Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Being one of the Queen’s Young Leaders: the power of sharing personal experience.

- Nicola Byrom

Last week was exhilarating, exciting and empowering. I spent the week with amazing young people from across the commonwealth. We were bought together through a celebration of the work that young people are doing to improve their communities in countries from Namibia to Vanuatu, from Mauritius to Sri Lanka. These people, may I call them friends, were working on many varied projects; for example, Barkha Mossae advocates for Small Island Developing States and encourages young people to take an interest in the state of the oceans, Nosipho Bele runs an education programme in called Mentor Me to Success and Salman Ahmad co-founded the GADE Foundation to encourage young people to become more involved in enterprise. We shared one thing in common; a fundamental belief that if you want to see change in the world, you need to roll up your sleeves, get stuck in and make it happen.

The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, Comic Relief and the Royal Commonwealth Society bought us together for a week in London to help us establish a long-lasting network of support around the commonwealth and strengthen our leadership skills to give us the confidence, knowledge and enthusiasm to tackle new challenges as our work develops. Over the week I met Her Majesty the Queen, quizzed David Cameron about early intervention for mental health, took part in an amazing leadership training programme at Cambridge University, visited the Royal Society and the Commonwealth Secretariat, and talked about mental health in the LGBTQIA+ community at the Metro Charity on the day that USA supreme court ruled that same-sex marriage is a legal right! For me the week achieved all it set out to do, and much more, but more than anything encouraged me to reflect again the way we talk about mental health.

I was the only Young Leader working explicitly on issues of mental health. I spoke with many Young Leaders from countries where disclosing mental health difficulties may still mean complete social exclusion. I was startled to learn that many of my new friends look at the UK for an example of how society and health services need to treat mental health. Our responsibility, in the UK, to normalise conversation about mental health, stretches far beyond our own shores: the world is watching and waiting for a viable template.

I spent the week talking about the work that Student Minds does and about why it is important to give students the skills, knowledge and confidence to talk about mental health. I also spent the week listening. In every conversation I heard the same pattern of response. Everyone had a thought or experience to share about mental health; they had or were struggling through their own difficulties, they had friends or family who had experiences difficult times or they recognised the impact that stressful environments have on their own mental wellbeing. These were quiet conversation, elicited because my confidence in talking about my own mental health difficulties, said “it is okay to talk about this.” These conversations reminded me that while we need to shout about mental health from the roof tops and bold examples of personal experience from respected celebrities, we also need to listen. Sharing personal experiences of mental health difficulties can create space for others to fill.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Those Special People In our Lives

- Grace Anderson

Friendship: there are many necessary things in life, but I believe friendship to be one of the most valuable. They are the people who complete us - someone to talk to, spend time with, comfort us and most importantly laugh with. However, in life we all meet thousands of people and experience many friendships, some which last for a short amount of time, some that end badly, some in which you just gradually drift apart and some that last. The question I often ask myself is – how do I know when I have made a lifelong friend? And how can I distinguish between a friend and a really good friend?

After 21 years I still don’t feel any closer to answering these questions. Life is a funny thing and friendships are even more complex but essential to living a happy life. I am becoming aware that having a small close knit group of friends is a lot more meaningful than having lots of friends. Safe to say I have experienced my fair share of friendships, some good, some not so good, but you aren’t going to get on with everyone and sometimes I have had to learn the hard way: from playground fallouts, to bitchy girls and to people who simply don’t care enough!

I like to see the good in everyone and often make excuses for my ‘friends’ who often don’t live up to this label. I am fully aware that no one is perfect, people fall out, people make up, this is a normal part of friendship but when is enough enough? And how do you know when someone is truly your friend?

One thing I have learnt as a university student is people walk in and out of your life constantly, you meet new people everyday but often these people I would class as circumstantial friends. These are the people who you spend time with due to being on the same course, or who you live with in first year, those who you know through a friend, and people who join the same societies as you do. Arguably, you spend time with them because you have to, they are around when you are and vica versa. But outside of university you may not make an effort to keep in touch, not because either of you are bad people but because this is how life works. 

As the end of third year approaches there have been far too many goodbyes with many questions floating around in my head: will we keep in touch? Who was a circumstantial friend? And who will be a true lifelong friend? 

However, I reassure you that it's normal to lose some friends after university, and throughout life you will lose even more circumstantial friends. Don't let this get you down or make you feel like it's your fault - it's a normal part of life. I often underestimate the extent to which we will all easily end up with different sets of people throughout life and it's normal to find and lose friends regularly. 

Meanwhile, there is nothing better than having a few true friends that you will stay with throughout life, who will stay with you no matter what, despite the distance, despite life experiences. You will grow apart, whilst growing together. Staying in contact with people over a long distance is hard but it is possible and you can make it work.

I know this because I do know a couple of amazing people who I am blessed to have in my life and I hope they know who they are. Despite not being able to distinguish between who is and isn't a lifelong friend, what I do know is who makes me feel happy, loved and wanted. There are very few people in my life that I know can make me laugh no matter what, or who I can talk to about anything with no fear of judgement. Those who no matter how rubbish I can be at times they still understand and are still there.

This is dedicated to you, and you know who you are. I just wanted to write this public thank you and share how blessed I feel to have you special people in my life. And for those of you who are worrying about losing and maintaining friendships, this is a big part of life and you're not the only one who is often unsure where you stand. Just never forget that you are not alone and this is a normal part of life. To have friendship is to have comfort. In times of trouble and depression, a friend is there to calm us and make us feel a little more ourselves. Lasting friendship is a blessing which I feel lucky to have.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Why I gave medication a go

- Rachel

I’ve had mental health difficulties, on and off, since I was nine years old. And I’ve never really felt bad or ashamed by it. But I’ve never felt like taking medication was a good idea or an option for me. There is definitely still a lot of stigma around mental health difficulties in general, but there is quite a specific stigma around the idea of medication. And it was a stigma that I bought into for a long time. Medication is often talked about as a last resort, as the not ideal option or way of dealing with issues; at least that’s how I saw it. I believed that there was something disingenuous about taking medication; that somehow my emotions if I was on meds with be less “real”, and I should therefore only try therapy and forms of self-care to get myself back to a mentally healthy place. I think I sort of felt like taking meds was cheating and that I had to find a way to be healthy without them.

But after a year of trying therapy and other services and, while a lot of things helped, nothing helping as much as I needed to, and inspired by my friend going on meds, I went to my GP. Now, this is total my personal experience, and I’m not a medical expert in any way, but I have to say…meds are great. And a lot of the things I used to believe about them have been far from true; I don’t feel numb, I am definitely still capable of feeling emotions, and I am definitely still capable of feeling sad; but now I feel sad about…sad things…not about anything and everything and not in a way that is all consuming. Meanwhile, getting out of bed is so much easier, I wouldn’t say that my anxiety has gone away but it’s definitely not as bad as it was and negative thoughts feel a lot more distant and less powerful.

And importantly, medication is not an alternative to things like therapy and sorting out issues you might have. But actually, they can make it easier; I feel so much more present and capable of actually tackling my issues now.

And this is not to say that it’s always so simple or great for everyone; I definitely lucked out. I know a lot of people who’ve had really difficult side effects to medication, or have had to jump around a lot of meds before they found one that worked for them. 

But if you have a mental health difficulty which meds might be able to help with; I would say, give it a try. And don’t wait till it’s the last resort. I really regret not starting taking meds at the beginning of the year. I regret struggling so long when I could have been feeling so much healthier and really able to grow and get better, rather than just keeping my head above the water. Fundamentally, my depression and my anxiety are not me, they are not emotions; they are illnesses. And there is nothing disingenuous, nothing wrong, with taking a medication for an illness. It is not cheating. It is literally enabling myself to live rather than struggle.

So if you’re considering going on medication for a mental health problem, yes, be prepared for side effects, yes be prepared to have to experiment with different levels and types of medication, no, don’t expect to be instantaneously totally better. But give it a go. It might just help.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Time to Say Goodbye

- Charlotte Hardy

“Tears streaming down your face when you lose something you cannot replace” (the opening lines of Coldplay’s song Fix You) - I’m not referring to a break up, a broken heart, or a broken USB with all your work on (phew), but at the fact that you can’t replace TIME. 

For most undergrads, time at University is hard work, stressful, fun, and everything in between. So for those who are graduating in a few weeks- congratulations! Three or even four years of study have gone. Graduation is the time to celebrate your achievements with family and your friends. Saying goodbye at the end will not be easy. So that phrase ‘til we meet again’ holds some sadness. Even if you’re not a sentimental person or one that cries normally, you may find you need a tissue for the tears on graduation day. What I’ve learnt since I graduated with my BA five years ago is that friends like yours are precious and few. Perhaps its cliché to say that your friends at University are friends for life. There is some truth in it; make sure you maintain the friendship(s) with those life-long friends you made along the way.

Talking from experience, I have six friends who I am regularly in touch with even though we have gone our separate ways since completing our undergraduate degrees. Six is a miniscule number and I wish I maintained contact with other people I had met: from my English course and the societies I joined. I went to study abroad too but I haven’t kept in touch with many friends in recent years (time difference is partly to blame)! People who attended my 21st were people I knew well at the time but now I find that by and large, we don’t talk anymore not even on Facebook. From close friends to mutual friends or acquaintances, University kept us ‘together.’

It is inevitable that beyond the lectures, societies and halls of residence, distance and different ventures will drift you apart from people you know. I realise that attending University is the common thread and once graduation has gone, so has the connection. Unless you both maintain it. Having spent so much time at University it seems silly not to keep in touch. Yet keeping in touch is hard to do when time just flashes by.

Don’t be surprised if in the forthcoming weeks, you find yourself asking ‘where did the time go?’ I have asked it on somany occasions between my life as an undergrad and now as an MA student. I am conscious that my one year at Uni is almost at the end. ‘Where has the time gone?’ While I don’t finish till August/September, studying continues even though lectures finished some weeks ago. Time is precious for me right now. I’ve been working on two assignments. The hand in date is imminent. My dissertation is also hanging over me; there aren’t enough hours in the day. I’m stressed, panicking and losing control. I haven’t got the motivation to do it; my mind is distracted by all the feelings of sadness I’ve been feeling in the last few days.

Instead of focusing on my assignments I’m writing this in the moment because every day my emotions change. Between waves of panic and sadness, there are also tinges of regret that I didn’t make the best use of my time at University outside of study and make as many friends as I would like. Just having four hours of contact time a week with my 4 fellow international and two part- time course mates during term time didn’t seem enough. I have a strong feeling I won’t see many of them again as they will return to their respective countries soon. There’s no indication they’ll be back for the graduation. What I realised here is that I should try and maintain the friendships I have with some undergraduates who I have met beyond my course and live a little closer.

However, I’ve not been able to say goodbye to some undergraduates who I did meet as I’ve been a hermit in a hole. As I emerge from that hole, some have already left for pasture anew. Some are still around and seeing them at a friend’s 21st last week was an absolute delight and a much welcomed break from my room. At that party there were people I had good times with, people that made me laugh and smile. This occasion signified the last time I would see their face. Was it ok to feel a tinge of a sadness while celebrating my friend’s birthday? I hope so! By the time I left and said goodbye, I needed a tissue. Call me emotional. I held the tears back because ‘to cry in front of you, that’s the worst thing I could do.’ I hate to admit that I will miss someone more than they realise. I don’t know if they know or the reason why. I really wish there was some spare time to ‘catch up’ over coffee or dinner, but I don’t think there will. In the absence of those extra hours to catch up, I know Facebook is there but it doesn’t replace seeing a friend in person where you can chat about this and that. Facebook is not the same.

With all the things I’ve done since my BA, time spent at with friends at University, in person, was in hindsight something really special and precious. That is the lesson we learn with time. So before you bid farewell to your friends you leave behind after graduation, make a conscious pledge to stay in touch with those that matter. Some things in life stand the test of time and friends from Uni is one of them. Catching up over holidays or free time after work will be much more fun. It provides an opportunity to take a trip down memory lane and to rendezvous over those moments you enjoyed together at University in years to come.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A meeting of (anxious) minds

- Olivia Niblock

At the time of writing this, I’m laying awkwardly on the couch, keeping my leg elevated after I fell down the stairs at Kentish Town Station. Needless to say it wasn’t a great experience, but what surprised me most was the number of people who were more than willing to help. Milliseconds after I fell to the ground, a man and a woman came to my aid and hoisted me up to help me on my train home. I plonked myself on a seat and assessed the damage. Whilst assessing said damage, my nose started bleeding all over my hand and without a question; two guys started scrabbling around in their bags to find me a tissue to stop the bleeding.

“It’s not your day today, is it, love?” 

But do you know what – I’m starting to think it was my day. People I’d never met in my life were watching my every move, asking if I needed any help, offering to help me off at my station. It made me realise that people, Londoners especially, are underappreciated for their kindness. This is why one of my favourite bits in the Metro – come on now, we all read it – is the Good Deed Feed. It reminds me that people are willing to help if they see that you are in need. Sometimes it isn’t obvious when a person needs help, but when it’s made crystal clear – or if you ask for help – people will willingly give it. 

One of my favourite sayings is “the first to help you up are the ones who know how it feels to fall down”. Which brings us on to how I met another blogger in America, @illysez. She blogs about her GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) and depression in a bid to help others know that they’re not alone and to get help with their problems. I came across it because I myself suffer from GAD: although I like to point out, I see it as a diagnosis, not as who I am as a person. It soon became clear that we both has patterns of avoidance in certain situations and our worries are not usually logical or rational. Although telling that to someone when they’re in the middle of an anxiety attack is not helpful – because we are well aware that our worries and fears are not rational. Having a fear of spiders is largely irrational, and yet an estimated 30% ofpeople in a large US study identified as being aracnophobic. It’s just one of those things. 

I decided to reach out to her to delve into her blogging and what she thought of the mHealth sector, including Playlab’s game Flowy. And so the interviewing began.

I find your blog very helpful and relatable for people who suffer with GAD. I was wondering what inspired you to start writing your blog?

“I am a Rabbi’s wife and I noticed that others in my congregation seemed to have anxiety issues. When I could not go a function or service, my husband had to say that I ‘was not feeling well’. At some point I felt it was important to ‘come out’ so-to-speak to my synagogue and our small hamlet of about 15,000 people via social media. I decided I wanted to write a blog to help others who have GAD or depression and to help those that have family members with these issues to better understand them. I want to help de-stigmatize the issue overall. So, I started blogging.”

I was wondering about your opinion on the mHealth sector – do you believe that technology in health is useful for patients?

“I absolutely believe in the mHealth sector!! I used free online CBT therapy and used a paid computer-based biofeedback breathing program called ‘Healing Rhythms’ to help me. As new technology came out that could help me, I have embraced it. I use, or have used, a wide variety of ‘tools’ from talking therapy, to Tai Chi, to CBT, to breathing therapy, to guided imagery relaxation, to supplements such as Omega 3’s and Vitamin D. I believe in a very multidimensional approach to GAD (and depression for that matter).

There’s a new game out called Flowy by Playlab. Have you tried the game, if so, what did you think of it?

“I downloaded Flowy and tried it. I like the idea of a breathing program right on my phone for times where I am somewhere where I am able to use the phone, but not able to take medication or be in a trult calm space of my own. I find the breathing circle for breathing in and holding the circle for breathing out takes some time to fully get – sometimes I was doing the breathing perfectly but not touching the screen, so waking Aegir up took a bit of time . But I do like that Flowy is very encouraging no matter what you do or what your results are.”

It was a real pleasure talking to @illysez and it was really interesting to find out her opinions on shifting stigma, treatments for anxiety and her opinions on mHealth and Flowy. Needless to say, the team are trying to emulate @illysez’s vision in helping those who need help – whether or not it is crystal clear to others yet.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Being a Carer and Mental Health

- Sophie Dishman

I am a carer. I’ve cared for individuals in my family with mental health problems. I also have mental health problems myself. I understand both sides of the coin. I have been a carer from the age of 11. I am 21 now, so I’ve been caring for half my life. I believe that I’ve had mental health problems from a young age. I also think that my caring responsibilities have had an impact on my mental health unfortunately. 

I care for and have cared for people in my family that have mental health problems - ranging from dementia to depression. It isn’t easy at all, especially when you are trying to care for yourself, look after a sibling and go to school. I got used to it in the end, because being a carer is normal for me. It’s something that I do naturally. It’s been that way for 10 years now, so it’s really all I’ve known. My grandma and granddad used to care for my great-grandfather who had dementia and had one of his legs amputated, among many other health problems. 

My mental health problems started to come to a head last year when I hit a point where I was struggling too much. Something triggered them off and it spiralled. My caring responsibilities were heightened during that point too, which made things more difficult. I was at college too which made things harder as I had a lot of coursework to complete. 

It isn’t easy having mental health problems and being a carer yourself, but unfortunately many carers these days have mental health problems too as well as caring for others. It’s a reality for us, as grim as it may sound. We have responsibilities that we shouldn’t have at our age. Even though I’m an adult now, I didn’t have much of a childhood from the age of 11. I had no friends and became isolated, keeping myself in the house. I’m living my adult life but I’m experiencing things that people experience as teenagers. It’s surreal. 

I should probably go into why I think my mental health problems stem or have something to do with my caring responsibilities. Caring for 5 people is difficult, as they all have varying needs, some more severe than others. Your time is spend caring. You get little time for yourself. There is a physical and emotional toll on your body and your feelings. You get tired a lot, stressed out and there is little time for yourself. That’s the hardest part. 

I developed low-self esteem from around the age of 12. I didn’t have a lot of confidence, despite what people said to me. I became worried a lot too. I worried about my family, my health, myself…everything. I managed to keep things together though. I just preferred to be on my own. Something I still prefer these days. I then started having obsessive thoughts at around the age of 14, but I won’t go into this. For a few years, I kept this to myself. No-one knew, because I was the ‘strong person’. Then it all changed last year. 

Being a carer is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I love my family. There are a lot of benefits that I have gained from being a carer - from skills and qualities to opportunities like being on national TV. I also get to spend time with my family - a lot more time, which is always a good thing. It is a ‘pitiful’ role to play within a family, but it’s also very rewarding.

Monday, 8 June 2015

How to Push the Stigma Out Of Student Mental Health

- Olivia Niblock

University. To use the old cliché – the ‘best’ days of your life. To use the truth – some of the most difficult days of your life, especially if you have mental health difficulties. Not only are there looming deadlines, social pressures and the overwhelming desire to do well, there are also expectations – including the expectation to enjoy yourself at every single minute or risk being branded as ‘boring’. 

As a result of this realisation that not all students are out every night getting tiddly and that there are a large majority (1/4) students who have some sort of mental difficulty, many universities have reacted. Look on any university website and search ‘Advice and Counselling’, either now or when you have some spare time, or are researching which university you would want to go to. You should come up with a page something like this:

advice and counselling example pic.png

(Additionally – thanks to Queen Mary – the university I attended for the help and support they gave me during my time there)

However, the fact of the matter is, the majority of people who could benefit from this service do not use it. There is a stigma that is hard to shift from mental health in pretty much every community, as well as students. A study by NUS – the main student body in this country – found in 2013 that only 1/10 students who self-identified as having mental health issues actually approached their advice and counselling service for help - this in addition to the fact that 26% of the people that identified as having mental health issues had no treatment at all. No treatment can mean that you feel isolated, as though it’s you against the world of fears and anxieties. Find the report on the NUS study here.

Apart from stigma, I was trying to think about why students who need help are not going to these services. Is it worries about being plied with pills and not ‘treated’? I had the same worries before I went to seek help at my local GP, as worries about my exams, results, social life, work life, future life etc. were blocking my mind. Some of the first words that came out of my mouth to the GP were ‘drug free’. I was prescribed one to one CBT. Going into the CBT experience was a life-changing one for me – I went in with an open (but worry-crowded) mind and came out with a much clearer organised mind. My worries did not go away – but I certainly had the tools to tell them to stop bothering me when they started to get annoying.

But for many conditions, there are medications that can really help – and some people find that they respond better to medication then they do talking therapies, whilst others believe that the combination of both medication and talking therapies is the best way forward for them. If the treatment works for you, and you are made aware of any health concerns or long-term consequences – it can only be good, can’t it?

Secondly, it came to mind that students may feel as though their problem isn’t worth it, or they don’t want to ‘waste’ someone’s time. Again, this feeling is relatable; we are always reminded that someone is much worse off than us and that we ‘mustn’t grumble’ about our own problems. Yes, there may be people you perceive to be worse off than us, but does that mean that your problems don’t affect you? No. Does it mean that your problems aren’t valid? Absolutely not. And if we’ve learnt anything from mental health, it’s that it’s better to treat early and prevent degradation, rather than waiting for a crisis point. Listen to this TED talk by Brené Brown.

In fact, if you’re scientifically inclined, listen to most of the TED talks, they’re very good (most of them).

Thirdly, relating to the stigma of mental health, students may feel as though people will judge them for using the service, especially prospective friends. I can understand this feeling, but luckily for me, it was dispelled almost immediately when one of my earliest university friends took me aside and told me she was being treated for depression and taking antidepressants. My mind suddenly felt at ease. I wasn’t alone in struggling with the anxiety of university. Imagine 1 in 4 people. Imagine a friendship group of 8. If you have an anxiety disorder or depression, or any other mental health issue, chances are at least one other person in that group will be in the same metaphorical boat. This makes the conversation of not going to a party because you are afraid of having a massive panic attack and embarrassing yourself much more open and free, and at the end of it all, much less ‘embarrassing’. 

(Picture from ‘Grieving: It’s ok not to be Ok’ blog post by Fredda Jones, http://www.texansunited.com/freddadavisjones/2013/01/21/grieving-its-okay-not-to-be-okay/)

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Finishing University - the feelings are bittersweet

- Grace Anderson

Joy? Excitement? Fear? Sadness? How are you meant to feel on finishing your degree? Or perhaps you are watching your friends finish theirs and starting their lives and careers in the graduate world?

"The end of an era" you will hear people say, all the hard work has finally paid off, all the ups and downs of university life and you have came out the other end. You have done it and soon you will be holding your degree certificate in your hands or watching in awe as you friends pose in their gowns, and oh those silly hats!

Exams = complete, Coursework = done, Dissertation = finished

All these achievements and pride but ultimately sadness may kick in - your life as you know it is changing. It is time to move on. However, you don't need to end your university life; the amazing memories, achievements and friends are still there (no one can take them away).

Some people get their own place, some go travelling and many even move back into their parents' house and return to their home town. The possibilities are endless, so do what you want to do - in the clichéd term, the world is your oyster!

However, saying goodbye to the place that you have called home for several years is hard. More importantly, saying goodbye to the amazing friends you have made - those people you have lived with, partied with, laughed with and confided in, supporting each other through the fun times, not forgetting universities difficulties and academic pressures - it can be tough. The bonds you develop with these people makes you feel like they are almost family, because they have been by your side in your transition from adolescence to adulthood. 

You are happy for each other, you have finished your degrees. But university is officially over and saying goodbye is not going to be easy. You have seen these people every day, day in day out and now you no longer live with them and probably have many miles between you.

However, a big part of life is change and it is something that sadly is unavoidable. The thing to remember is that it's not goodbye forever, you will stay in contact with the people who mean the most and grow apart whilst growing together at the same time. 

The answer to the question of how you should feel is - there is no set way to feel. I believe that you will experience a rollercoaster of emotions, both good and bad. Yes, the feelings are bittersweet, but you have still done it; you have lived the university life, but there is so much more that is good to come.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Increasing hospital admissions for eating disorders

- Nicola Byrom, @nicolabyrom
This morning I work up to news that made my heart sink. The BBC report that in the last 3 years the number of hospital admissions for young people with eating disorders has nearly doubled. This means that the prevalence of eating disorders must be on the increase. The BBC is dutifully asking whether social media, the curse of our generation, is to blame. The pressure from the online world to be fit and healthy must be getting to young people. I don’t doubt that it is. And we still haven’t worked out how to teach young people to be confident about their bodies – though there has been some fantastic work by @NatashaDevonSET and www.bodygossip.org. But, though eating disorders feed off of a desire to be fit and healthy, they are rooted in much deeper set of insecurities: uncertainty about life, low self-esteem, and stress. 

We need to ask about the increasing pressure that we are putting young people under. As @AnthonySeldon voiced in March – exam pressure today is putting children under “vile, cruel pressure” .

I'm very worried about the possible increase in prevalence of eating disorders among young people. It's a horrific illness, devastating to the sufferer, their friends and their family. However, the dramatic increase in hospital admissions for eating disorders raises concerns about how we are treating eating disorders. Hospital admission for mental distress in young people should be an absolute last resort. We should never have to get to the point where a young person needs to be admitted to hospital. At times of great emotional and mental distress people need safety and security. They need to trust the world around them. Except in the rarest of circumstance, this is best provided by the home environment. 

I was diagnosed with anorexia about 15 years ago. As I became increasingly unwell, I withdrew and shut out the world around me. To recover, I had to start opening the doors again and engaging in real life and the world around. As we put young people in hospital we remove them from the friends and family who they trust and can ultimately keep them safe and well. We remove young people from the world they need to engage with to recover. We need to be able to treat the mental distress of young people at home. We need to support friends and family to support young people to remain at home. We need better and more intensive early intervention. 

Hospitalisation is devastating for friends and family who care. The separation is painful. The distance for family can be unbearable. A few years ago someone very close to me was admitted to general hospital. She had Anorexia Nervosa. Her condition had deteriorated to a stage where her body was no longer functioning properly. Physically, her health was too unstable to allow her to be admitted to a mental health unit. So, in deep mental distress she remained for weeks on a general hospital ward, which was more familiar with caring for elderly individuals. This place might have had the equipment to monitor her physical health, but it was not a positive place for her to be. 

In our time of “economising the NHS,” we must ask why we are not investing in early intervention. Supporting young people at home is more economical than keeping someone in a general hospital bed for weeks. That's before you even begin to factor in the cost to that person’s mental wellbeing. Our team at Student Minds summarised some of the financial arguments for better and more joined up early intervention for eating disorders in our University Challenge Report.

So, what is currently stopping early intervention? I don’t have a complete answer. However, in anecdotal reports, I still get the impression, far too often, that the experts that we turn to for eating disorder interventions are still struggling to work out how to help. From counsellors to GPs, I still hear too much focus on food and eating. This has got to change. 

Yes, to recover from an eating disorder you have to normalise eating patterns. You may have to gain weight. But for most, the disrupted eating patterns are a solution to the problem. Behind the disrupted eating patterns, there are many psychological challenges that need to be addressed. 

Through years of work, the Institute of Psychiatry and Maudsley have mapped out a psychological intervention for eating disorders that focuses on understanding the costs and benefits of the psychological traits that maintain eating disorders. This approach looks to build motivation for recovery, encouraging young people to develop their own drive to recover. This understanding, this focus on psychology, urgently needs to be disseminated nationally. Early intervention that young people can engage with rather than be afraid of, exist and should be common place. 

To learn more about the ideas discussed here, see:

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Reasons to Stay a Student

- Sheffield Mental Health Matters Society
Things people say to students affected by mental health that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations:

“Yes, I understand that your face is on fire, but do you have a letter from your doctor to prove it?”

“I wish I had cancer so that I could get an extension on my essay”

“Are you sure you’ve got meningitis? Because these days there’s a culture where everyone thinks they do”

“Your neck may be broken but I’m sure you could just make a bit more of an effort to get out of bed”

“Okay. Yes. I get it. Your parachute has failed. Don’t forget you have seminars next week that I expect to see you at”

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig recently became the only thing that kept me from having a panic attack on public transport. London underground is a bad one in particular; the entrapment of privileged people in Moss Bros suits and polished shoes, the masses of shopping bags suddenly pressed against you when you go through Oxford Circus, the general feeling that there simply can’t be enough air to keep all of these people alive. And yet, they’re all there, breathing fine, looking (mostly) perfectly calm, if a little (…very) grumpy. And you’re the only one feeling like your throat’s about to close and the tips of your fingers are on fire. Or so you think.

Matt Haig made me realise it wasn’t just me. He kept me calm, he gave me hope. He helped me suppress the nauseating tickle of fear up your neck and realise that anxiety doesn’t mean you can’t live your normal life. That’s part of the reason I’m so completely and utterly frustrated by the stigma faced by students affected by mental health at university. The notion that it is perfectly normal not to eat or sleep to complete deadlines ridiculously placed within a few days of each other is just a small part of the lack of care for students’ mental health at university. This comes alongside a first year experience where nightclub advertising is thrust at you from every angle, you’re suddenly miles away from home in an intense prison-block flat with a hoard of people you don’t know, and you absolutely have to join every society and sports club possible to consider yourself as having “a great uni experience”. To be frank, there are many ways in which university is absolutely terrible for your mental health.

This is not to say that there aren’t people and services out there to help. I know many people that have had fantastic experiences. I’ve recently become president of an amazing society that works to reduce the stigma faced by students at university. I’ve met amazing people who don’t look at me like I just walked off a spaceship from Mars when I tell them I felt like my spine had turned to jelly and my head was about to fall off during a recent panic attack. My current counsellor cheers me up weekly with philosophical, political, existentialism and ‘what even is the point?’ discussions. I also recently spoke with a seminar tutor who actually asked me how he could help and proceeded to moan with me about how deficient the treatment for mental health is. My family are amazing, my boyfriend buys me the books that my counsellor recommends (Reasons to Stay Alive) and I know many inspiring people I know I can really talk to.

However, it remains the case that all of those things said to students affected by mental health at the beginning of this blog are my own experiences. I was never asked for any proof when I needed an extension because I’d sprained my wrist, and yet extensive evidence was needed when I was dizzy with panic attacks. I genuinely got told by a counsellor at a first appointment that there had been a shift in today’s culture and everyone should just realise that they’re actually fine! The blunt emails informing me of my absences at seminars during periods of intense anxiety were of little comfort at an already hard time. Friends occasionally do find it hard to understand why I’m not more cheery and fun and… well… out of bed before midday. And it is a frequent occurrence to hear course mates complain about wanting an extension, when I desperately want to feel well enough to get that essay in on time.

It is for all of these reasons, and many more, that it is crucial that we continue to talk about mental health and fight for an end to the stigma that prevents it from being treated with an equal priority to physical health. That we continue to add to the reasons to stay a student, when staying at university can often feel so impossible. The panic attacks I face daily at the moment are often in toilets, in my bedroom or by myself somewhere. To many I continue to appear my usual politics-obsessed self, singing along to Taylor Swift and maintaining a well blow-dried fringe every morning. The invisibility of mental ill-health often leads to the perception that people are simply lazy, selfish or weak for struggling. Matt Haig, and I in my altered version, chose to compare mental health to life-threatening situations because it absolutely is a life-threatening situation. Suicide is the second most common cause of death in young adults. The stigma of mental health absolutely needs to be combatted. 

Be a part of that fight – campaign for better services, email your MP, protest, share, question things. But most of all, talk to people. It’s the people that send you a message because you looked a little stressed in the corner of that big event, those that call you to check whether you made it to the lecture and if you need the notes, that person you barely knew before that opens up to you that they get it too – it’s those people that get you through. Be the person that gets someone through. In the same way you might visit a friend bed-ridden with the flu, you can absolutely do the same for a friend living with mental illness. You have no idea how much it might mean to them.

“Your mind is a galaxy. More dark than light. But the light makes it worthwhile. Which is to say, don’t kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars.”

- Matt Haig, ‘The Humans’

“You will one day experience joy that matches this pain. You will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys, you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap, you will make great friends, you will eat delicious foods you haven’t tried yet, you will be able to look at a view from a high place and not assess the likelihood of dying from falling. There are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversations and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.”

- Matt Haig, ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’