Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Returning to uni after eating disorder treatment

Laura reflects on the highs and lows of returning to university after taking a year out to receive treatment for anorexia.

After a whole year at home doing little more than attend therapy appointments, make meal plans, volunteer at my old primary school and do hundreds of crosswords, I was heading back to uni. I’m not going to say that the past year was transformative, or even that it miraculously made me recover, because I am still fighting anorexia day after day. It was a tough year and it tested me, but I realised that sitting around waiting for recovery to come along was pointless, because truthfully it wasn’t going to happen like that. I’m not going to one day decide to get better, especially if I have nothing tangible to get better for. Which is why I decided to go back: for purpose, for direction, for a future.

Nothing was plain sailing, but there were some overwhelmingly positive things to come out of returning to university. And the best? Normality! Finally, for the first time in a long time, my day was not completely structured around when/what I would eat and my mind was not completely consumed by my eating disorder. I was *almost* a normal, 21-year-old student, and it felt great. It was great to be stressed about an upcoming assessment rather than thinking about calories. It was great to talk about something besides anorexia, it was great to laugh and share and have fun. I loved being back in a city. I loved learning again, and I felt excited about learning from people at the forefront of their field. Anorexia had taken so much away from me, and I was finally starting to reclaim my life.

But inevitably, there was the bad stuff. With nobody to be accountable to, nobody to tell me what to eat and when, the ball fell in my court: I was alone, and I struggled, but I had an incredible support system and they were there for me unconditionally. I had bad days with anxiety, I found socialising difficult, but I did it regardless. I pushed through the worry and the fear and the panic and the misery and the negative feelings and I made it through the whole term. I am not ashamed to say, I am proud of myself.

I fully believe that university isn’t easy for anyone. I think it can be a place of loneliness and ostracism and I think it can breed mental illness. The pressure is intense from all angles: you have to be sociable, but also studious, you have to be sporty or talented but academic and conscientious, you have to volunteer and get work experience but also complete every essay by the deadline and get a decent grade. You have to have your career plan sorted, your CV overflowing and your contact list ever-increasing. You are expected to do everything and be everything, but it’s not possible.

Pressure like this is what pushes people to the edge; it’s what pushes people over the edge. It’s important that people aren’t ashamed to ask for help, and it’s important that they know what help is out there should they need it. Because what’s the point of pushing yourself to breaking point for a degree if it has such a detrimental impact upon your health? We need to preach balance, breaks, and better mental health care to stop university becoming such a difficult place to thrive for some.

If you are worried about yourself or a friend please visit here for further support.

Hi, I'm Laura! I’m a final year student at university and after struggling with anorexia for almost two years, I wanted to share some of my experiences with the hope of encouraging students to speak out and helping others feel less alone. 

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

It's okay to reach out

Hannah shares her experience of anxiety around her dissertation and how reaching out for support helped.
 - Hannah Morton

At school, I’ve always had to work hard and had been a fairly average student. I’ve also been a pretty good procrastinator and when you team this with my anxiety, you can easily become a master of avoidance. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety since my mid-teens however when it came time to go to university I believed I’d beaten it. For the first two years of my studies, things were generally fine but then came my third year and my dissertation.

I had decided my title and study for my dissertation, spent the summer abroad carrying out research and found the papers and books to refer to. However, when it came to writing, I’d freeze. I can’t tell you how many hours spent staring at that blank document desperately willing myself to write something. My dissertation had become such a big deal to me that I was completely overwhelmed.

I continued all my other work.  Coursework, readings, exam revision, that was all fine but when asked how my dissertation was going, my response was simply, ‘it’s going’. Truthfully, it was going nowhere. I disengaged with my supervisor and buried my head in sand.

In March of my final semester, it became too much. My anxiety had become so all-consuming; I fell into depression. I just felt complete despair and had an overwhelming feeling I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to leave my bed; sleep was an easy escape from reality. I was certain I was going to have to drop out of University, right at the last hurdle. I felt so weak and disappointed in myself.

Continuing my studies felt impossible but one day I managed to find some strength and did something I should have done a lot earlier, I reached out for help. I made an appointment with my GP and told him everything they gave me a prescription and referred me to a counselling service. I then pushed myself to ring my mum and tell her what had happened. This was something I was extremely apprehensive to do but when I did the biggest emotion I felt was relief. I was able to get support and though it wasn’t easy, I managed to complete and submit my dissertation, finish my third year and graduate!

When you’re struggling it can feel exceptionally lonely and it can be so hard to reach out to anyone. I was ashamed of myself and felt everyone would judge me and think badly of me. In reality, everyone was so supportive and I only wished I’d been able to do it sooner.

It is important to reach out in a way that is right for you but honestly, it is absolutely worth taking that chance. This experience also taught me that if you’re determined, you really can do everything you need to do.

Hi, I'm Hannah. I graduated in 2012 and have depression and anxiety, I have done since I was around 14/15yrs old. I wanted to write for Student Minds as my mental health has had a big impact on my life, both negative and positive, including my studies. I'm now a mental health blogger and campaigner, working in Student Support, hoping to help others with similar experiences. 

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Opening up about Mental Health at University

Sophie shares her experience and the benefits of opening up about mental health at University.
- Sophie

My time at university has been a very mixed experience. I have experienced some amazing highs and awful lows, and my mental health has been at the forefront of a lot of this. I learnt very early on how isolating it is to be in a brand new city, while trying to battle with your own mental health, when it seems everyone else around you is having the time of their lives.

Four years on I still remember the first time I opened up to someone about my mental health in university. Two of my flatmates knocked on my door to check up on me, as they had noticed I’d been acting differently and hadn’t been out of my room much. They sat on my bed and I told them about what I was struggling with, and they just listened and didn’t judge. It made me feel like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, as I suddenly felt like I didn’t have to hide this side of them from them. Part of the reason I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about my experiences was that I felt like people wouldn’t understand. But in this first conversation I had with my flatmates, I learnt how they had their own experiences with mental health issues too.

As I’ve gone through university, I’ve become a lot more confident in talking about my mental health and in doing so have learnt how common these issues are. I have been surprised with the amount of people who have been struggling with their own mental health problems but on the surface appeared like there was nothing going on. Being able to openly talk about my mental health has helped me get through the struggles I have had. If I hadn’t opened up to my friends, then I wouldn’t have been able to turn to them for support when my depression got worse, or when I was experiencing side effects from medication changes. I am so lucky to have an amazing support network, an incredible group of girls that just seem to know the days that require us to all sit around with blankets, snacks and chick flicks. I believe that I wouldn’t have gotten through university without my amazing group of friends, but I wouldn’t have gained that support if I hadn’t have opened up and been honest about my mental health.

Talking about mental health not only reduces the stigma that is still attached, but it breaks down the invisible barrier that we don’t even know is there. Once people knew there was more going on than I let on, I suddenly felt like I didn’t have to act and like I could truly be myself. My anxiety and depression does not define me, but it is part of me, and being honest about that has allowed me to be my true self. Its exhausting having to have this internal battle with myself and to try to keep up an act to hide it. Talking about it has been the best thing I’ve done. So, take the time to talk about mental health, share your experiences and be honest with yourself, because it not only helps you but will help those around you who may be suffering in silence. You’d be surprised how much one conversation could change someone’s life.

Hi, i'm Sophie and i'm in my fourth year of pharmacy studying pharmacy. I wanted to write a piece for Time to Talk to show how much talking about my own experiences have helped me, in the hope that it may help someone reading!

You can start that conversation - it's Time to Talk

Jess shares how helpful talking about her mental health was for her journey and encourages you to reach out to a friend. 
- Jessica Mell

I cannot imagine it. I expect it feels like a bottle of fizzy drink; every day you get shaken, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, and you try desperately hard to contain everything, making sure that as the pressure builds and builds, you make sure the cap is screwed on tighter and tighter. You carry on with your daily routine, putting a smile on your face and pretending like everything is ok. Does anyone else suffer with this intensely exhausting accumulation of thoughts? Obviously not- nobody else is talking about it…

When I say I cannot imagine it, that’s a lie. I know exactly how it feels. I know that it feels like a bottle of fizzy drink. I know that it feels like you are the only person having to deal with the incredibly draining thoughts. I spent 9 months training to find someone, something or anything to make me realise that I was not the only person going through this. But there was nothing.

And that’s when I found it. Courage. Sitting on my bed in the hospital, I turned to my parents and said that I was going to tell everybody that I was suffering with Anorexia Nervosa and that I was currently hospitalised because of my condition. I felt like I had nothing to loose, I wasn’t ashamed and I figured I would rather get in there first before rumours were spread about my disappearance.

“As most of you will have gathered by now, I am currently in receiving treatment for Anorexia. I just want to thank everybody for their support over the past few weeks, and for all the lovely cards and messages you have sent. I am in the right place now to get this sorted and get my life back on track ”

There it was- the best post I have ever made on Facebook and the start of a brand new journey. I decided right then that I never wanted anybody to feel the same way that I did and I was going to be open and honest about my mental health difficulties. I signed the Time to Talk pledge, spoke on the radio numerous times, wrote newspaper articles, started a blog and made speaking about mental health become a part of my life. People approached me in person, over Facebook or through my blog to ask questions, talk about their own experiences and thank me for sharing mine. I heard stories of people not understanding what they were experiencing, feeling alone and not knowing what to do. Can you imagine your brother, parent or best friend feeling like that?

You can start that conversation. Text a friend you haven’t heard from in a while and ask them how they are, or make a hot drink for someone and make time to have a conversation. Whichever way you approach it, just remember that the most important thing that you can do is listen. It can sometimes be hard to know what to say, and even as someone that has been through a diagnosis myself, I still worry about what I say to other people that I have conversations with. However, I have found the advice and tips on Student Minds ‘Look After Your Mate’ page and on the Time to Talk website to be extremely helpful. From thinking about where is the right place to start a conversation to considering how you phrase your responses; there are so many useful resources available to help you make that important step for someone you care about. But don’t be scared or worried about what you say, the crucial detail is that you are there; you have taken time out to speak to that person and you have given them an opportunity to talk.

‘Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.’ – Winston Churchill

Having experienced my own mental health issues, I am passionate about raising awareness and supporting organisations that have the capacity to help other individuals that are suffering. As the founder and president of Sheffield Hallam SU Student Minds, I hope to engage students using Student Minds campaigns and blog and fundraise in order to help this amazing charity continue the great work that they do! 

Talking about Mental Health

Hayley explains how even though the thought of speaking out about mental health can be difficult at first, it is all worth it in the end!
- Hayley

Words are difficult. They always have and always will be. The difficulty is that what comes across may not be what we want to say and what we mean. There’s so much built up in our thought, that we cannot express this fully with just words alone.

With words, we can express things in writing, or even combined with art, like in comics. But, talking? It provides new territory that is difficult to navigate. There’s one quote that always sticks out to me whenever I think about this particular issue which is, “He was less of himself out loud. His native language was thought.” (The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater).

This is especially true for talking about mental health. With mental illness, it is especially daunting because of the stigmas attached to talking about it. We are dealing with the struggles of expressing thoughts that might be too big to explain with words easily.

For me, there have been varied experiences of speaking about my mental health - some are good, some bad. But ultimately, talking about mental health has been worth it.

Number one is with therapists. This was a good one. At first, it was difficult to explain how I felt and what I was thinking, but I learnt to. With the right encouragement, it became easier. Over 12 one-hour sessions, I talked about mental health in a group. Through this, I could both explain my experiences whilst also listening to the different way other people spoke about experiencing the same things. Although good, talking was difficult at first; the feelings feel too large to be captured by singular words. But without talking, I would never developed as I did.

Secondly, friends.  This was easiest - professionals are daunting because they are experts. But with friends? They are your peers - it is easier to connect with them. Friends won’t analyse what you say, or figuring out treatment plans. They provide a different service. They help you to gather your thoughts in preparation to talk to doctors or parents. Friends have helped me to describe my thoughts in easier and clearer ways. They supported me when I needed to talk. I realised that these are issues that need to be talked about more, especially with students. Friends provided the groundwork necessary to push myself to talk about this.

Both the hard and easier parts of talking about mental health need to be considered together. Given the stigma surrounding mental health, talking will seem always hard. But the good in talking outweighs the bad by so much. I have dealt with a lot of negativity and disbelief when I have spoken about mental health, but I have also had people be the opposite. I have had people be understanding, compassionate, helpful, and just be kind. Many people I would never have even met without talking about my mental health. I would never have realised that this is something I can deal with. This is something I can manage. By talking about it, I learned how to get better. Talking about it starts the conversation, and everyone else can help you finish it when you don’t know how to do it yourself. All that is required in starting a conversation is to say you need help when you need it. Everyone else, friends, professionals or whoever else, will respond. They can provide ways to finish the conversation.

It will always be tricky and daunting, but it is always worth starting the conversation about mental health, especially when you are struggling. Talking about it opens doors; it helps you see the way out of a dark, scary and disorientating experience, because someone will respond with something that helps you. So, talk about mental health - open those doors, and someone will show you the way out.

Hi! I'm Hayley I am a third year psychology student at Oxford Brookes. I have been volunteering as a a Student Minds facilitator for a year. I hope that by sharing my experiences and knowledge of mental health it will help others in similar scenarios.

It's Time to Talk

Lucy shares her experience of being a peer support facilitator and highlights how the simple act of conversation can help change people's lives.

I believe that one of the biggest struggles when it comes to mental health is the stigma that surrounds it. It can cause a fear of talking to your friends and family due to feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or being unsure of how they are going to react. This as a result feeds into a continuous cycle of isolation.

Time to Talk is a day used to highlight the importance of talking openly about mental health. Just a simple conversation and a listening ear can make such a difference to the way a person feels about their mental health, and eliminate the previous stigmatised views. The more open we are and the more willing we are to talk, the bigger change we can begin to make on people's lives.

At University, I volunteer as a peer support facilitator for Student Minds. We run support groups for fellow students who are suffering with mental health difficulties. The aim of these groups isn't for us to hand out a diagnosis or provide any sort of counselling but instead, it is to provide support and a safe place for people to come and talk about their difficulties. Taking part in this volunteering has opened my eyes to how beneficial the simple act of talking can be. Having somewhere to go where you can freely discuss how you feel, and have people listen to you, can make such a positive impact on a person's life.

While running these support groups, we receive feedback from those who attend. They have expressed to us that it's great to know they have somewhere to turn when they have felt most alone. Some people explained that they initially found it difficult to talk about how they were feeling to their friends and family however through these sessions they have begun to find more comfort in doing so. Through these experiences they have learned how to open up and talk about their mental health without feeling ashamed or embarrassed.

In addition, some people have emphasised how good it felt to talk to like-minded people, which instantly caused them to feel less judged. It wasn't until they had attended a session that they realised they were not the only one struggling and instead, it was quite a common thing. It had lead them to view the people they see in their day to day life in a very different light. Instead of feeling scared to speak up, they felt more empowered knowing that those around them may be able to relate. By being the first to talk, they may also give their friends and family the confidence to talk about their own experiences too.

Talking about mental health is an incredible way to ensure that nobody feels alone. It de-stigmatises it and allows those struggling to realise that it is more common than they originally lead themselves to believe. Talking about mental health can also educate those who may not fully understand the reality of it, and allow them to feel more confident in speaking to those around them who may be struggling.

Without conversation, the isolation that those experiencing mental health feel, would never go away. They would remain stuck in their own frame of mind and never be given the opportunity to relieve some of that pain. The act of conversation and talking about mental health can make a huge impact on a person’s life. Providing a listening ear and a safe space to talk, can help support them through what may be a very difficult time.

It’s time to talk and give mental health a voice. We need to empower those who speak up and make sure they are listened to. It can really help change lives.

Hello! I'm Lucy, a Clinical Psychology Masters student at Anglia Ruskin University! Through studying Psychology and experiencing life as a student, I have become incredibly passionate about mental health and helping to make a positive change. I have been volunteering for Student Minds for the past 2 years as a Peer Support Facilitator at my university, and have been the Editor of the Student Minds blog since June 2017.