By Michael Wyatt, on 18 May 2018
For any student, university comes with its struggles. Alongside the workload, moving away from home and trying to plan the next 40 years of your life, there are particular challenges thrown at particular types of students. In this post, I would like to talk about those students with an ‘invisible illness‘. For those already confused by the term, consider this: have you ever wondered why someone who seems to be able to move well is using a disabled parking space or toilet? Sometimes, it can be because they have an invisible illness.
What exactly is an invisible illness?
Much like you would expect, an invisible illness in its simplest form is a medical condition (physical, mental or neurological) that has impacts on the person affected which are invisible to the outside world. When I say ‘invisible to the outside world’, I mean that onlookers would not be able to look at someone with an invisible illness and know that they are ill. Examples of such illnesses are inflammatory bowel disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain and mental illness. The majority of invisible illnesses are chronic, meaning that they last for at least one year, and result in symptoms that can be extremely debilitating to a sufferer.
Isn’t it better that others can’t tell that you’re ill?
Whilst you may think having symptoms that others can’t see would make your situation better, as you may be less likely to be stigmatised or judged based on your appearance, having an invisible illness comes with a whole other type of judgement. Sometimes it is hard for people to understand that you don’t want to go out because you’re not feeling well as you have no visible signs that you are unwell.
People can often find it hard to believe that someone may look fine, but in fact be really struggling underneath. Because of this, sufferers of invisible illnesses can feel alone and attacked by society, who question the nature of their condition(s) and can make insensitive comments suggesting that they their complaints are not valid.
What is it like to have an invisible illness at university?
It is hard, but not impossible. As a student with an invisible illness, I do have a good idea of what I’m talking about. I have highlighted some of the difficulties I have come across coupled with coping strategies for how to ensure you have a fulfilling university experience despite living with an invisible illness.
- Whether or not to tell your friends.The big question as your start university is always whether or not to tell these new friends about your condition or not. My advice is three fold. First, wait until you know you can trust someone before letting them in to your invisible secret. ‘Fresher friends’ may seem like your life-long friends in those first few weeks, but give them a bit more time to prove their loyalty. Second, consider only telling those you’d benefit from telling. I personally didn’t go around shouting it from the rooftops, and as a second year I have only told a handful of my university friends so that they can help me when I need them. Lastly, feel no obligation to tell anyone if you don’t want to. You know how to deal with this best, and so if you don’t want or feel the need to tell friends because you don’t need that extra hand, don’t!
Dealing with workload and exams.
First things first, contact the Disabilities Team before you start university to tell them about your condition. You could be given special exam adjustments and additional aids where appropriate to help you with the workload and deadlines. You may not need these, as many invisible illnesses go into remission for periods of time, but you never know when you might might need extra help. We all want to perform our best at university, and making the most of the support that is available is a great way to help you do that. Other than that, be honest with lecturers if you’re struggling and do your best to keep up whilst putting yourself and your health first.
Being so tired all the time.
Most invisible illnesses come with the symptom of tiredness or fatigue. I won’t lie to you, university can be exhausting. Long days coupled with late nights can be tricky for everybody. The key is to learn when to say no to certain social events, managing your workload and getting enough sleep. Don’t be afraid to say you’re too tired to go out one night and get into bed with a movie and just rest. We all need it, especially those with additional health needs.
I hope this has given you an insight into how to deal with an invisible illness at university. It isn’t all that hard, it just requires forward thinking and being honest with yourself and your needs. Whether or not you want to do something, let people know about your condition or go somewhere is your choice, so embrace that inner power and go through each day however you decide is best for you.
If you’d like to find out more about the support available to students with a disability at UCL, head to the UCL disability services website.