Amrit Kaur (better known as Jamz on social media) pens to paper her mental health journey. This is a student story of struggle, resilience, courage and success. In sharing this account we hope to encourage the conversation on mental health for students who may be grappling with university deadlines and academia (particularly as we navigate through a pandemic).
This personal account also demonstrates the importance of family, and why checking in with people in your household who are currently undertaking full time education is helpful. It is ok to need support. It is ok to say that you are not ok. The time to change the narrative on ill mental health is now.
My family values education very highly.
My dad is a Pharmacist who has previously worked as a researcher with an impressive education behind him. Dad has a degree in BSc in Clinical Chemistry & Pharmacology, a second BSc in Pharmacy, a MSc in Medical Physics and a PhD in Neuroscience. My mum has a BSc in Biochemistry and Microbiology, and worked rather unsurprisingly as a Biochemist, and a Microbiologist. She took a career break to raise us later choosing to retrain as a teaching assistant. Mum has loved all of her jobs!
My uncle is a Professor of Law and a Barrister. My aunt is a Pharmacist and my other uncle and aunt are both Solicitors. So with the exception of my mum, everyone is a Pharmacist or a Lawyer.
I was the first born, so as the eldest in my family the pressure was on. The family’s expectation was that I should do even better than the generation had done before me. From the minute I started school I was told that I would aspire to be a doctor.
I was a bright kid and a very good student.
The better I did at school the more convinced my family became that I would go on to study Medicine. Typically, doing well at school opens more doors for you. For me, it seemed to close them.
I did great in my GCSEs (7A*s and 3A’s, plus a couple of extra qualifications) and my family saw this as further proof that I should study Medicine. I however loved the humanities and became increasingly interested in studying History.
My A Level subjects were not really my choice. They were a collective family decision based on the assumption that I would absolutely be studying Medicine at University. I took Chemistry (AS), Physics, Biology, History (my choice!) and General Studies (which was compulsory at my school).
I struggled with my A levels. Chemistry and Physics were not my strong subjects and my heart was not in them. I was not achieving the high grades that I had been accustomed to and it knocked my self-esteem.
Instead of realising that I was being pushed in the wrong direction my parents just told me that I was not working hard enough. I felt ignored with no control over my own future.
By the time it came to applying to universities it was clear to me and my parents that Medicine was, not a realistic option. I tried to discuss the idea of studying History with them but it was dismissed. We decided that I would apply for Optometry.
The rest of my family was so disappointed when they found out. They told me that I had a defeatist attitude for not applying for Medicine and that I was intentionally performing inadequately in Physics just to spite them. They insisted that they knew better than I did.
In the run up to my final exams and to results day I was extremely stressed and anxious. Venting to my friends and teachers about how much I wanted to study History helped. My parents soon found out. When they realised how upset I was they told me that if I did not get into Optometry I could apply for History.
Results day came.
I achieved an A* grade in History, an A grade in General Studies, a B grade in Biology and a stunningly low grade E in Physics (I’m pretty sure that tells you which degree I should have applied for).
Despite the low grade in Physics, I was offered a place to study Optometry and even qualified for a small cash scholarship from the university because my top three grades were good.
Mum cried with joy. I was a little disappointed because my heart was in History, however I was happy too. I no longer felt like a failure. History was no longer an option. So off I went to study Optometry in Bradford.
Generally speaking, I LOVED uni!
I loved living away from home and becoming friends with my housemates. I loved experiencing a new city, a new sangat (sikh community) and new things. I loved making the most of the campus, and all of the arts and culture that Bradford has to offer. I loved staying up all night to have deep conversations and enjoyed going on random 3am walks. I surrounded myself with friends, threw myself wholeheartedly into student life, participated in everything and experienced and learned as much as I possibly could.
Most importantly and rather unintentionally I discovered some of my passions that would go on to inform my future after Optometry – chaplaincy & interfaith work.
I might have loved university but I cannot say that I loved my degree.
First year was fine. The content was not too difficult and I was happily buzzing from the excitement of being a fresher. My grades were rather mediocre and did not seem to score any higher. Having encountered a similar experience during my A Levels I had come to accept that this would be the case. I passed the year without any real difficulty.
Of course, I knew that Optometry was not really right for me. I also knew that my parents would never let me drop out (I had mentioned dropping out to them before) so I continued.
Second year was much more difficult. I was often lost in lectures and although the material made sense, when I revisited my lecture notes the information never did stick in my head. My mental health was not great. I had a couple of bad bouts of depression and I was constantly stressed, even when I was having fun.
I failed several of my exams and had to re-sit them during the summer. I passed the re-sits and I began my third year.
Third year was the worst. I was finding the content even more difficult. Clinics made me super anxious. I felt too inadequate to be dealing with patients and overwhelmed knowing that my degree was coming to an end. There was a constant feeling of ‘you have learnt very little’. I could not see myself completing a pre-reg (the required training after my degree to become a fully qualified Optometrist). Moreover, I really did not see myself practicing Optometry.
Friends would comment on how I always appeared stressed. I did have some support systems and coping mechanisms in place but ultimately they did not change the fact that I hated the path I was on. Visualising a future was difficult.
Unfortunately something bad happened a few weeks before my final summer exams. That, combined with all of the stress I was under tipped me over the edge. I had a breakdown in my personal tutor’s office. I refused to sit my exams, suspended my studies and went home.
Returning to University
I returned back to university in September to give my third year another go. It was better than the previous year but regardless, I had finally had enough. In the second semester I called my mum and told her that there was no way in hell I was going to pursue my pre-reg. I said I would finish the degree, but I was not going to become an Optometrist. My mum was quiet. I was 22-years-old at this point and had reached my breaking point. Mum knew that I could no longer be stopped from doing whatever I wanted to do.
On the one hand I felt a huge sense of relief because I no longer had the pre-reg hanging over my head.
On the other hand I was still anxious about completing the degree and I was extremely anxious about my future. I was completely clueless as to what option awaited me other than Optometry. I had almost zero knowledge of career paths other than Medicine, allied subjects (Optometry and Pharmacy) and Law. I did not know what my options were and struggled to see a future ahead of me.
By some miracle I passed all of my exams as a first attempt. I did feel some relief but it was a weird sort of relief – almost a numbness.
As it all drew to an end, the next few weeks were spent wrapping up my final year and life as a student. That period was a wonderful yet miserable time for me – enjoying the summer weather, going day trips, saying goodbye to dear friends and closing that chapter of my life not knowing what the next steps were going to be. I had a superb graduation ceremony and then returned home.
Depression hit me like a ton of bricks.
Back at Home
With no idea what to do next I found myself considering all sorts of random career paths. I hated all of them.
My parents had not really seen how bad my mental health was at university since they were not there. But they saw this. And they were worried.
My Dad finally sat me down and told me I could now study History.
I was like, how? How am I supposed to do that? I cannot get onto a History masters course with an Optometry degree. I do not have the time or money to start from scratch and study for another undergraduate degree. What exactly am I supposed to do?
I was angry and upset with my parents. I felt that if I had just been allowed to make my own decisions as a teenager I would have had a History degree and a job by now.
In the middle of September that year a dear friend of mine called me. We talked through my options and it helped me understand that it is never too late to do what I need to do.
Late that night, I went online and searched for History degrees offered by local universities that still had clearing places. First thing in the morning I called Wolverhampton University and told them that I wanted a place on the History and Religious Studies undergraduate course. Two days later my place was confirmed and a week later I started the degree.
A New Beginning
Starting this course was one of the happiest moments of my life. After so many years I finally felt like I was in the right place. I was studying modules that I was already reading about in my spare time and I was doing what I genuinely loved. My grades were excellent and my self-esteem was restored. I could finally see a future ahead of me.
This year I completed my study in History with a first class degree!
I am now on a year-long placement with the university chaplaincy and am applying for Religious Studies PGCEs to become a teacher. I’m keeping my eye on other options such as chaplaincy and equality & diversity roles. I am so happy.
This story is not a criticism of my parents. They have always had my best interests at heart.
They acknowledge the mistakes that were made and now put a lot of effort into trying to rectify that. I love them so much for finally coming to terms with my choice.
They have supported me emotionally and financially throughout my second degree and I will never be able to thank them enough for that. I could not have achieved this without my parents.
My Dad tells me that he is proud of me for carving my own path. I cannot put into words how healing it is for me to hear him say that.
Family members and community members have continued to criticise my decision and try to push me back towards Optometry. They have continued to give unsolicited advice without actually understanding the situation and they continue to quite openly judge me.
One member of sangat told me that I was disrespecting God by not continuing with Optometry because I was rejecting a God-given opportunity. Others have told me that I’ve thrown away all of my parents’ hard work to study a pointless degree. My grandparents in particular were bitterly disappointed and lamented at how I *used* to be clever. One family member told me that I should complete the pre-reg because it’s wrong not to finish what I started. One relative actually had the nerve to blame me for not fighting hard enough to study History in the first place – as if it is easy for a 16-year-old girl to fight with her entire family and to win.
All of those people were wrong. Only I know what my reality is. I am the only one who has to live with my decisions every day.
Continue to resist against any ideals that keep you soley focused on what family and society expects of you. Do not lose sight of your dreams. It is hard, but you will get there.
Many desi parents have the attitude that you must do better than they did. But doing better does not necessarily mean becoming a Doctor. ‘Doing better’ means to do whatever is best for you. ‘Doing better’ means thriving, not surviving. It means leading a life you love. Choosing your own path in life is a privilege. What a shame it would be to waste that opportunity.
Do not listen to people who tell you that you should never quit. That, is terrible advice. Sometimes leaving something behind in order to move forward is the right thing to do. There is absolutely no shame in walking away from something that does nothing or very little for you.
Do not listen to people who tell you that you have to finish what you started. You do not have to carry on with a mistake just because you spent a long time making it.
Do not listen to people who say that it is too late to turn back or to change your degree or career path. It is NEVER too late to make positive changes in your life.
Do not listen to people who tell you to choose a career that you hate so that you can have money to spend on things that you love. That is not how it works. If your career is making you miserable you will struggle to find joy in other things. Life is too short to waste time doing anything that feels wrong to you.
Do not feel pressured into accepting what your family members believe to be true. There is no one path for you to always remain on. Just because they are adults does not mean that they can never be wrong.
For the students currently dealing with feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, confusion and despair, please know that whatever happens this year (or any year for that matter) you will get to where you want to in order to achieve your goals. It might feel like your entire future is dependent on your academic performance, but know that if the outcome is not what you anticipated, there will be other options for you to take. I sometimes look back and wonder why I allowed myself to drown in feelings of worry and immense stress for everything to work out just fine in the end. So try not to put yourself under unnecessary pressure. The path to success is not linear, so remember that and find a healthy way to prioritise your mental health as a student. Otherwise the only one who suffers, is you.
“Being a student and dealing with study and life challenges can be tough. You don’t have to go it alone – get things off your chest with people who are trained to help you find a new perspective.” – UK Student Helpline
Jamz now has a BSc (Hons) in Optometry from the University of Bradford and a BSc (Hons) in History and Religious Studies from the University of Wolverhampton.