“There’s more to life than academic work: I only wish I’d realised sooner”

Róisín McCallion discusses her experiences with mental health and the pressure to succeed at Oxford

When I was told I needed to go into hospital rather than embark on my British Council placement in Germany, it felt like the rug had been pulled straight from beneath my feet – like my whole world was falling apart. I completely resisted it.

Although I could accept that I was at a point where intensive treatment had become necessary again, I didn’t really care: work was my priority, my degree was my priority – I had to go on my year abroad, no matter what that did to my health.

I had always told myself that my year abroad would make up for the linguistic skills I lacked compared to some of my peers. I’d spent so long working out the best way to do this, and settled on the British Council. It had to happen – it just had to. But it couldn’t. No one would insure me, and so the choice was hospital, or risk not being able to spend any time abroad at all.

When I finally began to accept that the placement would not be happening, I sat down to work out how I could make up the time in order to ensure that my language was up to scratch before finals.

I began to think that I might as well drop out, because that would be less humiliating than returning for fourth year with poor skills compared to my fellow students who had spent months immersed in the language and culture of a foreign country, just as I had dreamed of. I thought that would be the end of the world. I spent the weeks between making this decision and waiting for my admission date to switch in a volatile state of flux between accepting my circumstances, and planning to go ahead without insurance.

But, with the help of my family and friends, I made what I can now see was the right decision, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. I realised that I had to accept the treatment, not only for my degree but for my life, and it is the latter part of that realisation that I think is most important.

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I have been in hospital on two other occasions, and my sole moti- vation for these admissions was to be ‘allowed’ to return to university and achieve my academic potential. I didn’t really care about improving my quality of life, I just needed to be able to work, and succeed. I got myself through each day and each meal by telling myself that eating and engaging in treatment would make me a better student: I would write better essays, get better marks, speak the languages I studied better. But now I see that this wasn’t ‘recovering’, not really, and it most certainly contributed to my multiple relapses.

Despite a rocky start, this time treatment has felt different and I think that the main reason for this is my realisation that I am more than my academic performance. My degree is not the most important thing in my life: I deserve to get well for me.

I have come to the conclusion that as long as you are using the idea of getting well for something specific, it’s never really going to stick.

You never know how long that thing is going to be there for, and it’s a key sign that your self-worth is still too low to care about maintaining this wellness if things start to go wrong in your ‘priority area.’

This realisation in itself also showed me just how skewed my priorities had been, not only whilst at Oxford, but since I began being examined within the examination system. I had forgotten that life in itself is important, that your existence shouldn’t merely be framed by what is regarded as a productive and socially acceptable way of spending your time, and what you are ‘good at’.

In no way am I trying to say that academic study is not important, of course it is. We have all worked hard to get a place at Oxford, and we all want to do our best whilst there, but I think there is a fine line between working as hard to achieve your best, and working so hard it hurts because you are scared of failing and what you would be without academic success.

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Recently, I was left thinking that we could almost see the compulsive way many students at Oxford work as comparable to the way many people with an eating disorder exercise.

In both cases, the problem is not necessarily that the activity being engaged in is ‘bad’ in itself, but rather it is the sense of duty that drives the participants. Someone with an eating disorder playing football or going for the occasional run if they are physically fit enough to do so is fine. The problem begins when they feel they ‘have’ to do so, otherwise they are doing something ‘wrong’ and not ‘as they should be’. And similarly, work and academic study are at their most problematic when you find yourself feeling guilty for taking the slightest break, or defining ourselves completely by it. Without an identity beyond academia, what is to become of us post-graduation?

I would be lying if I said I am happy to be back in treatment. I would be lying if I said there aren’t times I feel a failure for not being actively pursuing my studies. But I would also be a liar if I said I do not believe I have made the right decision for long-term health, happiness, and success. I can say with certainty that this time, being in hospital whilst everyone else studies, and having my year abroad opportunity taken from me has really has put things in perspective. There really is more to life than simply academic work: I only wish I had realised sooner.