Having a mental illness always made me doubt my ability to do well academically and personally at university. Thankfully, fellow students and my supervisor have made me feel valued and respected and my experience at Oxford has shown me that I can thrive here.
Sam McCormack completed a funded MSt in British and European History at Jesus College, gaining a distinction in her dissertation. Before coming to Oxford, she graduated with a first-class degree in History from the University of Sussex. Sam will be starting a funded DPhil in History at Magdalen College, joining the interdisciplinary project ‘Changing Lives’. Her research will focus on childhood experiences of disability in Modern Britain.
Deciding to go to university was not a natural choice for me. Unfortunately, this was also a concern that many around me shared while I was at school.
I’m from an unstable family background and multiple issues often disrupted my school life. I received free school meals and I am a first generation scholar, my parents not having a GCSE between them. It was not lost on me and those around me that, in my situation, remaining in education was uncharted territory, and something nobody expected of me. But as well as my complex personal circumstances I also have multiple, unseen disabilities. This includes mental health conditions of depression and anxiety. These too often made school challenging and I found myself questioning how I would cope at university. So did my teachers.
I fear there is a real perception that some people just shouldn’t apply to university – especially universities like Oxford – because it will make existing difficulties worse. I can remember the visible shock on my teacher’s face when I first brought up the topic of university. They pointed out that I had often struggled in school, especially during exams. My anxiety and depression had been so bad during Year 11 that I had to drop one of my GCSEs to reduce my workload. In Year 13, my school had suggested it might be better for me to sit my A-levels the following year. Perhaps unconvinced that I would even finish my A-Levels because I was ‘unstable’ – and because of my additional personal circumstances – my teacher suggested that I should think more carefully about whether university was really for me. And if I did decide to apply, it would be better not to declare my mental illness. If I declared my additional needs, I would struggle to present myself as a viable candidate because I might not be able to keep up with the intense workload.
I began to seriously doubt the prospect of me being successful academically at university. As somebody who frequently experiences fatigue, poor concentration and issues with memory, the process of reading and research can be quite lengthy for me. My symptoms can affect my progress with reading tasks and I sometimes find I’ve been unable to absorb any information at all. I can also find it difficult to concentrate on the production of written work and I can struggle to detangle my thoughts, meaning that it can take me a long time to produce final pieces of work. I also find it difficult to listen and note-take at the same time, so my notes were often incomplete and did not accurately reflect the content.
As a result of my teacher’s advice, I did ultimately end up ruling out a number of universities and I initially decided not to apply for a straight history degree for fear that the course workload might prove too much for me. In hindsight I can see that this needn’t have been the case. I’ve come to realise this even more since coming to Oxford to study for my Master’s degree. My experience at Oxford has shown me that there is no stigma or judgment attached to declaring a disability and you are certainly not alone. The Disability Advisory Service at Oxford has over 4,000 students registered, including students with long-term mental or physical health conditions, students with mobility or sensory impairments, and students with specific learning difficulties.
What neither I nor my teachers seemed to know was that there is a huge amount of support which can be put in place to help you to study successfully. Without a doubt the biggest help was having access to a specialist mentor, who I saw for an hour a week during term-time, who was able to help me work on ways to manage my studies with my mental illness. This included finding ways to help improve my concentration with reading tasks, finding strategies that improved my approaches to written work, as well as developing my organisation and time-management. But I have also been provided with tool aids, such as software that helps you to build upon your academic ideas and plan your written work, as well as an audio note taker which gives me the opportunity to record lectures and keeps my notes and recordings in one place. With this in place, researching and writing-up my dissertation was enjoyable and rewarding, rather than the impossibility I’d imaged it to be.
I have also been given extra time for rest breaks in exams, which means that for every hour scheduled, I had 10 minutes to ‘stop the clock’. This meant I could take a breather to calm myself down or rest if I was fatigued without losing time from my exam. I was also able to work with my specialist mentor on developing anxiety management strategies in the build up to exams. Over time I have come to realise that I need to work interactively with reading materials, highlighting and annotating hard copies, in order to remain focused and engaged. As a result, I have been provided with a printer and an allowance for printer cartridges and paper so that I can use my most effective reading strategy, and this also allows me to work from home if I need to. As a result of the specialised mentor and assistive technology, I was, for once, able to feel confident about my exams and my essays, and I managed to do an amazing amount of work.
Having additional needs as a result of a disability would never have disadvantaged my application and I regret not declaring my disabilities on my UCAS form. I know it is not always easy to talk about the things that you have difficulties with but I would encourage any student who was unsure as to whether to declare their disability to do so. I was so worried about negative perceptions around mental health conditions that I did not notify my university of my disability until I had really begun to struggle. All this meant that I didn’t have access to the additional support that I deserved. Whether you decide Oxford is right for you or not, it’s always better to be as informed about that decision as you can. Having a mental illness always made me doubt my ability to do well academically and personally at university. Thankfully, fellow students and my supervisor have made me feel valued and respected and my experience at Oxford has shown me that I can thrive here. In fact, I am continuing my postgraduate studies at Oxford and in October I’ll starting a DPhil in History. So, while I’d never pretend that studying at university hasn’t been without its difficulties, with the right help anything is possible!
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As well as the Disability Advisory Service, there is also a great deal of support at a college level and across the wider university. It might be that your tutor, supervisor or college advisor is a great first port of call if you are finding something difficult, but colleges also have dedicated welfare teams on hand to help. This often includes access to a college GP, nurse and counsellor, as well as other staff who are able to help you with welfare needs and concerns you have. Lots of colleges and departments also have Student Peer Supporters available, to talk through any issues that might be concerning you. There are lots of college events laid on specifically for welfare, with welfare tea and cake being quite common! Oxford University also has a free counselling service and lots of useful workshops and supportive resources, such as podcasts.