I Dropped Out of Uni With Depression Aged 19 and Restarted at 25: Five Things I Learnt
Updated: May 14
1. There’s a difference between ‘going for it’ and ‘rushing into it’
People often say ‘go for it’; take the plunge. This can be amazing advice, pushing you just beyond your comfort zone to excel. Been going to parkrun every week for a year? Sure, go for a 10K if you fancy it. Always drink orange juice with breakfast? Reach out for a tropical or, if you’re really bold, even mango next time, see how you get on. Someone I know didn’t feel ready for their job in teaching. But after years of studying subject knowledge at university and then completing preliminary teacher training, it was the next step. A few months in, they were getting the hang of it. A year later they had earned formal praise from the department. Even when you feel you’re not quite ready, ‘going for it’ can be the best thing. But there is a limit.
When I started university fresh out of college at eighteen, I was nowhere near ready for the freedom, self-motivation, and choices that lay before me. Initially revelling in the liberation and friendships made in halls, university and city life soon overwhelmed me. During second year I realised it would all end and I’d be out in the world with no idea what I wanted to do and, more importantly, no idea what sort of person I wanted to be. I plummeted into a spiral of negativity that led to depression. My thoughts became increasingly despairing. I saw counsellors and a GP, but needed momentous change in my life to avoid something catastrophic, and, after toying with the notion for a while, dropping out soon became a trivial decision: when you feel like your life depends on something, your hand is forced. I quit around Christmas of second year. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
One of the main contributors to my depression was a vague feeling like my life was running away in a direction of its own. I needed some control. Something I yearned to rectify was my feeling of entrapment from a shortage of disposable income. Also, some others at uni seemed to travel to far-flung places on a whim, even over short breaks between terms. I wanted to know how that felt. So, after dropping out, I worked and saved, then went travelling solo in North America. It wasn’t exactly a happy, trip-of-a-lifetime deal, but it was the first step toward something like a recovery.
That trip initiated five years of: working multiple, sometimes wildly different jobs to save as much money as I could; jumping on planes and trains to see the world; getting back into exercise in a big way; and eating well but not feeling guilty about spending money on a burger and milkshake if I felt that way inclined. From an eye-opening three months volunteering in a village in south India, to a Lord of the Rings-themed birthday party for which I made a mask of the fire demon, Balrog, and got carried away and sprayed aerosol through a lighter to make it seem like I was breathing flames before playing beer pong with knock-off Baileys and going to bed with a wicker bin that did nothing to hold in the vomit, to an emotional end to my job fixing bikes at Halfords, I see my early twenties as my formative years.
After all this, I realised I wanted to study again. I’d started reading a lot during that period, and even took some night courses in English literature and creative writing, but still wanted to keep my options open, so, after essentially closing my eyes and pointing to a course when I was a teenager in college, resulting in me studying economics at the University of Leeds, at twenty-four I began perusing prospectuses again. A year later I took a ten-hour overnight Megabus (symbolically departing from Leeds) followed by a two-hour train to begin my next chapter: studying English and maths combined at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall Campus. It felt like a massive deal to press that ‘Apply’ button, but this wasn’t a rushed decision affected by others – it was all mine, and I felt at least partly ready for it. What followed were the best three years of my life.
2. People don’t care how old you are
Stepping into a seminar room full of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds caused twenty-five-year-old me enormous anxiety at first, as is the case for many mature students. Twenty-five felt like the perfectly awkward age: had I been just a couple of years older than classmates, I could have silently assimilated; while ten or more years’ difference would have made it obvious I was, as it would surely seem to them, far older. Caught in limbo, I opted for the former, and kept my face freshly shaved at all times to keep up the façade, only mentioning my age to a handful of people, feeling I’d be ostracised for my terrible secret.
It took a few months to realise it was all in my head. Nobody cared. In fact, most found it intriguing that I’d spent years out. There might be a few quips about my age, things like putting an arm out to help me down the campus steps, but this was all friendly, laughing ‘with’ and not ‘at’. I became way more relaxed, went to more house parties and nights out, and began to discover there were lots of mature students at the University, some in their thirties and forties and beyond and still, to quote Tinie Tempah, ‘ravin’ with the freshers’.
I settled in properly, making some wonderful friends, taking on a committee role on the football team, sometimes using the savings I’d accrued in my years out to buy drinks and food to support friends whose overdrafts were looking tight because I knew, from Leeds, how horrible that feeling was. Only when I embraced my mature student status instead of concealing it did I feel myself start to flourish.
3. You don’t have to crave the city
I did, big time. After that first taste of city life in Leeds, moving back to my parents’ bungalow in a small East Yorkshire village left me with regular bouts of FOMO (fear of missing out). Young people are meant to live it up in the city, right? Go clubbing every weekend, wear earbuds on a packed train to work, share a flat with mates. The image I’d built up from films and adverts and other media ran something along those lines. But the city can be draining: physically, from the sirens and constant traffic and crowds of people; and from invisible structures like higher rent and living costs.
Feeling connected to nature, enjoying the free pleasure of walking or running through woodland or beside rivers, never featured in this projection of what I thought I should be striving for. It could be down to the course choices I made at school and college, and excelling more with discrete, maths-based disciplines, where leaflets for related careers often featured photographs of massive city centre offices (think Big 4 accountancy). This never quite sat right with me. It left me feeling like an outsider.
That changed during my time in Cornwall. Penryn Campus is crazy beautiful and leafy (hats off to the gardeners there), with a large area dedicated to meadow, old trees, and walking paths. It’s by the dramatic Cornish coast and sits next to the seaside town of Falmouth, where gulls squawk overhead at all times (literally ALL times: consider bringing earplugs) and people swim, with or without wetsuits, in the harbour or off the nearby beach. Penryn Campus also consistently scores highly in student satisfaction rates. Coincidence? I highly doubt it, although it is true that a lot of its intake already love nature – for a small university, it has a large number of courses in zoology, biological sciences, physical geography, and the like. Some students strut around campus and queue in the cafes smelling like soil – students who hate cities and don’t intend to ever live in one. It was so liberating to see so many young people feel this way.
An obvious drawback of resisting cities is access to jobs. I’ll be honest, this can be a real pain, as I found out the hard way. But there are plenty of graduates that stay in small towns and love it; so many have done this in Falmouth. Covid lockdowns leading to increased remote working have also highlighted this hidden urge for twenty- and thirty-somethings to get away from cities, with many moving to rural areas; not great masses enough to call it a movement, perhaps, but a twitch in this direction. Reassurance that it’s okay to not want the city life.
Campus and the Cornish coast.
4. You have to say no sometimes
As a sensitive person, I’ve always been affected and moved by even small things. A visit to Frankie & Benny’s once inspired me to go on an Italian mobster movie binge. The reason for choosing North America for that post-drop-out trip was a direct result of watching Into the Wild. After reading Lord of the Flies I immediately bought five leafy houseplants to turn my room into a mini jungle, such was the awe I had for the novel’s setting. Especially when younger, I felt so much potential in everything. In part, this was due to me believing even an evening trip to Tesco could lead to love if I caught the eye of a girl buying the same type of cereal (although I would’ve never had the courage to talk – unless the cereal was Just Right, at which point I’d have been obligated to speak up … if you know, you know). Mainly, though, I just felt energised by meeting new people, inspiring conversations, places of natural and manmade magnificence. Joie de vivre: a lust for life and feeling part of humanity.
But the line between lust for life and melancholy is thin and brittle. Good times could spiral into bleakness incredibly quickly. When visiting friends in cities after dropping out, all it took was walking past a block of city centre flats for me to envisage a parallel life as a yuppie, wearing a suit to work, doing something important, going on dates in classy, dimly-lit bars on weekends, and I’d work myself into a stupor at not having this life and would have to find a cheap pub to neck a couple of pints to take the edge off. I wanted to live a thousand different lives. It’s probably why I started voraciously reading. Maybe it’s one of the reasons I write. But I still struggle, and have always struggled, to keep a lid on this. There are so many possibilities in life. But how many of these lives can you live, or fit into one lifetime? As with so many things, it really comes down to opinions on what happens when we die (you can see how this causes existential dread).
The acronym YOLO, you only live once, was at its height of international popularity during my early twenties, tossed around flippantly to justify acts from purchasing a second coffee in Costa to quitting a job (and I’m not pointing fingers; those two examples come from an extensive catalogue of times I’ve used it). Really it’s quite a sinister phrase, packed with nihilistic undertones. It’s a dodgy basis for decision-making. At risk of making me sound unbelievably basic (tempered, hopefully, by you now knowing how easily I’m influenced), this four-letter acronym had an impact on me. Always making the person do the thing in question, YOLO could alternatively be YRIIYD: you’ll regret it if you don’t (… patent pending). Though YOLO can be used positively, it can incite pressure. That mindset can cause people to rush into things.
And the simple fact is, when trying to do too many things, you can’t fully enjoy those things you like most. You’ll be exhausted. You’ll do things you do not enjoy. I’m a firm believer people should try everything once, twice even. But if you know you don’t like something, don’t do it. Sounds simple, but if there was one thing I could go back and tell teenage me, it would be to stop doing things you dislike just because of some vague, far-off chance something profound might happen. It’s tough to say no to some people, especially if you’re a people-pleaser (see School of Life here and here for wonderful advice if you are), but after the first time it gets easier. Once I started doing this, I felt more in control of my own life, accepted and started to not hate who I am, and broke down the barrier of apathy I’d built between me and my favourite things.
5. Lastly … importantly: nights out are better in your mid- and late-twenties
This might be more personal preference than other sections, possibly geared toward introverts like me, but I used to kind of hate nights out. I didn’t understand them. Everything is expensive, clubs are too loud to hear your friends talk, and – the big contradiction – you have to feel good in order to enjoy drinking lots of alcohol, but if you drink lots of alcohol you feel bad the following day. It seemed like a form of masochism everyone other than me understood. I often tried to avoid big nights out and once there would just think about how I’d rather be back home watching a film or playing video games and eating pizza – the premium supermarket ones. I would literally think about that at the bar: each pint was the cost of a premium pizza, of which there are some great varieties (ASDA tandoori chicken tikka, mate – bosh). Call it boring, call it what you want; that’s how I felt.
The change came a few months into my first year in Cornwall. The relatively small campus population, plus the alliance with Falmouth University – buildings are shared between it and the University of Exeter, as are clubs and societies – made it feel like one large village where the degree of separation was never more than two. I revelled in the closeness of it all, the community, how personal it all felt. It’s another thing for which I must credit a small campus experience: because there was only one official nightclub for most of my time there, we went to venues where you could talk, could joke around, could properly get to know people, before all converging on the same place. You could go out alone and end up singing into the vodka-drenched air of the nightclub with a group of a dozen people you knew. The energy was infectious and I collected it up.
Just before term started for third year, I sprained my right ankle, accompanied by a stress fracture in my foot, and, months later when I tried to play football again before it had fully healed, another ankle sprain and a small fracture in my fibula. I didn’t play any sport the whole year, battled with insomnia, and my mental health almost collapsed again. What saved me? Nights out with friends in Falmouth – joking about literature and lectures with coursemates, necking shots and light-heartedly mocking daily habits with housemates, slurring compliments about our glittering football careers on the muddy, windy pitches of the local Cornish league with mates from the team. Perhaps from being that touch older, I almost always managed to resist that pressure to drink, whilst also having the cash to purchase drinks that were actually enjoyable and not three-quid, three-litre bottles of cider that taste like carbonated stale farts.
At nineteen my middle name was Irish goodbye. By twenty-seven, when I was the oldest of the crew most of the time, but now with some disposable cash from those years out working, I looked forward to each night out with borderline fervour, often arriving at the bus stop ten minutes early to ensure I was safely whisked away to lights, music, and friends.