Tag Archives: university

World Mental Health Awareness Day

Today is World Mental Health Awareness Day 2017, a day designed to break down stigma and open up conversation about mental health.

Mental health conditions affect 1:4 individuals during their life time. Increasing numbers of people are seeking support for mental health and stress related disorders, and yet we still stumble over talking about mental health.

The theme for this years MH awareness day is mental health and the workplace. I’m going to extend that to mental health in education.

I have long been a high achiever. By the age of 14 I had discovered a passion for science and a love of reading and writing. But behind my string of A grades and music exams and writing prizes was the beginning of a battle with my mental health which would shape my life for the next 11 years.

My school were made aware of my mental health difficulties very early on in my struggles. I was depressed and self harming. But they didn’t know what to do with me, how to support me. I was high functioning, my grades never dipped. I saw a psychologist for a couple of years who questioned me occasionally on my self harm, dismissed my worries with food and discharged me when I turned 18 with the comment “don’t go getting an eating disorder on me.”

I continued to struggle with my mental health the whole way through my schooling but despite secondary school being a hotbed of pressure and the time when a lot of mental health problems begin to manifest themselves there was next to no conversation about mental health and no openings to ask for help.

I achieved top grades at A level and gained a place at a prestigious university studying Microbiology. But within such an institution there is a lot of pressure to achieve the highest grades alongside the pressure of just moving to university. I asked for help during my first year when my eating disorder was starting to spiral. I received no support. I was attending university lectures right up until the day before I was admitted to an eating disorders unit in my third year. When I returned I was once again left to my own devices so long as my academic performance was good. I had a brief meeting with my head of year and then dropped. I was outwardly coping. The day before I was sectioned I was working in the laboratory on my dissertation. It was only once I was sectioned that I was given any support, I had my deadline extended on my dissertation. And that was that.

I’m not in education any more but I will continue to talk about and raise awareness of the need for support services within school and university. People assume you can see mental health problems. If you saw me you would assume I was fine. And yet I have BPD and atypical bulimia, I’ve been ill for 11 years and spent the best part of the last 5 years in and out of hospital. I wish there had been someone at school right when it all started who had taken time to find out why I was self harming and helped sign post me to the right services.

So I say this to all schools and universities and places of education, mental health problems come in all guises but they all deserve help. From the A grade student to the one barely scraping by. Mental health is indiscriminate and support needs to be too.

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Thriving or Surviving?

I’m a bit late hopping onto the Mental Health awareness week campaign. That is “Surviving or Thriving?” But I think it’s a brilliant thing to raise awareness of.

Before being in hospital I worked in a supermarket office, I volunteered as a first aider, I helped run youth mentoring programs. I loved to read, to sing, to play my violin. I was thriving.

Then I got admitted. For the last few months before I was admitted to the EDU I had lost my ability to thrive. I was cold all the time, my head was a mess of numbers, I was so hungry yet so full, everything hurt. I used to walk back from uni to my flat, an hours walk, convinced that this time I wouldn’t be able to make it. I was only just surviving. As my admission passed I was able to lift myself up again. Groups and therapy gave me the ability to survive and maybe hope toward thriving. I can’t say I ever really felt I’d achieved much but I did make friends for life. What’s lovely is seeing some of the girls I was in hospital with living life- learning to thrive.

I managed to return to my degree and I loved my time working in a laboratory. In there, running between my test tubes and the anaerobic cabinet, I was able to forget about my mental health. I could completely immerse myself. But I was not coping on the outside and I was sectioned half way through my dissertation.

This latest admission has been different to my previous. Here there is a real sense of helping us patients do more than just survive. Across the country there are talks of Recovery Colleges. At my EDU there was one being mentioned but solely as a way to learn about your condition. There is a Recovery College here which for me has helped bring me up to somewhere more than just surviving. Going to groups involving the whole hospital has helped bring my confidence up so I can speak in front of others. I went to groups which made me laugh- the smell of our bath bombs probably won’t ever leave me ( I don’t recommend chocolate essence!)! But I also learnt a lot and as my confidence improved I started writing for the newsletter and then became editor. I haven’t worked for years and this lifted me so much. I learnt to delegate, to use new programmes on the computer. I started to become confident in myself that I could achieve things. I’m learning that talking about my story isn’t a bad thing and in many ways has helped me start accepting my past. I look back at when I first went to Recovery College and compare it to now. I now have the confidence to start thinking about work, about future university study, about leaving hospital completely. I even picked up my violin last time I was home! The Recovery College has played a huge part in my recovery. Most of the places I have been have been solely about survival. There was nothing to help you achieve more than that. And that’s what’s different here, we aren’t just helped to survive, we’re also helped to learn to thrive.

Support at university

University. It’s supposed to be a time of exploration, of learning, of being young and free, being independent and having fun. But for students with a mental health condition this is often not the case.

My mental health problems developed long before I went to university but I didn’t seek help for them until a year after I’d started uni. It was summer term of my first year, exam season and I was surviving off muller light yoghurt, purging and forcing myself through hours of exercise. I started getting chest pains and after turning to the Internet for support made an appointment to see my uni GP. It was then that I was first diagnosed with bulimia and referred on to the eating disorder services. Sounds good so far right? Only my weight meant I was low priority and spent a year on the waiting list before becoming critically ill. 

That was where things fell apart. I hadn’t told my parents what was going  on and I spent that year in free fall. I knew I needed help but I had no idea where to turn. I was living away from home and physically and mentally deteriorating whilst trying to juggle my studies, a social life and other every day responsibilities. 

This is where I think the problem lies. At university, especially as an undergraduate, you are usually living away from home for the first time. On top of that you have a demanding course load and new groups of friends to navigate. Your usual and known support network are miles away and you’ve very suddenly gone from school kid to adult. And many people, with and without a mental health problems, need extra support with this. 

Universities do offer support systems- there are student counselling services, student GP centres, personal tutors… But when you’re in crisis it’s bewildering. 

By third year I was in real trouble and just before Christmas I was hospitalised with anorexia. I had to interrupt my studies just before my final exams. I had no idea who to talk to at uni, the stock I answer was always ‘your personal tutor’ but I’d only had two personal tutorials during my entire time at uni. What’s more my personal tutor was make, as were all the senior tutors. In a predominantly male university there was no female tutor for female students with sensitive/ personal problems. I had been beginning to fail my coursework due to the illness but it was only upon hospitalisation the university offered me mitigating circumstances. I had no contact after being signed off for a year until I was about to return. After returning to uni I was once again with no university support or guidance. I quickly went downhill again and was hospitalised again. And again. Uni were good in a crisis, they helped me with the interruptions of study but no longer term support was offered.

Now througout this my uni GP was excellent. After receiving no support prior to my first hospitalisation I had been seeing my GP fortnightly to talk and have some general support. 

I think what I’m trying to say is there needs to be a more cohesive system of support at universities. It is a vulnerable time in people’s lives. The personal tutor system needs to be upheld and regular meetings a key part of your degree. Personal tutors are supposed to be your first port of call for any personal or academic issue and yet I barely knew mine. And for students who do experience difficulties there needs to be follow on support to ensure that student achieves the best they can at university and doesn’t fall backwards.

Life experience and EDs

When you think of eating disorders what comes to mind? Everyone knows weight change is a side effect of an ED. And we know that food becomes an obsession with EDs and people might struggle with exercise or binge purging or be hospitalised.

But one thing I’m realising that’s really come hand in hand with my eating disorder is how behind my peer group I am.

In some ways I’ve experienced things most people my age can’t imagine- being sectioned, having the police called on me, making serious attempts on my life and nearly succeeding, spending over a year of my life altogether in hospital, going weeks without food and nearly killing myself in the process and being hospitalised miles away from my family.

But being ill for the entirety of my teenage years and especially so during my university years means I have missed out on so much. At the time I didn’t care, I was too immersed in my disorder to worry about everything I missed. Now I’m coming back to life again I’m realising how much I’ve missed. In job interviews when they ask me what did I do over the last few years I don’t have work experience or society memberships to talk about. All I can do is mumble something about being ill and trying to finish my degree.
And at uni I missed out on so much. Whilst my friends got late night takeaways and drank cocktails I either joined in then spent the rest of my night with my fingers down my throat or sat in a corner too scared to let the calories pass my lips. Nights out became impossible because I was too cold and weak to manage being out for any long period of time. I missed the celebrations of finishing my degree with friends twice and have watched two graduation ceremonies I should have been at pass me by whilst I sat in hospital or at home recovering. I missed out on relationships and casual kisses in nightclubs and dancing the night away. I missed uni balls and patrons dinners. I went from getting firsts to 2:1s and then 2:2s. I lived in the library but only because it was warm and I couldn’t eat in there. I missed weekends away with societies and meals with my flatmates. I didn’t get summer internships because I was too busy self destructing.

If I could go back and stop myself from getting an eating disorder I would. But I can’t. So I shall take the life experience it’s given me and try to make up all I’ve lost to it whilst things are good.

Endings

Last June I was on the home straight of my degree. I was finally about to complete it and be done with my time at Imperial as a microbiology student. I should have been excited, planning the life I would lead. Instead I was visiting two or three pharmacies a day buying packets of paracetamol, sleeping in bed sheets crusted with blood where I’d opened deep wounds on my arms each night and fielding daily visits from the crisis team. Meanwhile I was going into university and completing days in the lab followed by hours writing my dissertation and presenting as a normal slightly stressed student to my supervisors.
Truth was I was planning to kill myself on the 6th June- the day I would complete my degree. In my mind my degree was the final loose end to tie up. To make everything neat and completed before I killed myself.

Yesterday I sat in an office presenting my dissertation to two academics. I ran through my PowerPoint and then was questioned, intensely, on aspects of my project and my entire degree. I would love to say it went well but my anxiety hijacked the meeting and I clammed up. Still I came out of the meeting and it hit me.

I’ve finished my degree. And I’m still alive.

The thought should bring me elation and gladness. Two years ago I was dying of self inflicted starvation. 7 months ago I was stockpiling for an overdose. I’ve been on self destruct for so long I don’t know how to feel now. I still feel very similar in terms of thoughts and mood. But I feel trapped in that if I act on those thoughts I would destroy my family. I’ve finished my degree and I’m still alive. And I don’t know how to live with that. I’m glad and I’m terrified and I’m angry. I don’t want to be like this but I can feel myself spiralling again.

The difference this time is I’m asking for help. It’s just getting people to hear me is hard. I saw the ED services on Friday and the overriding message was that unless I stabilise my weight, bloods, mood, self harm, purging, eating and suicidal thoughts before I start treatment I will be discharged as they’ll be unable to offer effective treatment. But no one can offer me any ways to help me do that. My CMHT team is moving my treatment to a different county team due to my postcode so I’m losing the CPN I’m only just beginning to trust. I’m trying to tell people I’m falling again but it’s so hard to be heard.