Credit: National Autistic Society

How the social pressures of uni affect the mental health of autistic students

11 mins read

By Sonny Bailey

A topic which often doesn’t get discussed as it should. The mental health of students at University is important. The pressure of having to pay rent for accommodation, food/drink, bills, and still keep on top of all your studies, can be challenging at first. On top of that, everyone wants to have a social life at University, and do things they find fun and enticing.

But on top of that comes peer pressure from others to join them, maybe for a drink. But then that drink might result in more peer pressure to come for a night out. You get anxious because you don’t want to let your friends down, but you also feel pressured by them to come out. Sound familiar to you?

This is how social pressures can affect our mental health and wellbeing. These pressures may be felt more by autistic students than by other students.

So, why autism and mental health? They’re separate, right?

Autism is neurological. In other words, it is the way our brains work and view this world. Our brains are wired a bit differently to other brains. There are thoughts coming and going constantly. You are always thinking of one thing, then another.

Sometimes just thinking too much can cause us to get stressed and anxious. Things like: “What do I have to do today?” Oh, I really don’t want to let you down, but I have to finish this work” or “I hope people actually like me just because I don’t really talk in person much”.

The feeling of being viewed as different or feeling like you don’t belong has been and is a great contributor to higher suicide rates in autistic people. These feelings are an accessory to us being autistic. So absolutely, autism and mental health do exist together and we need to talk more about it.

I don’t know about you, but for me it is very common for me to be mad at myself if I make a mistake, or commit a wrongdoing. I have had people tell me that I am very hard on myself. I was brought up in a tough love household, and often shielded my feelings from others.

Looking back, I wish I was more open about how I was feeling but at that time I was more focused on trying to get the last coloured toy car in the exact order I wanted it, or drawing my 347th road map from memory (yes these are things I did). I was able to occupy myself as a kid a lot more. I didn’t have the social and peer pressures that I began to experience as I grew into an adult.

What are some of the pressures you have experienced growing up?

It started at school really. There were always these truth or dare games played on the field, and there’d always be a bribe of money as an award. So someone would say: “If you do x, you will get x in this amount of money”. But after seeing just how ridiculous some of these dares were, I kept my distance. I wasn’t very popular in school. I did not like to take risks.

But when I did crack, it was at the expense of myself rather than everyone else. Going into college and university, nothing changed much, except I became more aware of what other students enjoyed doing. And almost all the time, it was going out for a drink, a party, or a night out.

Now I’m in the second year of my PhD, and I don’t really have many close friends in my cohort. Most of my friends have come from doing other things at university, or from some of the views I hold. I lived with the pressure of getting drunk, and doing drugs in my undergraduate years because I associated with some of the wrong people, often outside of university.

Now this isn’t the case. I experience the social pressures of being a student: people invite you out to parties, but you find socialising and social environments exhausting after a while. Or people invite you to drinks after work ends, but you just don’t enjoy it. On the other hand, being a PhD student, there is no telling you just how lonely you can feel some days, even though you do have people around you.

How does the university culture affect you when it comes to social events?

I’ve been a university student for six years now, going on seven. That’s four years of undergraduate study, one year of masters, and I’m in the middle of second year of my PhD here at Stirling. I found that integrating myself within the student community was easier than I thought, but I found clubs and societies difficult to engage with.

In fact, because I commuted for the first four years I wasn’t a member of any club or society at my previous university. Here, because I have worked with the Union on issues I’m passionate about, I feel that has helped me to have a sense of belonging, and so I probably feel more welcome here than I did 6 years ago. All this doesn’t negate the fact that socialising is still difficult and exhausting, and that now I have those social pressures set by a drinking and nightlife culture here in Stirling.

Do you think you’ll keep the friends you make here?

The friends I have made so far are brilliant, and I love just how accepting they are. Getting to know people here, I do find that despite there being social pressures, there is no obligation to join in if you don’t want to. This is a very reassuring aspect of university life.

I am used to watching films which talk about the fraternities that go on in America, and elsewhere. I am not about that life, personally but I don’t shame anyone who is, either. So I hope I keep all the friends I have made here, especially ones who have a mutual understanding of who I am. So even if I am hard at work on my papers, I can rest comfortable knowing I’ve got that support there if I need it.

What about loneliness? Can you talk about it?

I remember being lonely for ten years as a kid. But back then, I wasn’t really bothered much. I more just didn’t understand why people thought so ill of me at the time, and continued doing as I was always doing. Growing up though, I became independent from my family and started to fend for myself. I have had a few relationships, and some really long friendships which did not last before I came here to university.

The feelings I get most nights is that I’m not able to join in with other students doing those nights out, or drinking socials. And the workload you get at PhD level is enormous. It doesn’t feel like it, because you might spot me walking through the Atrium most days on campus, but it is. That is to make sure I’m not doing too much at once.

But I’m also feeling like this because, well people would tell me “Sonny, as you grow up you’ll find someone. It could be at university, so just keep being yourself” So I’ve stuck by that as best as I can. Being me, means no clubbing, nights out or anything too socially exhausting.

But yes to studying, writing, and doing things I enjoy. I think sometimes if we tell people something is going to happen in the future, you develop some sort of social expectation that it will happen. And if it doesn’t happen in a few years, then you start to question when it will. It leads to me feeling alone. I do wonder if other people have had similar thoughts.

Are you happy with your life at current?

This is a big question. It’s hard to say for sure without being brutally honest, as most people with autism are. My mental health is on and off, but I am working on it as best as I can. I will sometimes have the odd one or two drinks, but this is now probably once a month or two.

I don’t let the pressures I experience control my university life, and I don’t cave in as easy as I used to. I am definitely happy with my study and how that is going. So to me that’s what matters the most. And I am grateful to the friends I have here and support I’ve received here.

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