Tristan, who actually goes by a different name, graduated from a Swedish high school with straight A’s this summer. During a late night discord call, he tells me about his new-found struggles of being a first year engineering student at KTH. Balancing course work with parties quickly became more difficult than expected for this student with a history of mental illness.
From the outside, Tristan looks like a well-rounded student. Sports, orchestra and studying filled his high school schedule and of course he always had time for friends. At the age of 17, Tristan got “mild depression” written in his medical record. Although he cannot pinpoint a specific reason leading up to the diagnosis, he says he felt an overwhelming amount of responsibilities was placed upon him from an early age. In addition to this, he put a lot of pressure on himself academically. Everything about Tristan that is not happy-go-lucky, he refers to as his dark side. This side is however rarely shown and he has a smile glued to his face most days.
Talking to him about more serious topics such as his mental health does not change his demeanor the slightest. He is an open book as we discuss university stress, problematic family situations and romantic relationships (or lack thereof). What intrigues me is his objective way of explaining his feelings. He tries to rationalize the smallest emotions inside of him, because in his mind everything can be explained by nature and nurture. Talking about his struggles in this manner is much easier for him than actually showing his feelings to family and friends. After graphically describing the most recent university weeks, which have been some of the most challenging in his life, he jokingly says “you will never see me cry though”. I can tell he is not joking.
Leaving high school and entering KTH has been tough. Tristan was aware of the gap between the two, but not the size of it. Putting in long hours and performing well academically had after all been his full time job for as long as he can remember. But then the student reception left him sleep deprived with new friends that he actually didn’t classify as friends while the pile of course literature on his to-read-list grew. Tristan had a breakdown the first week of classes. It was the first time he cried in over a year. And instead of feeling relief, he admits to feeling ashamed of himself for making a big deal out of the situation. His nervous collapse was nothing but an overreaction, because he is supposed to be able to manage everything right now. Everyone else is doing it. Right?
Almost one fifth of Swedish engineering students feel “pretty bad”, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by the magazine Ny Teknik. At the same time, about half of KTH students drop out due to a variety of reasons. Threads on internet forums reveal that Tristan is not the only student at this school who is worried about not being able to juggle studying with social activities and mental health. Students are expected to balance all three, an additional part time job would of course be a merit. It comes as no surprise that freshmen feel overwhelmed and worried that they won’t even pass their first math course when this ideal is still being upheld.
He jokingly says “you will never see me cry though”. I can tell he is not joking.
Tristan knows that his study programme itself is feasible and he is aware that there are students who perform very well despite attending all of those events in Nymble. This makes him feel like his breakdown was an overreaction. He says “I just need to get my shit together” as if expressing his emotions openly during that night in early September was just an irrational incident. He felt stressed, anxious and scared that he would not make it and he knows it is okay to feel that way. It is just not the correct way.
When Tristan talks about the future, he says something about wanting to balance everything and prioritizing his mental health. But at this point in time, he just wants to survive his first semester.
“I just need to get my shit together.”
After his breakdown in September, he decided it was time to get help. He regularly attends one of The Student Health Services’ workshops and says it has been helpful. Simultaneously, it has brought more stress upon him. Even more activities to manage on his busy schedule.
I think we can all relate at least to some aspects of Tristan’s experience - we all know those stressful exam period weeks, juggling 2 or 3 or 4 courses and trying to be just as productive as the stranger sitting next to us in the library. The late nights trying to finish an essay, a homework or a presentation just before the deadline. For some of us this can really take a toll on our health, mentally and physically. Some of us will even need professional help at some point or another, and that’s okay.
Although we do not know what awaits us these upcoming years, just being aware that someone feels the same is comforting.