"We’re all different, and we all like to work and live in different ways..."Sophie Buck

I didn’t go into Cambridge expecting that it would be easy.

My mental health was at its worst during the second year of A-levels, and Cambridge’s reputation indicated that things would only get worse. To add to this, I’m autistic – adverse to the change and extensive social interaction that usually go hand-in-hand with starting at university. But things didn’t get worse. I might have had a difficult year, but I made wonderful friends, put support structures in place for future years, and had some of the best times of my life.

I also learned some vital lessons about mental health that might seem patently obvious, but which we are all partial to forget.

These are the lessons that I wish that I’d been taught before starting.

Trying to be ‘normal’ isn’t worth it

Many of us at Cambridge struggle with the perceived notion of normality and struggling to fit into it; from drinking just because everybody else is, to warping your very identity to conform to what is expected. This is especially true for those of us who fall into marginalised groups, for whom the failure to meet societal norms can be painfully obvious, exaggerated within the confines of university life. But striving for normality can only leave you feeling more defeated, crushed by unfulfilled expectations. There are people out there that will like you and accept you despite all of this.

Find out what works for you. Stick to it

“...no matter how much you wish you could function like everyone else, sometimes you just can’t. That’s okay.”

We’re all different, and we all like to work and live in different ways. I initially had a good system of routine – allowing time to work, sleep and have fun. But it’s easy to get swept up in what everyone else is doing. Amidst the hectic backdrop of exam term, I forgot what was right for me. I went to working when I found the time and only sleeping for about five hours. Sure, this works for some people – but for an autistic person who needs routine to stay well, the effect was catastrophic. Being good to yourself means understanding your boundaries and knowing that no matter how much you wish you could function like everyone else, sometimes you just can’t. That’s okay.

(Try to) admit that you need help

I mentioned stress and pain in my hand to my supervisor several times in exam term, seeming to shift gradually from resolutely calm to slightly stressed. In reality, for most of this time I had been too scared to say that I was fast becoming a non-functioning wreck, and was so vague that from the outside it seemed like little more than a minor inconvenience. Most of my friends didn’t know how bad things had gotten until recently, but I wish I had told them. When I did, they were hugely supportive and wished they’d known sooner. I amend this piece of advice only because admitting that you need help can be incredibly difficult and often requires the support of those few people you are prepared to tell. Even just trying, making the effort, can go a long way towards helping you feel better.

Incoming freshers will inevitably be told about many places they can go for mental health support, of which different places will be right for different people. A list can be found here on the CUSU website: https://www.cusu.co.uk/supporting-you/welfare/mental-health-support- options.

You don’t need to be working all of the time

“Nothing should ever be a long-term priority above wellbeing and happiness.”

Nearly half of all exam term conversations will consist of students bemoaning that they should be in the library working. Many of us take this kind of guilt with us everywhere, believing that work isn’t meant to be fun and that suffering produces results. But this simply isn’t the case. Not only are you more productive and creative when happy, but you will feel better for it. I feel best when I curb my perfectionist tendencies and strive to make my work as good as it can be within the constraints that I have. Nothing should ever be a long-term priority above wellbeing and happiness. Putting this on the line can be a one-way trip to compromising your own health and ability to do any work at all.

Try to find people that you can relate to and confide in

Finding friends that you can relate to and confide in can help fight the isolation and remind you that you are not struggling on your own. In my own case, interacting with other autistic students at Cambridge has allowed me to feel more positive about my experiences and given me an outlet for anxieties. From the branching campaigns set up CUSU (the Cambridge University Students’ Union) to the ACS (African-Caribbean Society), FLY, and various college societies, there should always be somewhere where you can feel safe and supported in the company of those you can identify with.

Be kind to yourself

“Be compassionate and understand that not getting it right is okay.”

None of the things listed above are going to be easy, especially when you are studying at Cambridge. Despite being the very person writing this article, it took me a year to come to these realisations and I am still bad at implementing them. Given the prevalence of self-criticism among Cambridge students, it is also important not to let your efforts to improve your mental health become yet another avenue for self-criticism. The best that you can do is all that anyone could ask of you. Be compassionate and understand that not getting it right is okay. All that you can do is resolve to try your best the next time, and then the time after that

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