Thursday, 31 March 2016

Mental Health as an International Student

Chloe talks about the difficulties of being an international student, and why its important to take extra care of yourself, or your friends around you, whilst you are away from home

- Chloe Lim

Moving to university is a huge change for anyone. A new environment, new people and the stresses of working on a degree without the familiarity of home and family, is a challenge in and of itself. For an international student however, these challenges may be amplified and take a toll on one’s mental health.

It cannot be overstated how much of a culture shock it can be going abroad for any period of time, much less for the duration of an undergraduate degree or more. If you’re like me and used to warmer skies and balmy equatorial heat, the novelty of England’s drippy drizzly weather can easily run out.

Throughout my first year, I was never a person to consider being away from home a challenge. In fact I relished the new-found independence that I had to do whatever I wanted, when I wanted. Going home in the summer felt like a chore instead of a welcome retreat. However, three years is a long time to be away and by my second year I was feeling the strain, and noticed similar experiences in the lives of other international students too. It was difficult watching my English friends easily find a way home when things got too stressful at university, knowing I didn’t have access to the same reprieve. Other times, all I really wanted was a good bowl of hot Singaporean food instead of yet another serving of chilli!

If you’re an international student, the first thing to recognise is that it is okay to struggle with missing home or with the extra effort of having to do more for yourself. It is not your fault for finding it more difficult to fit in, to deal with negative comments, to learn a new language if you must, or even to get over a bout of physical or mental illness. It is completely acceptable if you find that you have not adjusted as easily as the next person. Even if you do not consciously realise it, being in unfamiliar territory, possibly without a complete support system, can take a toll on your body and mind. Being surrounded with positive company, both from home and from anywhere else, and talking about how you feel, is so important to reduce feelings of isolation.

I found it helpful as well to create a safe and familiar domestic environment. Whether you live in college owned accommodation or you live out, small reminders of home are helpful in creating a comfortable space to rest and sleep well. Learning to make some of your favourite dishes is also a great reminder that things aren’t necessarily all that different! Taking the time to understand yourself and how you are reacting to your environment is a great help as you learn to adjust. Remember to also take some time off when you’re struggling and be aware of the support systems available to you at your university if necessary.

On the other hand, if you are friends with an international student, why not check in with them too and see how they’re doing? A kind word or a helpful conversation is sometimes all that is needed for a new place to feel a little bit more like home.

For more information on seeking support click here

For more information on understanding mental health itself, click here

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Society: Are they Right? – How the world should view mental health

Chris and Chris write about how society view mental health incorrectly and how mental health should be viewed to make positive progression in dealing with it.
- Chris & Chris

"My anxiety causes me to panic whenever I think I'm doing something wrong or predict the worst case scenario. It also causes me to tell myself how worthless I am and how much of a failure I am at anything I do.”

"My anorexia makes me obsess over my weight all the time and even when I'm hungry, I see how long I can go without eating. If I binge eat, I force myself to throw it up and if I don't I hate myself."

"I have PTSD. Once in a while it causes me to have an attack where I basically shake and feel like I'm going insane over past memories. It causes my body to shake even though I consciously don't know why."

The above lines are three statements made by three individuals who learned to live with mental disorders. Something that has sparked my curiosity since a young age was the fact that mental illnesses always have so much stigma. Isn't it just like a fracture or a fever or any other ailments? These differences are created by society's notions of disorders.

Here are a few of society's believes about mental illness and myth busters that can answer these correctly:

Society: Society believes that people with mental health problems are violent and dangerous.

Truth: Society itself is more dangerous and forces these people to harm themselves or point out what they are trying to hide.

Society: Mental illness equals delinquency, crime, evil nature, abnormal lifestyle, and unfulfilled lives.

Truth: Most of the people who struggle with mental disorders emerge as fully contributing members of the society, who are braver, stronger and have unique perspectives.

Society: People diagnosed with depression are dependent and introverts who have a ruined self-image.

Truth: They are usually smarter than an average individual, have better perspectives and see situations realistically.

Society: ADHD means reckless adrenaline junkies who fail to fulfil roles and responsibilities.

Truth: They thrive in disruptive situations, embrace adventures and apt at multitasking.

Society: OCD is the epitome of perfection. People diagnosed forget themselves in the drive to be perfect and fail in most relationships.

Truth: They have higher levels of determination, naturally good at memory and compelled to learn new things frequently.

Society: Bipolar disorder ruins a person inside out. Either it is a high or a low or it makes them crazy.

Truth: They are four times as capable in art, creativity and observation.

All the stigma are based on perspectives and by changing these perspectives and the world opinion on mental health will change to a more positive one.

For more information on seeking support click here.

For more information on eating disorders click here.

For more information on understanding mental health click here.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Seeking Support: Anorexia & Coeliac Disease

Molly, University of Southampton graduate and Communications Officer at Student Hubs, shares her experience of speaking up about physical and mental health difficulties. Find her on Twitter: @molly_whyte.
- Molly Whyte

I can be stubbornly independent. I want to do everything within my capacity (and sometimes beyond my capacity) and I want to do it as well as I can. While I don't hesitate to learn from people at work who have more experience than I do, I find it much harder to seek support when dealing with personal issues. Supporting others is something that comes naturally to me, but I can struggle when the tables are turned.

My self-reliance was put to the test in the summer of 2015, when I returned home from my final year of university exhausted and clinically underweight. Between late May and early August, I went through the diagnostic process for coeliac disease, a chronic autoimmune condition, alongside initial recovery from anorexia. As someone who takes comfort from being organised and in control, this was an overwhelming challenge, physically and mentally. If I had been more open with my GP about my eating disorder when we discussed my 'gluten challenge', he probably would have advised against doing both at the same time.

Still, I was as persistent in my initial efforts to recover and follow the gluten challenge requirements ahead of my endoscopy as I had been at undereating and overexercising. Despite being terrified of the physical distress and changes in routine I was going through (read about symptoms and complications of coeliac disease here and restrictive eating disorder recovery here), I had graduation, holidays and a new job to look forward to, so I committed to getting better. Or, as is the case with both coeliac diagnosis and eating disorder recovery, to getting worse and then getting better.

Having spent three years at university hiding my disorder from concerned family and friends, I opened up to my Mum about the full extent of the problem. It was painful, but so necessary. It was difficult to accept that I wasn't entirely managing on my own and that I needed to learn how to look after myself properly. I had been working so hard to do everything perfectly - my academic work, volunteering, planning for life after graduation - that I got lost in restriction, ritual and body dysmorphia.

Although I was underweight, in pain, permanently cold, losing my hair in clumps and distant from my friends and boyfriend at the time, I was unable to accept that I was sick. Eventually admitting that I was brought on both relief for my newfound desire to recover and grief for the body, energy, time, friendships, hobbies and fun that were sacrificed during my worst months.

Confronting this also meant dealing with the causes of my problem. Throughout my life, many of the physical side effects of undiagnosed coeliac disease had led me to feel fat, sick, achy and uncomfortable after eating (read more about the link between coeliac disease and eating disorders here). Between June and August, having to make myself eat significant amounts of food, including gluten, triggered brain fog, migraines, joint and bone pain, hand tremors, night sweats, shortness of breath, lethargy and digestive trouble. On top of this, the necessary weight gain made my disordered thoughts more prominent. I mainly spent my time having blood tests, watching Netflix and sleeping. On better days, I managed to walk the short distance from my parents’ house to the beach and catch up with old friends over a cup of tea.

Alongside these physical issues, I had to face my anxiety head on. I have been prone to worrying and perfectionism since childhood, but family trauma in my teenage years, body-shaming comments, media influences and my own tendency for comparison led to a greater need for control. I speak more openly about this and the physical side of recovery now, as it helps to keep me accountable to looking after myself. I have struggled with restrictive relapses in the past year, but I work hard to let my rational thoughts win. When triggered by feelings of stress and anxiety or other factors like a comment, news story, photo or memory, I now feel better able to rationalise the negative feelings that arise.

Coeliac disease means it is still necessary for me to be cautious with food to an extent. I have to avoid foods that cause me pain and internal damage. I can even get ill from eating gluten free food made in other people’s kitchens or in restaurants, due to contaminated utensils, pans and ovens. Despite this, I try to focus on the positives and things I can eat. Deliciously Ella (and other similar “health food” figures) have been criticised for promoting restrictive eating, but her recipes have been a huge help in introducing me to coeliac-friendly foods, breaking my routines and making me feel more normal. Dealing with physical symptoms and anxiety is part of my life, but it is not the biggest part of it anymore.

Having the energy and headspace to give to friendships, family, fulfilling work, exploring new places, volunteering and hobbies like singing and playing music is worth much more than being thin. Since moving to Oxford 7 months ago I have felt moments of happiness, independence and community that wouldn’t have been possible had I not made those first steps towards wellness. When I feel old habits start to return, I remind myself that there are moments like these to be enjoyed every day. I also tell myself that eating properly means hopefully repairing the osteoporosis, malnutrition and other physical damage caused by my illnesses. I want to be well enough to experience other parts of life still to come, like having children. I can’t do that if I don’t eat.

I share this experience not to gain sympathy or attention, but to urge you to speak to someone if you are struggling. Potentially changing people's perception of you is scary, but it can be freeing to open up. I am lucky to have friends in Oxford and elsewhere who check in with me. My housemates, other friends and family give me encouragement and support when I need it. I happily do the same for them, because it is so important to look after ourselves and each other.

Whether dealing with a mental and/or physical condition or not, we could all benefit from discussing our wellbeing more - at home, school, university, work and elsewhere. I am happy to see organisations like Student Minds, Beat, Time to Change, Young Minds and Girlguiding creating discussion and challenging stigma around these issues. I am also thankful to the Student Hubs team for encouraging self care and a culture in which we can bring our whole selves to work. Wellbeing sessions at our regular Team Days have been a valuable part of this.

When experiencing a mental or physical health issue, do reach out to a friend or family member and seek advice from your GP. If you are struggling, then start the conversation. It will be worth it. You are not your illness, you are loved, you are capable and you deserve to enjoy life.

Check out Student Minds' Understanding Eating Disorders resources for more information and further support for those experiencing eating difficulties.

The articles that have been linked to in this do not necessarily reflect Student Minds' viewpoints.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Depression and adulthood – dealing with change

Zyana writes about dealing with depression and the changes that someone may face with it.
- Zyana Morris

It seems like yesterday when you were being tucked to bed by your parents, when teddy bears and night time stories were the highlight of your evenings, when learning the tables for mathematics seemed like the biggest hurdle, and when weekends involved play dates with your class fellows. Now suddenly you are done with university, facing student loan repayments, responsible for your own apartment, own food, when evenings involve writing reports or rushing through jobs and sleep seems like a privilege. “I just grew up so fast, adults already” isn't that what you wonder?

Out of the many things, human life is one thing that cannot be classified to be static. It goes through various transitions, one of these transitions being teenage years to adulthood. Change cannot be ignored, it rather should be embraced. However, human beings have the quality to feel emotion and these emotions can often translate into depression for many adults. Depression not only prevents one to enjoy life but fills it with negativity that starts affecting sleep, appetite, relationships and physical health too. It can be far more serious than mood swings or the general sad feeling.

Depressed adults usually encounter feelings of low motivation, lack of energy and physical complains such as headaches. One starts to abandon normal everyday activities or activities that once excited them, social withdrawal and isolation starts, sleep patterns get affected and loss of self-worth occurs also. These emotions can lead to alcohol abuse, drug abuse or fixate one on suicide thoughts and death.

Depression isn't a fault in one’s self or weakness in character, it can be encountered by anyone at any point in time based on past or current circumstances. Adult depression is common because as people change into adults they sometimes face loss, rejection, changes in relationships, career ups and downs and responsibility increase. Together these factors affect one’s mood.

Here are some of the many ways adults can cope and overcome depression:

Positivity can overthrow the negativity being felt.
Exercise is a great cure for depression because of the happy hormones it releases. Exercise also challenges one, thus helping them change their perception about their own self-worth.
A healthy diet and a good sleeping pattern.
Connecting with others, a good social circle can also create a change in one’s life. 
Daily life pressures exist and they might worsen but organizing schedules and planning in advance maintain a balance and lowers stress levels. 

Being an adult is tough but believing in your inner strength will make adulthood workable. Embrace the change, build the positivity and enjoy life!

For more information on finding support click here.

For more information on depression and mental health click here.

Coping With an Eating Disorder over Easter- Accepting the Treats

Sophie talks about her struggles with the Easter holidays whilst suffering from an eating disorder, and suggests some tips that can help you to enjoy the holidays as you're recovering

- Sophie Rees

For someone suffering from an eating disorder, the Easter holidays can be a tough time when it comes to the different treat foods the season offers. When I was going through my eating disorder Easter felt like such a lonely time for me and wasn’t just a shorter half term break, it was a long two week holiday. It should have been a happy time for me; seeing my family, getting chocolate, my sister’s birthday and having a longer break from school. It was in fact, one of the hardest times of my disorder and trying to hide this fact from my family was a constant challenge for me.

I remember getting a huge chocolate egg from my grandmother that was delicately boxed along with multiple variations of that brand of chocolate in bars, sweets and smaller chocolates. I accepted the egg with gratitude, and pretended I was very happy to be getting masses of chocolate to eat over the next two weeks. What I really felt though, was something quite different. Over the two weeks I had observed the remains of other chocolate egg treats around my house - the shiny foil, the swirly patterns, the big decorative boxes. Where everyone else had tucked into their Easter treats, I had not even touched mine and I was refusing to even look at the box because of the information printed on it.

In the end, I had missed out on Easter treats two years in a row because of my eating disorder. I would always end up giving any of my chocolate or sweets away to my sister or my friends because I couldn’t face eating even a little bit myself. Looking back on my experience of those Easters now, I know that there was another way around my fear of chocolate and the stress that came with it. Easter can be such a fun time and it can even help mental health take break for a while, or even for good. Here are some useful tips I found helped me during my first Easter when recovering from my eating disorder:
  • It’s not a race – take your time to adjust to the situation of having Easter chocolates, they don’t have to be eaten all in one day. Little chunks each day or every other day is just fine and will help you to enjoy it more too.
  • Share – It may help to share some treats with others so that you’re not alone when eating the chocolate. Invite some friends around, have a film night and share some good times as well as some good food.
  • Other foods at Easter – If solid chocolate really isn’t for you, then there are plenty of other delicious foods famously put around at Easter time such as hot cross buns, cupcakes and chocolate cereal nests.

For more support on understanding eating disorders click here

For more information on finding support, click here

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Managing panic attacks

Lottie writes about her advice for managing panic attacks and what has helped her.

- Lottie Naughton

Anxiety is not uncommon and it can be truly debilitating, but it’s important to keep in mind you aren’t alone and you are more than capable of everything you wish to achieve.
Things that have stood out for me in handling general feelings of anxiety or helping managing imminent panic attacks are:

Trying to understand and acknowledge my anxiety
Everyone is different, and different situations will contribute to different emotions. What is important is understating what makes YOU feel anxious. Maybe you’re like me, and can approach authority figures with ease, and attend class quietly and happily, but the thought of social interaction, with no hierarchy in place, no routine and no set outcome makes you want to crawl into bed and never leave. Whatever it is, try to make a note of how you feel in certain situations. Jot down how you felt when you spoke to the cashier in the supermarket. Was your heart racing? Did you feel your face going red? Or were you more concerned about what you were going to say to your housemate when she asked how your day was going? Understand how your body reacts.

When you’re feeling panic rising, acknowledging it can help. Simply knowing you feel afraid is not a bad thing, but what’s most important is knowing that although you feel afraid you are most likely not in any danger. Accept that you are afraid like you would accept a headache. When you get a headache, you probably don’t react by banging your head against a wall because that will make it worse! To overcome an imminent panic attack, start with acknowledging your anxious feelings.

Learning how to relax my physical body in turn helps me relax my mind
Wherever you are, if you feel a panic rising it’s important to equip yourself with tools to calm your body down again.
1: Breathe!
Calm, deliberate breathing may seem obvious, but it will help keep your heart rate and blood flow under control. I looked up a lot of deep breathing exercises online and it’s worth it in the moment to know how to focus your energy on your technique.
2: Focus on your body
Concentrate on every muscle in your body and relax them one by one. Relax your toes, then your ankles, your legs and move all the way up to your head. This will give you focus and distract you. Another great one I use to calm me down is focusing on my immediate environment.  First I focus on 5 things I can see, then 4 things I can feel, 3 things I can smell, 2 things I can hear and finally one thing I can taste. It grounds me and brings me back to reality.  This helps overcome my initial ‘fight or flight’ reaction and it means I don’t end up doing something that I really will be upset or embarrassed about later on.

Realise when you are being unrealistic and talk to yourself!
A common occurrence in people with anxiety is unrealistic beliefs about themselves and what others think of them. Common examples being you need to be perfect to be liked, nobody makes mistakes but you, it is imperative everyone you meet likes you, and that it is not okay to feel anxious. One way to address this pattern of thinking is by asking yourself a few questions. If you are already in the midst of a panic attack your thoughts might become intrusive and negative, but you must also remember that you can answer back! My mantra is usually “Breathe, relax, focus”. I say this over and over in my mind to drown out all the other worries bouncing around in my head at the time. I won’t stop until I feel better and am carrying out those actions!
You might also be working yourself into a state of panic before an event of some sort. For example, you might be worried about going out for drinks.
Ask yourself:
What is the worst thing that could happen? I’ll say something really stupid
Are you 100% sure you would even get yourself into a situation for that to occur? No, not 100%
What evidence is there that supports this thought? One time I offended my friend with a joke. Also, a different time, I told a joke and nobody laughed. I also said something that didn’t make any sense.
What evidence does not support this thought? I have been to other parties and not said anything stupid before. I’ve told lots of other jokes that my friends laughed at, and I manage to talk every single day and people know what I’m saying.

If you can validate your feelings and get to know your body and your anxious mind well enough, you really can do anything. Especially at university, there is pressure to socialise and appear happy and confident 24/7. If you aren’t comfortable with that, just know you’re not alone and you can definitely move forward in doing something about it. 

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Anxiety: Reflections on university life and how far I've come

Lottie writes about her struggles of anxiety at university.

- Lottie Naughton

When I embarked on my student journey, I was probably at my lowest point emotionally. After a few disappointing A Level results and a deferred year due to my inability to make my mind up, I was finally committing to the biggest decision I had ever had to make. I was moving away from home, I was going to do a degree I always had a passion for and I was doing it all by myself.

Before university I had no direction, and didn’t intend on carving out my own path either. I was content with my part time job, my college group of friends and my cushy life with my family at home. Why did I need to leave when I had everything I could’ve asked for right where I was? But of course, that time in my life was only temporary. My friends and boyfriend left for university, my family needed rent money if I was planning on staying and my part-time job was simply not enough. I was alone and facing pressure from all sides (including myself) to figure out who I was.

When I finally made my mind up and settled on Plymouth as my home for the next 4 years I was excited. It was a new huge chapter in my life that finally meant I could understand what all my friends were experiencing first hand for myself. I decided I would join every society available to me, be the captain of at least three sports teams and leave university an adult with a First Class degree under her belt. Unfortunately, these expectations and goals I set for myself were completely unrealistic.

When my parents left me alone in my new room for the first time I had my first panic attack. I ended up hiding under the bed in floods of tears on the phone to my boyfriend. I didn’t venture into the kitchen for four days because I didn’t know how to start a conversation with all those new faces without hyperventilating. I made every excuse I could think of to not leave my room during Freshers’. My only saving grace was my phone and the contacts I had left behind at home. That was my first real experience with anxiety and how debilitating it can be. I was hungry, lonely and desperate to make friends, and yet I could not bring myself to simply walk down the stairs.

As the year progressed, I slowly came out of my shell and became close to another housemate who also did my course. She supported me and helped me immensely in making up for the time I had missed in my first few weeks. By the end of my first year, I was happy and finally feeling confident about my life. Unfortunately, this feeling again was only temporary.

My anxiety slowly crept up on me in places I never expected it to- I was able to present a research question to my tutor group with full confidence, but couldn’t face going out for drinks with my friends without feeling dread in my stomach and obsessing over every move I made, every facial expression I made just to make sure everyone liked me. I could attend each of my lectures and chat one on one to supervisors with a smile, but when my boyfriend asked me to go to a party with his friends I ended up in bed, in tears not being able to explain why I couldn’t face it and feeling that panic, dread and fear I had felt in my first few days as a student. Was something wrong with me? Why couldn’t I be a social butterfly like everyone else?  Why did every social situation feel like hell to me, when it never had before? They looked so confident. It looked so simple! But I could not bring myself to face large groups or social situations that were new.

When I reached my third year I decided to do a work placement back home to give myself a break from the pressures of university and move back in with my family for a year. I became close to a colleague there who explained to me how she also suffered panic attacks and anxiety so similar to what I had gone through. I understood then that I wasn’t some strange human anomaly. I understood that I wasn’t just simply a shy girl. I was suffering and I needed help. When I finally reached out to my family and my friends I felt a weight lift. My anxiety didn’t magically disappear, but I had shared the burden and I was being listened to. My feelings were valid and my experience was not rare.

I went into my final year at university with a new perspective, a support network cheering me on and a new found belief in myself. I was happy to be back and raring to go. My next chapter in life is starting to rear its head with my graduation creeping closer every day, and I must admit it’s ugly. It’s unknown and frightening; truly my worst nightmare. I’m facing what I faced when I first left home, but I’m also not carrying as much baggage as I was before and I’m carrying the right equipment to see me through. I don’t know what the future holds but I’m looking forward it regardless. 

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Keeping a healthy pocket during university – how to control your finances

Lisa writes about handling finances as a university student and saving her grades in the process.
- Lisa van der Steen

When I first started university, I was ready to have the best time of my life. I had never really been on my own before and I couldn't wait to leave my tiny home town behind to start a new life in the big city. I was hoping to go abroad in my third year and had my eye on various internships that were, as often is the case these days, unpaid. But unlike many of my friends, I didn't have parents who could financially support me. I soon found myself trying to balance my studies with an underpaid part-time job to be able to fulfil my ambitions, without sacrificing my entire social life. 

Whilst trying to maintain the lifestyle I had become a custom to at college, I found myself struggling to get by. My financial worries kept growing, resulting in many sleepless nights and in turn I saw my grades slowly declining.

Along the way, I found out that I wasn't the only one my age who was worried about money. In last year’s National Student Money Survey, it was estimated that 80% of students have financial worries and that two in three struggles to live solely off their maintenance loan. But what are the best ways of dealing with struggles like these? And who do you turn to for help? 

Here’s some tips that I found really useful for getting my personal finances in check. They could be the answers you are looking for if you are dealing with financial stress:

1. Apply for funding

This is something you’ll read about on every possible student financing website, but I benefited massively from having a student bursary.There are many ways of funding to turn to for help, such as charity funds (including local churches), alumni groups and career-related bursaries. Keep an eye on their deadlines, but remember not to give up too easily! 

2. Create a budget plan

Keep a log of your expenses, draw a budget and try to stick with it! Work out how much money you receive each month and keep track of how much you spend, and exactly what you are spending it on. There’s plenty of money-saving apps available for students and you could even try installing home accounting software to help you manage your money more easily and prioritise your spending.

3. Talk to someone at university

All universities and colleges have an advice centre specialised in financial issues. If you are struggling with your finances or even considering quitting university because of it, they’ll be able to offer you help and can inform you on finding alternative ways of funding. It might even be the case that you’re entitled to more money than you realised. 

4. Confide in a friend or family member

Don’t feel like you’re in it alone, confide in friends or family members to talk about your financial problems. There’s no need to feel embarrassed. Withdrawing yourself from others will only increase your stress levels. The more your friends are aware of your problems, the less often you’ll feel pressured for participating in expensive nights out. 

Despite your financial worries, don’t stop enjoying your time at uni. There are ways you can keep seeing your friends without spending lots of money! Try cooking together instead of having meals out, or take up a hobby that doesn't cost the earth, such as running together. Exercise isn't just good for your physical health, but for your mental health too, as it releases endorphins that will help improve your mood. 

For more information on finding support during university click here.

For more information about studying abroad click here.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Focus of the mind – the help through helping

One student writes about their ability to be brave and overcome their mental health by helping others and volunteering.

Five years ago, I heard about an organisation called Marrow. Marrow groups sign students up to the bone marrow register to help save the lives of people with blood cancer. As an eager first year medical student, helping people was the reason I wanted to come to university in the first place. The idea of being able to make such a difference to the lives of others through volunteering for this society really appealed to me and I came along to a few events. I had no idea how much impact it would have on my own life a few years down the line.

Mental illness crept up on me halfway through first year. Controlling it was like trying to keep a row of candles alight outside on a windy day. You can’t attend to them all at once. Academic achievement was the first light to flicker. When I first started to have trouble studying, my natural reaction was to focus all my attention on it. I would stay up all night, sometimes going days at a time without sleeping. I stopped socialising and ignored my family’s advice to take breaks now and then. I was too afraid of losing the one thing I was good at, but in the process, I let that light burn out.

Repeating university the first time went as planned, but after that, I convinced myself that I didn't deserve to be there. Things escalated over the couple of years that followed. I was consistently late for class because there was always ‘just one more’ OCD ritual to complete before leaving the house. I started getting anxiety attacks, which put me off going into lectures and I wasn't studying either. The shame and frustration of it all got to me too much, and I felt completely stuck.

By the time I eventually asked for help, it had got to the point where I couldn't function normally. I got diagnosed with anxiety, depression and OCD, which came as no surprise. Countless difficult appointments, long waiting lists and several medication changes seemed to be making very little difference. By this point, being in university seemed pointless. But there was one thing in particular that stopped me giving up, and that was Marrow. The harder things became, the more I threw myself into volunteering. The one light that for some reason, never faded. When you get the opportunity to focus your time and energy on something so worthwhile instead, it can make an incredible difference.

Helping others always was and still is the main reason I was drawn to Marrow. When things aren't going well, it gives me a reason to leave the house and an opportunity to be a part of a really special community all working towards the same goal- to eventually find a match for every patient that needs one. I think that over the last while, it’s helped to light that old candle again. For the first time in a couple of years, I can think clearly enough to get some studying done.

It’s easy to think you’re not good enough, that there will always be someone better, but everyone can contribute something, particularly when it comes to volunteering. For me, it was Marrow, but for you, it might be another cause, a sport, or politics. I like to think that something can be that candle for all of us, and I wish you the very best with finding out what it is for you.

For more information on finding support through university click here.

For information on stress during university click here.

For more information on volunteering click here.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Exercising the Body Helps Rest the Mind

- Sophie Rees

Exercising is an important factor alongside a healthy and good nutritious diet for one’s well-being whilst studying. It is a difficult factor to grasp and get a good stance on, as it often conflicts with the anxieties of body negativity, eating disorders and health consciousness. During my eating disorder I started cutting back on the main food in my diet first and then I decided to take on exercising without the correct levels of food energy inside me. Over exercising led to me rapidly increasing the health risks I had already obtained from my eating disorder and to feeling dizzy, sick and becoming tired very quickly. At the time, I was not only risking my health but also my future as I sat my GCSEs without a healthy lifestyle.

After recovering from my anorexia two years later, I had developed a healthier lifestyle compared to what I had kept up during my eating disorder, but it wasn’t healthy enough to help my well-being at A level. I had binged on unhealthy snacks such as crisps, cake and chocolate and I would eat fast food at school during lunchtime instead of balancing the snacks out with a healthier and more nutritious meal. I knew that to get into university and to keep up with the levels of concentration I would have to improve my diet and exercising levels to keep my body and mind on track in order to be focused during studies.

I then decided to take action with both my body and my mind by getting a good balanced diet back into my life and a reasonable amount of exercise done around my studies. I made the decision to walk to and from school instead of catching a super busy bus with tons of other students, and it turned out to be quite enjoyable. I would head out each morning listening to my favourite songs on my iPod whilst walking along and it would set me up well for the day of classes ahead. I then started to eat more nutritious meals from the school canteen for lunch instead of fast food items. I scrapped the everyday bacon baps, chips or pizza, and chose instead nutritious pasta bakes, jacket potatoes or Chicken Caesar salads. This made me appreciate future fast food treats when I had them and allow me to enjoy choosing my lunch everyday rather than hesitate over certain foods.

By the time I stared university, I was confident in choosing the right choices for my lifestyle and it made me realise how simple a small change in exercise and diet can improve one’s well-being. There are plenty of exercise activities for people to become involved in to improve well-being whilst studying:

  • Personally, I am not super sporty or energetic when it comes to exercise, but even the more relaxed exercises such as walking, yoga and swimming are enjoyable.
  • Owning a pet can help boost a healthy exercise routine too, dogs in particular need a good amount of walking exercise daily, and it can be fun with a favourite pet who will love you back for it too.
  • Exercising can be a good social and fun aspect to one’s well-being such as Zumba classes, dance and aerobics.
  • Sports exercises can become great hobbies to continue with. Tennis is a great sport to play and to watch during the summer with the Wimbledon tournament. Even if you’re not quite sure which sport you’d be suited to, inspirations from the 2016 Olympics in Rio, coming soon, can help you decide this too.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Learning From Hindsight

- Hannah

Coming to university, I thought I was well prepared. Having had to take a year out due to mental health problems, I came to university with the wisdom from my friends who had already survived first year. I was armed with tips about breaking the ice, meeting new people, coping with freshers, joining societies and dealing with work stress. I had no doubt that I was 100% prepared and ready, albeit terrified.

How wrong could I be? As it turns out, very wrong. Despite being surrounded by thousands of equally overwhelmed and lost students in the same boat as myself, I had never felt more alone. Freshers came and went, a drunken blur. I had been encouraged to really push against my anxiety and join in, get out of my comfort zone and get to know people. So I did. I joined in, I drank to excess, I looked normal. No one would of guessed the torment going on inside. However as soon as freshers was over, my attempts to join in were also over. I alienated my flatmates. This was my first mistake. One week sociable and happy, the next week isolated and quiet with no explanation. There is only so long someone can fake a personality. And in hindsight I should have explained my situation. I wasn't a going out sort of person. I didn’t like drinking every night. That just wasn't me. I am naturally an introvert who likes staying in drinking tea and watching films. I liked knitting and other creative things. I like to study and do well, for me first year wasn't about scraping a pass. I wanted to push myself and do well. But I felt too ashamed to say anything. I didn’t think I would be accepted for being different. I didn’t think they’d understand the depression and anxiety I felt. I was ashamed and scared which only drove me further into isolation. I stayed in my room, often crying and contemplating leaving university. I would ring home in floods of tears desperate to leave. Nearing the end of the year, I had reached my lowest point.

In first year I undeniably hit rock bottom. But looking back I learnt a lot:

1.    Be open: You’re stuck with your flat mates for a year. Randomly assigned to a group of people, it’s inevitable there will be arguments and falling outs. That’s ok. I had such a fear of telling my flat mates about my mental health problems that I pushed myself into isolation. If I had told them, even only slightly hinted to the problem, I have no doubt that they would have been more understanding and caring. When I opened up to other people, I often found out that they too had experience of struggling. Mental illness is sadly very common. But it means you are not alone. Everyone has their guards up when coming to university - everyone wants to look ‘normal’. But if you take down your facade, you’ll find others do too. And you’ll quickly learn that normal doesn’t even exist.

2.    Be open with university: Explain to your tutor about your problems, let them help you. As I said, mental health is common and they are used to students having a wide range of issues. Universities have a well-structured support service in place for students with a wide variety of difficulties. It ranges from university therapy sessions to extra support during exams and extended deadlines. If your tutor doesn’t know there is a problem, they cannot help. There is no shame in asking for help and at the end of the day, as a tutor, that is their job. They want to support you and they know about the challenges students face. They don’t judge. They support and guide you.

3.    Get help: Register with a doctor, find a GP you find comfortable seeing and be honest. This is probably the hardest thing to do but so worth it. I was referred to the community mental health service where I was assigned a psychiatrist and community psychiatric nurse (CPN). It sounds scary and it was at first but I was able to get my medication sorted which helped make the depression easier to deal with. Before, the depression completely consumed me, I felt like I had no control over it at all. But the medication helped ease it so that I regained more control. Seeing the CPN helped me challenge some of my fears and beliefs. But above all, it was incredibly liberating to talk honestly and not be judged.

4.    Be yourself: There are thousands of students at university, all unique and different so don’t feel you have to act a certain way to fit the mould. Fitting the mould is just an illusion - there is no mould and there is no normal. It is a chance to explore new activities, join societies and clubs and try something new or just do something you already enjoy. I joined the ski society in second year and that is one of the best things I did. I love skiing and it was great to be with other like-minded people. It was something I looked forward to and I felt able to be more like myself. Also opening up to people and being honest that I hated going out and drinking every night lead to me find other people who felt the same way. It was with these people that I could really bond with and from friendships. One friend in particular really helped me through first year. Having opened up about my difficulties she made a huge effort to help me. We had very similar interests so she’d come to my halls armed with tea, films and crafty things. She understood my struggles and helped me to challenge them but also understood my limitations.

5.    Don’t be ashamed: Mental health is something we all have, be it good or poor. Just like physical health issues, we shouldn't be ashamed or embarrassed when our mental health isn't right. Part of the problem is fearing the stigma attached to mental health. But by hiding our problems we inadvertently strengthen the stigma. During second year I joined a mental health society and got involved in a number of awareness events - it really is amazing how many people have been touched my mental health illnesses. It was liberating to be open and to help break down the misunderstandings surrounding mental health.

 4 years on, I am now studying for a masters in medical science. Last year I graduated with a first class degree in physiology despite my struggle with depression and other illnesses. Having depression doesn’t mean you cannot achieve your goals. Your illness and struggles do not define you. It has been a learning curve and I am still on my journey to recovery. I have learnt from my mistakes and I have learnt from my past experiences. I have learnt not to be ashamed. I have learnt to be myself and do the things I want to do. As a result I have developed real friendships with people who are similar to me. I have learnt my limitations and learnt that it’s ok to ask for help - this is not a sign of weakness or failure. It takes strength and courage to know when you need help and to overcome the fear of asking for it.

Be yourself, ask for help, don’t be ashamed. These would be my 3 top tips.