There is a little known and even lesser discussed phenomena that happens this time of year, in the mind of the first year university student, the fresher. Equally, it can happen to anyone who wanders far from the homely nest, but what is often dismissed, misunderstood and redescribed in simple terms as ‘university blues’ or home-sickness, mostly by those who have never really experienced it, is in truth, a very real, emotionally upsetting and psychologically frightening occurrence that if not explained, could plummet the new student into anxiety and depression.
What seemed exciting when writing the personal statement, can quickly turn out to be felt as a ticket into a void of unprecedented separation. This is not a matter of growing up, its a matter of the extreme external physical separation causing extreme internal emotional separation, compounded by the belief that they are isolated in the experience.
Some students do manage to avoid feeling a void straight away, by making new attachments to other students, thus creating an emotional bridge, termed in psychoanalysis as a transitional object, or surrogate for the emotional umbilical cord. For others, however, the only difference between a car crash and psychological separation, brought on by the shock of going off to university, is that in the former people can see the emerging bruises, offer sympathy and buy flowers, when in the latter, they are expected, even told, to ‘pull themselves together, grow up and get over it’.
What is happening here is a sudden detachment of not one but all of the attachment bonds that keep us feeling safe. It can be experienced as if the internal world is falling, they are losing grip on invisible rocks on which they had no prior knowledge they were clinging. It is nothing less than an unpredicted, unprecedented psychological plummet into a void of fear and loss. And it taps into the primal fear inherent in everyone, the bereavement of a parent. Leaving the student bereft, isolated, scared and incapable of explaining the ordeal to their former friends or parents.
With outwardly blurred vision there is an internal rise in anxiety, as the change in environment, away from the familiar-family who kept them not only physically, but psychologically and emotionally safe, are swapped for a sea of unrecognisable walls and faces. This is not social anxiety, this is an internal collapse of the ego. The extent of the experience can be analysed and known, as anxiety rises in proportion to the fall. What is happening inside the mind is that the wonderful ego, the mind overseer and protector, has been pressurised beyond its capacity to cope with the sudden shift into the unfamiliar and unknown. It seems like a reality that no internal defence mechanism can protect them from.
What can make the whole matter worse, are parents who underestimate the extent of suffering, or as can sometimes happen through finance or expectation, utterly refuse to acknowledge the experience or allow their children to return home. The student, already feeling like a disappointing failure under the added pressure of debt, is spun further into isolation, feeling trapped in a foreign land without any solid footing on which to stand, with the only apparent prospect of returning home under a cloud of external, or worse, internal disapproval. It’s no wonder that so many students wobbly at the first hurdle. When all around them has left them feeling vulnerable and fragile, there is hardly any mind power left to attend to the matter of studying.
There are lots of things that friends and parents can do, however, to support any student in the midst of this experience; regular text messages, markers in the near future of a reunion, skype, emails, unexpected goody parcels, etc, all keep the emotional umbilical cord between home and halls alive and well. But by far and away the best thing any parent can do is to be open to discussing the emotional experiences of their children at any hour of the day or night, and to never ever give any indication that their feelings are unimportant or that returning home is not an option or seen as a failure. The fall-out rate for freshers is high but degrees are not everything. A happy child is everything. Time will tell but it should always be the student’s decision, even if the parent is secretly wondering where they may end up. For some students pushing through awhile, with lots of visible support whilst they re-stabilise, is what is needed. For others, returning home, taking a breather, letting the mind settle and trying something else is exactly what will enable them to flourish.
For anyone away from home who is suffering, there is some good news for you too. Firstly, know that this experience is perfectly understandable, lots of adults wobble through life transitions as well. And you are not alone. Literally. There will be other students where you are feeling exactly the same way as you do. Maybe that person sitting on the bench alone is one of them? Or maybe opening up a conversation will create a welcome distraction? Universities often have student pastoral support or nightlight facilities, which are a great way to feel supported by those who are there and may have already experienced what you are feeling. A good way to perceive life is to make all of your experiences work for you. Whilst it is understandably difficult, see if you could find a different perspective and use this opportunity to gain the deepest understanding of yourself, develop useful coping strategies to use for life and be able, single-handedly or single-mindedly, to restore your internal world to peace. You will re-stabilise. Starting your own journal can be really helpful. It’s a method that lots of people use in life to deal with their more challenging experiences or difficult thoughts and feelings, and it’s a great reflection tool to see how far you have come later on. You just got unplugged too soon. Plug yourself back in, to new places and people that are friendly and welcoming. Check out the sports and social facilities and clubs that might actually need your support. And lastly, remember the lifelong best mantra when in states of difficulty that lots of people use, ‘this too will pass’.
Academic success does not depend on whether someone knows how to boil an egg, is usually capable, sensible or intelligent – degrees are all about resilience and stamina. Resilience in the capacity to be internally mentally flexible, to learn fast about emotional shifts in the sand and to evolve into what others would then perceive as a mature young person. Stamina, in the capacity to find internal resources that they never previously knew they had, to enable them to reform, continue, stand up again, and move on. After all, we are all in the tuition of life and every experience, perceived in the right way, adds up to a great education.