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What Retaking My A-Levels Taught Me About Mental Health

Having to retake exams can be really stressful, especially if it means having to repeat a year of school. Chloe, 20, explains what the experience was like for her and what it taught her about mental health.

For some of us, the back-to-school period is exciting - a chance to catch up with friends we’ve missed and exchange stories of our summer adventures. But there are also those of us who have stayed back while our friends have started new chapters at university. In 2017, I was one of those people.

My time at school

Throughout my time in education I’d been quietly dealing with anxiety and depression; it would come in waves but was always manageable. However, during my second year of sixth form, my mental health entered a downward spiral. The stress of UCAS applications on top of dance rehearsals, driving lessons, musical rehearsals, a breakup and revising for exams all became too much. I lost motivation to do basic tasks like get out of bed or eat. I lost all hope, and gave up on myself. As a result, my end-of-year grades meant I wouldn’t be going to university that year.

Coming from a high-achieving area where many students apply to – and attend - leading universities such as Oxford and Cambridge only heightened my feelings of failure. All my friends had gotten into their chosen universities and the knowledge that I would be entirely alone for the coming year slowly crept in.

The retake year

I remember watching my friends have fun at fresher’s week through Instagram stories the following September. I felt like I wasn’t living the life of a normal 18-year-old. I was stuck in a state of limbo - the more I watched, the more I compared my own situation to what I was seeing.

The first few weeks of my retake year felt uncomfortable. I was almost glad that I’d blended in while at sixth form so teachers wouldn’t ask me why I was back again. Of course, trying to blend in with a different year group so students don’t notice is a lot harder. Looking back now, it seems strange to me that I was so concerned about being a year behind. I think being in the education system for so long subconsciously teaches you to feel uncomfortable around anyone you haven’t spent the past 16 years in class with.

Getting help

My anxiety and depression over feeling alone reached its peak towards the end of November. I was back at school with the added pressure of trying not to fail a second time, and most of my friends had stopped replying to my messages altogether. I knew if I didn’t address the problem professionally it would escalate into suicidal thoughts. I’d been in that place before and I couldn’t let it happen again.

Once a week after school I attended sessions with my therapist. She completely understood my situation and was genuinely supportive of my recovery process. We talked about what had happened each week, how I’d felt about it, and planned goals for me to achieve so I could get through exams with as little stress as possible.

I’m truly grateful to have had an extremely caring and compassionate person to open up to. Going to therapy isn’t as scary as you think; everyone is there to help you - it’s their job. No problem is too small for them to help you with.

Results day

The following results day I achieved grades higher than I needed to get into my university. I remember being so proud of myself for what I had overcome that year. Despite having all these challenges thrown at me, I did even better than I thought I could.

What I learnt

Looking back on my retake year now, I can say the following things for sure:

  • I’m never limited by my circumstances.
  • Opening up is the first step to getting better.
  • Everyone is on their own path in life.
  • I am in control.
  • I’m capable of anything I want.

If you are retaking exams this school year, the number one thing you need to remember is you are not alone. There are thousands of students just like you who find themselves in similar situations across the world. Life isn’t a straight line to wherever you want to go. Sometimes you have to go down unexpected routes to learn things that help you become a better person - and if you don’t, you’ll never grow.

In a way I’m happy that I had to go through this as if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have met one of my best friends, Izzy.

My final message if you’re in a similar situation is this:

“Remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” – Winnie the Pooh (who knew bears gave such good advice!)

Author: Chloe, 20

Find help for exam stress

For more information and guidance on coping with the pressures of exams, our Exam Stress guide can help.

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