her belt, Rosa reflects on this period and shares her thoughts for current students.

Would you mind describing your experience of anxiety while at university?
During my foundation I experienced a panic attack for the first time, and I remember feeling like there was something wrong with me. I didn’t know what a panic attack was, or even what mental health was. I just felt alone with it; I kind of froze and freaked out for about twenty minutes. My anxiety and feelings of loneliness and sadness were something that controlled me for a good while.

Do you have a sense of the driving factors behind the way you felt?
I think it was a build-up of things. I was 18 and there were a lot of changes. I had come from college, where everything was more relaxed and the workload was different. I was being asked to produce more, and my creativity was being questioned in a way it never had been before. I remember feeling like I was under a magnifying glass, and would feel sick to my stomach just having to show my work.

“I remember feeling like I was under a magnifying glass, and would feel sick to my stomach just having to show my work. ”

Did you feel any additional pressure around graduating and what might happen next?
That was definitely a trigger, especially as we got closer to the end of university, as well as post-graduation. It was like, “What am I gonna do next?” I needed to figure things out, and that came with a whole new set of pressures. When I started thinking about what jobs to apply for and what my friends were doing, I felt my anxiety ramp up again. You’re just so uncertain and you don’t always get the hands-on support to be able to secure a job or step into a career.

Can you tell us about the support that was available to you within university?
At my uni we had a whole student services department, where you could receive counselling and therapy. They also have support and guidance for students who are dealing with financial issues; it was super-active and accessible.

For me, the fact that I had that first panic attack inside the university library was literally the only reason why I ended up talking to a tutor about it. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have told anyone.

Were there any moments when you considered leaving the course?
Yes, I considered leaving all the time. Especially when I was at my lowest, feeling overwhelmed and missing classes because I was too anxious to get out of bed and go to uni. I felt I wasn’t creating my best work and it was a vicious cycle; if I missed a class, I wouldn’t know what was happening. I would try to catch up and then feel like I was going to get grilled at a crit.

I don’t think it was anyone’s fault, but sometimes I felt that the tutors didn’t understand what each individual was going through, because they have so many students. There was a lack of transparency between both sides. That can be down to students not being open about how they feel and not knowing where to go.

I genuinely don’t think I would have stayed if I hadn’t received help and stuck to my counselling sessions. It was such a great help and made me conscious of the world of mental health, what I was feeling and how to cope with it.

“I considered leaving all the time. Especially when I was at my lowest and missing classes.”

Were you aware of other students having similar experiences through this time?
There were a lot of students going through it. I think mental illness and negative mental health are way more common among students than people realise; I just don’t think students always come forward and speak up. But between students, at least in my experience, we had a lot of conversations around this, and I heard a lot of other people’s stories.

On my course, I had two friends drop out for personal reasons, but I feel they weren’t aware of how student support worked and how beneficial it would have been. They didn’t follow through with the help and were quite sceptical of it. The reason I benefitted from it was because I was transparent with my tutor, but if I hadn’t been, it’s unlikely I would have discovered student services at all.

Do you have thoughts on how these services could have appealed to more students?
Our student services programme was incredibly advanced, but it’s a whole different department. We were told about it in our induction and it was never brought up again. I think there needs to be a light shone on these services, because it’s quite hidden.

It can be a big step to even admit to yourself that you need support, so there needs to be a stronger link, because unless you talk to a tutor or refer yourself, no one is going to come and offer the help.

“Mental illness and negative mental health are way more common among students than people realise.”

Do you have any additional thoughts or advice for current students at this time?
I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be studying at this moment and dealing with everything that’s happening. It’s such an uncertain and scary time, especially for those in their final year. I really hope universities are amping up their wellbeing services with hands-on support and making it very accessible, with help online or opening up phone lines.

When it comes to uncertainty, which is likely the main feeling that everyone will be experiencing, this is something that comes up at multiple times in life, and it isn’t necessarily something to shy away from. I think you have to kind of embrace it and be realistic with yourself by asking: What am I in control of? It can be helpful to focus on the things you can control, and take it one day at a time.

It’s also important not to force yourself to continue being productive if you feel overwhelmed. Get the rest you need. Also, pick up the phone, or email your university, to try and seek help if you need it.

Interview by Indi Davies
Mention Rosa Kimosa