Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Reflections on life as an undergraduate

- Charlotte Hardy

As a postgraduate doing a full time Masters I anticipated this to be difficult after a four year break from academic life. This summer will mark five years since I obtained my BA and attended the graduation ceremony. That summer day when I donned the gown and threw my grad cap up in the air with my cohort, I should have been happy and relieved to have made it through four years of essays, exams, a year abroad in Australia at the University of Sydney alongside a battle with depression and social anxiety. 

Five years ago I wrote in my diary that life was a series of nibbles, starters, mains and desserts. In your life you decide what you want to ‘eat’ every day and sometimes you feel more adventurous and might try new food. You’ll find some which you will like more than others. 

Up until this point I had enjoyed the following ‘dishes’: my nibbles were a mix of work experience and teaching English in Thailand; the starter: my year abroad in Australia, my main was finishing my BA: tasting different flavours through the dish- or more precisely balancing my academic and social life. I was undecided on my dessert but went for a series of mini chocolates or more specifically, a range of internships. 

Yet amidst the recession I wasn’t sure what my long term future looked like. All I could think about was the fact that I had graduated with a 2:2 and wasn’t able to do a Masters as most universities accepted a ‘good first degree’, which in my mind was a solid 2:1 or a first. While I appreciate a lot of people do get 2:2 and do well in their future, five years ago I felt I had failed. I let myself down, my family down and was clearly stuck in a rut. It didn’t matter that I was first person to attend university in my family and that I had done it. The sense of failure ruined any cause for celebration.

In the months that followed I scrutinised my academic writing playing out different scenarios in my head… what if I worked harder, sought more support, not gone abroad, etc. Turning over all the things I would do things differently if I could turn back the clock. It didn’t help that I was playing the comparison game; comparing myself to my friends who had graduated a year before, many settled into a Masters or at least content with the way life was in that given moment. To be honest: I wanted to have what they had: a Masters and a job that paid the bills. Back in the summer of 2010 my dream of doing a Masters appeared out of reach. Never mind applications to graduate schemes, even though I could bypass some of earlier stages of the application process with my disabilities under their guaranteed interview status. I felt dejected and disillusioned. 

If I could tell my younger self what I know now, it would have been this:

“Even though you still refuse to look at your graduation pictures, you did it. Ok, life as an undergraduate was not without its challenges: settling into uni after you changed institutions, starting a conversation with people you’ve never met, (the most terrifying thing) and in the process maintain it so you made friends. You did well controlling your social anxiety, completing the assignments, reading and balancing your social life. You can’t ignore the fact that uni did stress you out, or that you were in dark places and did attempt suicide. You know what they say: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. There is no need to dwell on what got you into those dark places. Just acknowledge that you got through it. Those dark days passed with time because you sought help. When you did your friends were there, uni counselling services were there, your family was there and God found you. You were never alone even when you felt depressed, isolated and alone. Your past is in the past. Your future looks bright. Hold on to the memories, good and bad. Cherish the year abroad in Australia and the friends you made along the way.

Ps: 4th May 2014- Time to get yourself prepared for September, it will come in no time at all. You’ll be back at uni again doing what you thought you’d never be able to do: your MA. Go girl. So proud of you.”

Over five years I have enjoyed many ‘meals’. I have savoured different life experiences and learnt what I like and don’t like. I am enjoying a different meal now- my MA and so far it’s been tasty. So don’t be afraid to try different dishes and experience the flavours, you may be surprised and enjoy it and if you do, don’t forget you can ask for a takeaway!

Friday, 27 March 2015

Vivid Panic: A Personal Story of Panic Attacks

- Joss

I am a student at the University Of Cumbria. This is a personal view on my world around me as a 2nd year Outdoor Education student, but I don’t believe it differs to many other students with similar stories. Note, I did not call it a problem. I have never called it problem, a hurdle may be, but never a problem. What I have learned since starting university, is that it really is a microcosm for life. Its changes from semester to semester are so rapid, that my head may as well be in second week of first year. It’s a blur, a ever changing blur. I seriously can say that not one week is similar to the next. Sure the Netflix, dark rooms and cold showers may seem a tad repetitive but I can safely say that there is an event that changes my view on the world every seven days. My hair has been lower than my shoulders and way above the ears, I have stopped smoking, started smoking, stopped it again, smoked weed, stopped it, started it, stopped it, drank more than even the stereotype suggests. I have felt, low, high and downright confused. It’s a full frontal scene, it’s like someone has opened a can of exploding paint in my eyes. It’s brilliant. But it is exhausting. Admittedly it’s a tiring way to live. I can look forward, I can look back, but sometimes the here and now is just as scary as the future or past will ever be. I have, become oversensitive, not sensitive enough, calm, anxious and even depressed? I have jumped from one group of friends to another, gaining differing snippets of life every time, from a spiritual group, to rugby lads, to music enthusiasts to Mountain bikers, to rock climbers. I can safely say that they are all my friends. But where do you place yourself? Have I spread myself too thinly? The very thought of the here and now scares me. It’s overwhelming, Its giving me a choking feeling, can I breathe, what if I cough will that make me feel better? Why are my hands shaking, am I having a heart attack, a asthma attack? Why have I forgotten how to breathe? Why does everything seem so unreal? Like I looking at me from inside me? Like I am looking at the future, past and present all at the same time? Breathe. Do not let it overwhelm you this time. Listen to some loud music, drink some water. You’re not going to die, this has happened more that hundred times. You are bigger than this? How can I be feeling all of this and yet seem so calm from the outside? Oh, it’s over. Don’t think that! It will start again!

This is me on a daily basis. I am slowly, day by day beating it, writing this is hard, makes me feel tense. But I have learned many lessons with this. You can’t figure life out. You’re not crazy, and you’re not dying. It is simply defensive. Against what? It doesn’t matter, just go with it. Talk, to people, and tell people, Laugh it off. Most of all accept change. Accept that it’s going to happen, and don’t get yourself into a rut, do not tuck yourself away because it’s easier.

Panic attacks will happen. The more you get out the more you will get used to them. It is not nice, but I can tell you this now. You are not alone. In anyway. People scoffed at me when I said I was anxious and was having panic attacks. ‘But you’re so positive!’ It means squat when it comes to my head. It’s all over the place. Don’t let it define you. But let people know. So, Fight or Flight? There is always more than two options. For the only thing that is constant is change. Change with it.

Support Joss, the author of this blog, as he trains to climb the Matterhorn to raise money for Student Minds, by visiting his fundraising profile here: ow.ly/KK4OO

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Taking on the Fleet Half Marathon

- Vicky Gall, Volunteer Coordinator at Student Minds

Three members of the Student Minds team, Rosie, Rosanna and I, took on the Fleet Half Marathon on the 22nd March 2015 to raise money for our charity.

The suggestion was made back in October that this may be something we should think about doing. Following a couple of 4km runs I thought “why not push myself, let’s do this!” Having run with the idea for a couple of months I managed to convince Rosie and Rosanna that this was a great challenge and would (if conquered) be an amazing personal achievement. Following a couple of short runs (they felt long at the time) it began to feel like something that, although a long way off, could be achievable! After all, the 12 week training plan didn’t need to start until the end of December, we were doing ‘extra’ training in advance of the real thing!

The 29th December marked the beginning of our 12 week training plan. Some would say it was a ridiculous date to start, who does anything in the week between Christmas and New Year? Not us however. We popped our trainers on and, in our respective locations, set out on a 30 minute run. Following the break, back in Oxford we began building our social calendars around the running commitments. Group dinners after runs and the odd trip to a new location for a long Sunday run helped to build team spirit, keep the excitement building and silence the negativity that we all experienced at some point.

Week 8’s long Sunday run got bumped to a Monday morning out of the office following a weekend of peer support volunteer training. With no route decided and us all feeling a little exhausted and less than confident about the 10 mile target, we set out in the rain for what was (regrettably) to be our longest run before the race. A jog through Marston, Summertown and into Wolvercote saw us at the top of Port Meadow. With the sun now shining there were two options; down the canal or a little further to run next to the river in Port Meadow. Having made it this far, we opted for the longer run in true ‘half marathon athlete’ style. We left the metalled pavements, slipping and sliding along the river bank back towards the centre of town. One hair-tree entanglement later we found the path and began a puddle dodging game. Each of us by this point was experiencing aches and pains, the town centre really couldn’t come quickly enough!

The next scheduled long run came on the Sunday of week 10 but was once again rescheduled for the Monday of week 11. Rosie and I headed to Blenheim for a mindful run around the gardens taking in the scenary with the promise of a cream tea at the end! Having struggled with injury the previous time we went to Blenheim, I found this run incredibly difficult mentally with a few niggling pains not helping. In some ways, I was defeated before I began but with Taylor Swift blaring I powered through, not to the 12 mile training plan target but to the 9 mile personal goal.

Race day came around far too quickly with a mix of feelings; dread and nerves of the longest run we were yet to complete, excitement for it to be over, regret for not sticking to the plan and of course motivation to overcome the final hurdle and raise lots of money for the cause we all feel so passionately about!

At the start line, following a #startinglineselfie we got chatting to the people around us. What struck us all throughout was the friendly nature of these events - people pulled together to motivate one another throughout the difficult periods and celebrate the small wins with one another. Local people and supporters turned up to cheer from the side-lines, with local clubs helping in the distribution of water at various points along the course.

With a strategy in place to help limit the amount of talking completed, we played  game in which a conversation topic was suggested, time given for thought and then short sentence responses given (What would you do if you won £1million?). By 6 miles we were glad the strategy was in place, we were starting to tire and needed all the energy we had! Rosanna sped off here to conquer the distance as quickly as possible (an impressive 10 minutes quicker than the stragglers). Rosie and I powered on with the mind-set of slow and steady!  Our legs felt heavy and at 9 miles we were in need of an energy boost but soon enough jelly babies were handed out!

With the injection of some music at the 11 mile mark, Rosie found a new lease of life and with a spring in her step started singing and dancing her way towards the finish line. Now struggling to be mindful and take in my surroundings I began to flag. We were so close and yet it felt so far. As we approached the last mile, more people were around cheering and clapping (or walking home medal in hand!). This really did help give us the boost we needed. When we reached the final two corners where friends and family stood cheering us on and taking photographs, we knew we could do it. Into the home straight we used the last of our energy for a sprint finish! Collecting our medals and various goodies seems now to be a bit of a blur.

We staggered to the car having met all our very enthusiastic supporters and ventured on to the reception generously coordinated by the Matthew Elvidge Trust. With so much ongoing support from the trust, following a refuel on the delicious food available, Rosie and I took over the mic along with other charities supported by the trust to let all in attendance know a little more about what we do and how invaluable the support of the trust really is!

The realisation that it is done and all that training was worth it is still sinking in. For all it was a major achievement, I am incredibly proud of the whole team for the hours put into training, the morale boosting throughout and the incredible fundraising effort raising a total of £2,320!

What to do with all our free time now? Who knows? A couple of runs a week maybe and some relaxing yoga, swimming or something completely new!

If you'd like to raise money for Student Minds by taking on a endurance challenge, visit our Fundraising page to find out how fundraising works and get some ideas on what kinds of things you could do!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

A Letter to Me a Year Ago

- Rachel Stanley

One of the most frustrating things to hear when you’re suffering from depression is “it will get better”. How do you know?! Why should I trust you?! Why aren't things good now?! This is why when I was asked to write a ‘compassionate letter’ to myself during CBT sessions late last year, I was reluctant. When you are your own worst enemy, it is really tough to hear other people tell you you’re not so bad, but trying to convince yourself is even worse. 

Recently I came across some photos of me from about a year ago. I still had my braces on, and it made me realise how much can change in a year. I decided to try again with the idea of writing a letter - but not a compassionate one. Instead, it would be a reflective one, looking back at the past year. I wouldn't have to tell myself about all the things I can do, because I would be reflecting on what I had actually done. I wouldn't need to talk myself up and feel like I was lying to myself, because I would be looking at actual evidence from my own life. 

Writing a reflective letter encouraged me to look back at the good and the bad from a new perspective. It also offered a feeling of hope for this coming year and made me think about how much I’ve got through without giving myself any credit. Because this letter reflects on my own experiences, it’s easier - I’m not telling myself how great I am, I’m showing myself how my life has changed and how I’ve grown. 

Ultimately, I realised how much I’ve overcome without even realising. It’s not easy to give yourself a pat on the back; sometimes praising yourself seems forced and wrong. But writing this letter did feel different. It felt rewarding and I’d really encourage you to give it a go. Respect your experiences and include whatever you want. Try and use a positive outlook but don’t brush over the negatives - all of your thoughts and feelings are valid, and no one else has to see it anyway. 

If you do decide to write a reflective letter of your own, good luck, and show me if you’d like! Here are a couple of extracts from mine:- 

'It’s going to be okay. School will continue to be awful, but you'll get through it. You’ll have to redo nine months of coursework because it’ll be revealed that teacher you had a funny feeling about will have taught you everything wrong. It’s okay. You’ll take time off school and you’ll end up with an A*. You won’t go to leavers’ prom, and over the summer you’ll begin to forget the faces of the classmates that did you wrong, and it’ll feel good. You’ll start seeing a different therapist soon, one with the NHS in a nice building with a red door. Yasmin is very nice; you’ll like her. She’ll make you go onto the high street without any make up on, so look forward to that. You’ll see her all summer, right up until you turn 18. When you leave she’ll give you a big pack of worksheets to help you, because she cares.' 

'You’ll go to university in September - you’ll get your first choice for halls of residence. You’ll be in a flat with seven other people and two of these will become your best friends. They’ll teach you so many things about being a better person, and sometimes their kindness will frustrate you. You’ll learn from them to appreciate everything, to always look out the window on a train, to keep a notebook full of thoughts and scribbles, and to take lots and lots of photos. You’ll rediscover photography. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, because A-level photography has been torture. But you’ll finally learn how to use your film camera on manual, and your photos will be good. You’ll be proud of them. You’ll feel so completely done with being scrutinised and marked, that your photographs will be the only thing in your life where you don't care what other people think. That is freedom.’ 

‘You’ll do just fine at university; your marks for the first term will average at a 2:1. It won’t be a fun term. You’ll be scrambling about, worrying about if you’re doing this ‘living’ thing right’, and you’ll go to your tutor crying at one point. The politics module will make you a very sad person. You’ll have money troubles, but you’ll find some inventive ways to save. You’ll make best friends with Poundland and Iceland and you’ll buy baby wipes instead of face wipes and men’s shaving cream rather than women’s shaving cream. It’ll take you far too long to realise that Pizza Hut’s gluten free pizza is the best thing in the whole world, and you’ll somehow survive the whole of term one using only paper plates. You’ll make the most of London, and you’ll absolutely love it. You’ll be going out every weekend - Friday and Saturday - and you’ll be at the pub or with friends in the week, too. There are a few things you’ll experience that will feel like the worst thing in the world, but then you’ll get to a point where you realise that in the end it all blurs and sort of mushes together and shapes you as a person.’

Friday, 20 March 2015

How to make a decision about mental health medication

- Rosemary Harris

I’ve always been a Googler. I, for example, recently convinced myself I have alopecia, diabetes and/or a brain tumour. For the record I have none of these. I do, however, suffer from depression and anxiety. If you’re anything like me, getting to this diagnosis involved a lot of internet searching (“am I going crazy?” being my low point), before ending up at the doctor. Once you understand the diagnosis you will likely be offered anti-depressants, particularly if you are in the middle if you are approaching an important deadline – I was 2 months from my dissertation deadline and having to spend 8-hour days in the lab. 

Making the decision over whether you want or are ready to take medication can be difficult. There are a whole host of reasons why people do/don’t take them and this blog post is absolutely not about trying to tell you what to do. For the record I initially resisted taking them until I spent a night staving off a panic attack on Skype to a friend in a far-off country at 3am, and being on medication is on the whole working out well for me. But you have to be ready. 

Not going on them initially wasn’t necessarily the wrong decision – but it was made for the wrong reasons. When faced with the difficult decision I spent hours on Google looking up side-effects and people’s experiences. The internet can be a hugely valuable resource, and has allowed for websites such as this to open up a whole world of support for people struggling with mental health problems. The downside is that there are also some scary places. Bad experiences and scare stories are much more appealing reads for newspapers and magazines, and forums are often places that people go to vent and tell people about a scary experience, sometimes with a little added “dramatic flair”. So having gotten carried away reading all these stories, and not turning to people or places that would have really helped, I turned down medication because I was scared.

This isn’t to say that the internet can’t be a valuable resource, this blog alone, for example, provides so much to people who are struggling. So in light of the above, here are some avenues that can be truly helpful when trying to make a decision about your treatment: 
  • First and foremost, talk to your GP or specialist. They will have the most information and likely have heard your questions before. If you have a lot of questions maybe write them down before you go so you don’t forget – the ‘Doc Ready’ app can really help with this. 
  • Talk to a friend. I found once I started confiding in people about my own mental health problems, so many came out of the woodwork with their own experiences. They can’t give you a professional advice, but talking to someone with some experience that you know has your best interests at heart can be very helpful. 
  • NHS choices has a lot of information about mental health problems, and a whole page devoted to antidepressants 
  • HeadMeds is a website launched by the Young Minds charity with information and student stories relating to many different medications. They went through an intensive process in order to set up the website, and provide information on this, including focus groups with young people to find out what would be most helpful for them. 
  • Students against Depression also has a help sheet on the pros and cons of medication – though it’s important to remember in these cases that not everyone will experience the same, if any, downsides. 
  • Most of these websites also have stories of other students who have suffered from depression, which can always provide comfort at times when you feel most isolated and alone. 
Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that this is your choice - and all you can do is arm yourself with as much information as possible to make the correct decision for you!

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Depression: What I learned

- Tammy

I often asked myself why it is okay to talk about your flu, your injured arm or that one time you drank too much and blacked out, while depression is something we hide from everyone. We pretend to smile - in front of strangers, friends and loved ones. I then questioned if talking about depression brings shame or embarrassment to the person who has it. I myself have suffered from depression for almost 7 years now; it was not always the same, sometimes I get better and then I get worse. But I am still alive today and I am glad to be writing this so that whoever reads it finds some encouragement. Even if you don’t I hope it helps you feel that you are not alone.

Here is something I have learned from my depression: it does not define who you are, it is part but not all of you.

Depression is not a choice. We do not wake up one day and choose to stay in bed the whole day and then for the rest of the year too. We do not choose to lie in bed feeling nothing but tears streaming down our face (when our pillows get too wet we turn them upside down and start crying again). We do not choose to create scenarios of what will happen if we step outside our houses, our rooms, our beds; of how people can spot the sadness behind our smiles and that they will leave us eventually. We are sorry for those times we made plans and then cancelled out on you 30 minutes before the date because we could not leave the house, for ignoring your texts even though we saw them for a few hours, for the mean things we said but did not mean. We had long conversations about our feelings and breakdowns but really we just wanted someone to lay our heavy heads on.

I feel that there are many others out there who suffer and personally my words might not be any help because once you are depressed you think the world is ending and by staying under the cover somehow you’d be safe. It is not true. I myself have days where all I do is stay in bed and feel sorry for myself. My depression is also associated with other mental health difficulties but I am writing this because I want to let you know that it will get better. This is not just an expression: it is true because I have better days where I did not have to hide my depression, days where we were not enemies. Instead, we were friends, and depression helps me realise I will be okay as long as I can breathe. Please love your body, your hair, your smile; love yourself because if you have nothing else, you have yourself.

For more messages of hope from people who have experienced depression, check out the It Gets Brighter campaign. For more information on depression and how to overcome it, visit Students Against Depression.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Sunderland's 100 Hour Challenge

The 100 Hours Challenge was launched this year, and is a challenge to groups to raise £100 in 100 hours for student mental health. Dozens of Student Minds groups, RAGs and student accommodation halls took part in the challenge, and with lots of creative money-raising ideas coming out of it, Vicky from the national Student Minds team interviewed Demi from Sunderland Thinking Ahead to see how they tackled the challenge. We hope this gives you some ideas for future fundraising efforts!

Vicky: Hi Demi, and a huge thank you for everything you’ve been up to over the past few weeks! 

Before we kick off and find out a little about what is it that you did to raise your grand total, could you tell us a little about yourself and what motivated you to both volunteer for Student Minds and to take on the 100 Hours Challenge?

Demi: Hi everyone! I became involved with Student Minds when a lecturer approached me and asked if taking over an already existing mental health awareness group was something I would be interested in. I jumped at the chance as mental health awareness was something I have always been particularly passionate about. I arranged a meeting with the girl who was currently running the group and after a chat I was even more interested in getting involved. I also asked a friend, Emma, to come along too and she also really wanted to get involved. So we took over the group, gave it a little revamp and set on our way. It has now been a year and a half that I have been running this group and I am so proud of how far it has come. From what started as a small group of just me and Emma, is now a fantastic blossoming group with over 10 volunteers and is also recognised by many students on campus. 

When we heard about the 100 hours challenge we thought this was a great opportunity to have some fun and raise money for Student Minds. We have done a lot of fundraising in the past from giving up chocolate for a month to film nights which we have always enjoyed doing. I messaged the group and said there has been a challenge set by Student Minds, is anyone interested? And immediately the volunteers were really enthusiastic and giving ideas on what we could do. From this, we set up a meeting to formally plan the events. 

Vicky: We’d be really interested to hear a little about all the different events that the group has put on over the 100 Hours fundraising push.

Demi: The fundraising events we decided to run were a film night, a raffle and a bake sale. 

We decided on a film night because our last one had been very successful, lots of people had attended and it really gave our group a name on campus. Similarly, our following on the Internet also increased because of the event. Therefore, we thought the 100 hour challenge was providing us with the perfect opportunity to run another. We chose the film The Perks of being a Wallflower because we thought it was a great film that many students could relate to with it being about students and it also covers the topic of mental health which was perfect since the film night ran on University Mental Health Day. Lots of students came along and we had a fantastic night! 

For our raffle, this event took a lot of organising. Thankfully our volunteers were on the ball, especially our volunteer Myia, and managed to collect lots of raffle prizes. We managed to get donated a sweetie hamper, a bath hamper, a photography shoot, a student’s union hoodie, gift sets, sweets and jewellery. We gathered much more than we ever thought we would which made us extremely happy. People really got involved with the raffle too making it our most successful event during the 100 hours challenge. Not only did we let people buy tickets by coming to the stall but we set up an online donation page and told people that for every £1 they donated their name would be entered into the raffle. This was great because it allowed students on other campuses and ones who could not make the event join in as well – which meant more donations being collected too! 

The final event we ran was a bake sale, which was also great fun! We had run bake sales in the past including a depressed cake shop. We love baking so not only do we have fun cooking and decorating the cakes, but also it is great to engage with students and chat about our group and what we do at these events. Also, a lot of people ask us about Student Minds which is fantastic to be spreading the word about such an amazing charity too. Alongside our cake sale we had an information board with information for students on anxiety and OCD so students had the opportunity to learn and be made more aware of mental health. We always like to make our events informative but whilst keeping it fun too. So we made all our information short and decorated the cork board with little bubbles of information. Colour is really important to attract students too! And I guess the cakes helped a lot in getting people over to see what was going on… 

Overall we raised just short of £70, although we didn’t hit the target of £100 we are still extremely happy with that total. Especially as it has pushed our grand total more towards our first goal of raising £500 for Student Minds!

Vicky: That sounds like a hectic few days, a huge well done! What was the highlight for you and what ensured all the efforts contributed to the overriding success? 

Demi: I think the highlight for us was just all the fun we had. It was great to see our plans turn into actual events that students got involved with. Especially the film night, students really seemed to enjoy coming along to that and it had such a positive vibe. Seeing students enjoy our events really makes doing this so worthwhile as we are having fun whilst raising awareness of mental health. 

Did you learn anything new/realise anything you weren’t expecting? OR If you were to have a conversation with someone/a group that was thinking of taking on the challenge, what would you say? (any key things that it made you think/realise/consider. Is there anyone who really helped you through the challenge? It is time to name those really impressive people who you couldn’t have done it without) 

For any group who is thinking of taking on a similar challenge I will say it takes a lot of time to plan the events and to run them, so pick a week in your calendar which is quite empty so you have a lot of free time for organisation as things can get very hectic! Of course because Thinking Ahead has such wonderful volunteers all the work was spread out evenly so no one became overwhelmed. Teamwork is definitely the most important part of running an event like this. Without our amazing volunteers we wouldn’t be able to run such great events.

Vicky: Incredible, a massive thank you on behalf of the whole Student Minds team! 

The Student Minds team would like to say a huge thank you to everybody who took part in the 100 Hours Challenge. We're a small charity that has some very big and exciting plans in the pipeline. Your fundraising efforts will help us achieve lots of exciting things over the next years and reach more and more people who need help. Have a look at our objectives for the next three years here, and find out how to take on the 100 Hours Challenge here.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Sound Of The Silence

I find it absolutely bizarre when I hear about people refusing to believe that mental health problems are a real issue, and not just a name for a teenage, dark fringed fan of My Chemical Romance. I don’t mean to say that all 15 year old ‘emos’ believe they have mental health problems, nor do I mean to say that none of them do. I’m just baffled by the proportion of people who will assume that if, and only if, you fit this stereotype will you be bound to suffer from mental health issues.

To me it’s almost as strange as people who’ve never stumbled across mental illness in themselves, or their friends. I’ve suffered from depression on some level previously. But thanks to being in a friendship group that’s very open with their feelings, I knew that I was far from being alone. I’d guesstimate that coming up to 50% of close friends I know have suffered from some form of mental health issue at some point in their lives, ranging from bipolar disorder and depression, to anorexia and anxiety, to someone getting committed into a psychiatric unit at one stage as they’d become delusional.

I refuse to believe that I act as some sort of magnet for people with mental health issues. And the stats hasten to agree with this. Did you know 1 in 4 people will suffer from some kind of mental health issue over the course of a year? Not even their life - a year! And I think people not realising that ‘being depressed’ or whatever doesn’t have to be a permanent lifelong state is perhaps half the reason why people are skeptical of it. If you see someone claim to be depressed a few months later seem happy as Larry, then I believe people are prone to writing off the depressed phase as an over reaction.

I’m currently pretty happy with my life. I’m working well, I have a good friendship circle, a relationship that’s still in the happy honeymoon period, and as a whole, I’m really enjoying uni life. However, if you’d have talked to me a few years ago you would have got a completely different impression. You’d have seen me crying at frequent intervals for absolutely no discernable reason that you could make out from the situation, or even that I could tell you. Half the time I had nothing to attribute my tears to, other than an encompassing feeling of unhappiness. You’d have noticed I’d lost a decent amount of weight, and that I claimed to feel nauseous when I was faced by my concerned parents with meals. I’d have been a lot quieter, a lot less confident, and a lot less engaged by anything we were supposedly doing together. Hell, a lot of the time my close friends spent with me at that time was spent in absolute silence because I had nothing to say. You might have noticed, should you have for whatever reason been allowed to see them, that I had fresh scars stretched around my thighs that made me flinch when I leant against something. My extended family expressed concerns to my parents that they thought I becoming a drug addict. In reality I was just incredibly unhappy.

It didn’t last too long. Not really. Five months or so. But I worry that for a person at the moment to say ‘I’m depressed’, leaves people thinking that it’s a lifelong sentence. It’s not. I mean people can suffer from depression all of their lives, but it’s not a necessity to being depressed. According to mentalhealth.org, 50% of people who experience a mental health problem, will no longer be experiencing it after 18 months. My friends know that although I can be prone to being down, it’s not a constant state of mind for me. However, this needs to become a more widespread fact. People are still unwilling to acknowledge mental illness, or talk about their problems with it. And so it’s still regarded as a novel thing for someone to admit they have a mental health problem. And believe me it’s not an abnormal thing to have.  Mental illness is an incredibly common occurrence that absolutely anyone can suffer from - Rich, poor, black, white, boy, girl, it doesn’t matter. It’s also common enough that you’re incredibly likely to encounter it at some point in your life, be it through yourself or a friend suffering. The scarier thought is that you’ll encounter it and either you or whoever else will not feel confident talking about it. Because so many people remain silent about their experiences. Because bottling up and suffering alone surely  has to be the worst thing.

And so I’m hoping these blogs will make it easier to avoid that. I’m hoping that seeing other people - other students - write about their experiences with mental health will make it easier for others to do the same. I can’t see any other way than being completely open about mental health problems to fully get rid of any stigma still lingering around the problem. The uncomfortable silence surrounding mental health experiences needs to be broken.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

How to cope with homesickness on your Year Abroad

- Trisha Mukerjee

Being away from home does seem exciting, but once you cross the bridge, you realise what home really means to you. In the first year of living abroad, homesickness is quite natural for students. It's important to remember that this is an important part of growing up and becoming independent.  This feeling of missing home needs to be acknowledged in a constructive way and then work towards curbing and turning it into a strength rather than a reason to give up.

While at the time of your lowest, moving back home might seem tempting and it would require some sort of patience to keep a hold on to this feeling. Here are a few ways to help with the feeling of homesickness.

1. Take the initiative to make new friends: When you are in a different country, you should make sure that you take the initiative to make new friends. Even if you feel left out, and find it quite difficult to make friends, it's worth it - friends are so important! No matter how difficult is it, it's worth making the effort and taking the first step.

You could do any of the following:

  • Invite people over or go out with your classmates; make an effort to introduce yourself,

  • Mix in a diverse crowd! Going abroad is an opportunity to meet people you would never have met back home - so embrace it and don't let any first impressions stop you from trying to get to know someone.

  • Don't worry if you are naturally an introvert or a shy person - people will still want to be friends with you! People generally gel on well with shy and introvert people; they are often viewed as sympathetic and a termed as good listeners.

  • Lastly, remember that friendships grow gradually. Don't force yourself on someone – let them take time to get to know you.

2. Try to enjoy your own company: At certain times, it really doesn’t matter if you have friends around you or not. Being abroad is also a chance to learn to enjoy your own company, and look after your wellbeing. One of the best ways to avoid being home sick is to be busy. Having a lot on your plate, helps you not to think too much about what you are missing at home You could try doing the following things to keep yourself busy and occupied:

    1. Sports, physical exercise, yoga, dance etc.

    2. Reading, or trying out creative hobbies like photography, writing, drawing etc.

    3. Pick up part time work that you like – this is also another way you could meet new people

    4. Explore your surroundings: When you have nothing better to do, go around the campus, explore every inch of it. Travel around! If you have the money you could even buy a bike, and cycle around.

    5. You could even try some volunteering work. If you're at a university abroad, some campuses have a community development centre, where volunteering opportunities are advertised. Volunteering is a worthwhile activity, but it's also good for your mental health.

3. Stay connected to your family and friends: Never ever lose touch with your family and friends from home. They're a valuable source of support and can really boost your mood if you're down. Whenever you miss them, just Skype or call them. In this digital world, communication has become incredibly easy across international borders.

4. If things are getting really bad, get support. Contact your university support services back at home, and if you're at a university abroad, visit the counselling services. Talk to them, and don’t lose hope. Often, you'll be able to get the support you need without having to come back home, but equally don't feel like you're necessarily making a mistake or 'giving up' by going back - the most important thing is to make sure that you're getting the support you need so that things don't get worse.

Cultivate a social life, keep yourself busy, enjoy course work and always remember – your home is always there for you. Now is the time to grow and spread your wings!

Trisha MukerjeeAuthor Bio: Trisha is a professional writer and adviser on education and careers. She is an ardent reader, a traveller and a passionate photographer. She wants to explore the world and write about whatever comes across her way.

Monday, 9 March 2015

The Value of Peer Support

There is love and support all around you

- Rosie Liddell

In my interactions with young people as a counsellor, I have found that a large part of what helps someone to cope with the difficulties they're experiencing is setting up for them a support network. A support network is a map of anybody that you can talk to and get support from. Not only does it help signpost young people to what help and support is available to them, it also helps to combat feelings of isolation and helplessness. It helps to send a message to that person that whatever they're going through does not have to be something that they struggle with alone; they deserve and can have support.

What constitutes a support network can be a mixture of personal and professional services - family, friends, and counsellors being common sources of support. Importantly, what constitutes part of that network can be peer-support - a method of support whose value should not be underestimated.

I currently help to run a listening service for students that operates as a form of peer-support due to the organisation's volunteers comprising of students. There is something immensely valuable in having and promoting services, such as this, that help to give students the opportunity to speak to someone who is close to you in age about what you are going through. While all of our experiences are going to be in some sense individual, as students we can identify with each on a range of issues relating to life at university. Issues such as academic stress, relationships, university procedures, and house troubles are issues that can affect all of us. As a result, these issues bring us closer together and provide the means for support.

Therefore, while external help from counselling services and other professional services may be helpful, there is a sense in which talking through your experiences with someone who can identify with at least some of what you're going through reinforces the idea that you don't have to struggle all on your own.

If you look at the message boards on the Childline website, you can see a sense of collective support: if a young person has a problem, other young people can provide insight and guidance on how to cope due to the fact that a lot of them have gone through similar things themselves or know someone who has. That sort of support can be invaluable in helping a young person recover.

Peer support is often invaluable to the supporter as well. Students who have volunteered for Nightline or attended a Student Minds peer support group have reported that being in a position to help other students with mental health difficulties has made them feel valued and contributed hugely to their wellbeing. It isn't even necessary that students have the 'solutions' or 'answers' to the difficulties someone is facing - students can play a key role in somebody's recovery just by being there to say that they have been through the same difficulties before and understand what those difficulties are like.

Peer Support Options at University

There are lots of peer support options at university. One option is a listening service for students such as Nightline. There are over 60 Nightlines who provide peer support in the UK. For more information you can look at the Nightline association's website: http://www.nightline.ac.uk. Meanwhile, the helpline GetConnected is a service that connects young people to a specific helpline for support on specific issues: www.getconnected.org.uk.

Student Minds runs a network of peer support groups for eating disorders and depression. These groups are facilitated by trained student volunteers, who are there to listen to the experiences of students attending and ensure that the conversation is pro-recovery. They are an opportunity for students to come to a place where they can talk openly in a safe and non-judgemental environment, and share experiences and coping strategies with other students. More information can be found here: www.studentminds.org.uk/about-our-support-programmes

Finally, for young people up to the age of 19, the Childline Website has a lot of useful information on topics affecting young people, including help in getting support and the message boards provide support and insight from other young people.

For many students, peer support is a vital component of their recovery. For yet more students, peer support is an important way that they can give back to the student community and make use of their experience and position as fellow student. Let's not underestimate the value of peer support - both for the supported, and the supporters.

"Nobody is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another."Charles Dickens

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Eating Disorders: Mythbusting II

- Rose Liddell

Following on from Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I thought it would be appropriate to write an article busting myths about eating disorders. Eating Disorders are probably one of the most controversial mental health difficulties in contemporary society, and as a result many people with eating disorders experience severe stigmatisation and misunderstanding. There are a lot of myths surrounding eating disorders, so this article is about dispelling these myths in the hope that eating disorders can be understood without prejudice and that those suffering from eating disorders are given the same empathy and support as we would expect to have for suffering from any physical illness.

Myth One: Eating Disorders are a lifestyle choice 

One of the most common myths about eating disorders is that eating disorders are similar to going on a diet, there is the misconception that eating disorders are purely about the goal of losing weight and therefore, it is easy for the person suffering from an eating disorder to stop or to decide to eat more to put on weight. Some even have the view that having an eating disorder is merely being vain or "attention seeking", losing weight just to look "thin" or to attract attention to themselves.

Myth-bust: Eating Disorders are not necessarily about the goal of losing weight or trying to be thin. Eating disorders, like many other mental health difficulties, have complex causes and so it's really difficult to try and find one standard trigger or cause for why a person can develop an eating disorder. Furthermore, for many suffering from an eating disorder, it is such a burden that it is often incapacitating, some suffering from an eating disorder are incapable by themselves of putting on the weight that they need to to in order to survive, so in that instance, it can be incredibly hard to stop or eat more when the illness has such a hold on the person. Therefore, having an eating disorder is not something that a person chooses or wants, and it can be incredibly hard to just "deal with" and "get out of". Furthermore, an eating disorder is not merely a "phase" or a "fad" that a person goes through, but a genuine mental health difficulty that should receive empathy and the offer of treatment as with any physical or mental illness.

Myth Two: Eating disorders are just about someone's relationship with food

There is the misconception that an eating disorders is just about the relationship with food, and that the problem of binge eating or perhaps controlling the amount of food that you eat is purely to do with whatever feelings and attitudes a person has towards eating.

Myth-bust: Eating disorders are highly complex and difficult to understand. There are multiple causes and triggers, which means that someone experiencing an eating disorder is not just having nonstandard attitudes towards food. Some eating disorders can arise as a way of coping with a particular external situation that is affecting the person. The ability to control something such as food might be the only way in which a person affected can cope with whatever is happening around them. However, even if we can factor in what is happening in that person's external situation, it is still difficult to pinpoint exactly what brings about an eating disorder.

Myth Three: If someone has an eating disorder, then we should blame the family

Some take the view that someone suffering from an eating disorder has the eating disorder because of their family. They may argue that families cause the person to suffer from an eating disorder and therefore it is the family's fault why someone suffers from an eating disorder in the first place.

Myth-Bust: The idea that it is the family's fault why someone is suffering from an eating disorder is a historical idea that actually is a complete myth and has no factual basis. Eating disorders are genuine mental health difficulties and as a result cannot be in the control of the person suffering or indeed the family.

Eating disorders, like many other mental health difficulties, can place a heavy emotional burden not just on the sufferer but also on their loved ones, and families can often feel powerless watching their loved one suffer as their physical and mental well-being deteriorates whilst being helpless to do anything to stop it. On the other hand, families can actually be key into helping that person recover, and there is lots that they can do to help.

Myth Four: Eating disorders only affect young girls and women

Myth Bust: Whilst statistically, more females appear to suffer from eating disorders than men, at the same time these same statistics clearly show that there are a large number of men who get eating disorders too. Mental health difficulties can affect anyone. They make no discrimination as far as age, race or gender is concerned, so to assume that an eating disorder can only affect females is a fundamental mistake. It may be that statistically more females suffer from eating disorders (why this is we might not understand quite yet), but perhaps part of the reason why statistically women appear to suffer from eating disorders more so than men is that there is much less awareness of men suffering from eating disorders. Perhaps men are less likely to come forward and reveal they have an eating disorder. As a society, we expect eating disorders to affect women more than men, perhaps because of media pressures for women to pay attention to their appearances, and in particular to be "thin", it surprises us when we find that men suffer from eating disorders too. But as discussed previously, eating disorders are not brought primarily due to media pressures or influences to be thin but are a combination of highly complex factors. Most importantly, eating disorders often have a genuine biological basis, which makes onset independent of external environmental factors. What is worth noting is that both for men and women, eating disorders are on the increase. Both men and women with eating disorders should be treated equally with the same degree of empathy and support.

Myth Five: It is easy to tell if someone is suffering from an eating disorder

There is a view that it is easy to identify someone suffering from an eating disorder, due to the fact that there are drastic changes in their weight and appearance to an extent that they don't look "normal".

Myth Bust: Someone does not have to have drastic physical changes in order to have an eating disorder. Those who are bulimic, for example, have a relatively "normal" weight, so someone suffering from an eating disorder cannot necessarily be identified by their size and weight alone. Someone who looks "thin" may not necessarily be suffering from an eating disorder, but someone who looks overweight may be suffering from a compulsive overeating disorder. Therefore, the view that it is easy to tell if someone is suffering from an eating disorder is mistaken.

Eating disorders can be highly challenging to a person's physical, mental and emotional well-being. It's important to recognise all aspects of what someone with an eating disorder is going through, rather than just focussing on the physical effects, the effects you might be able to see. Eating disorders should be taken very seriously, as should any other mental health difficulties.

This doesn't mean that it is impossible for a person to recover, given the right support and treatment. By becoming aware of eating disorders and their complex nature, we can help to reduce the stigma surrounding eating disorders and create a better understanding of how eating disorders work. That way, we'll be able to give more effective help and support to those who are suffering.

Check out Student Minds' resources on understanding eating disorders and how to a friend or close one with an eating disorder: www.studentminds.org.uk/understanding-eating-disorders.html

B-eat is an eating disorders charity in the UK with information and resources on eating disorders: www.b-eat.co.uk 

Information about eating disorders and common myths can also be found on the National Institute of Mental Health's website at http://www.nimh.nih.gov.

There is also information and advice for support on the Alliance for Eating Disorders website which can be found at the address: http://www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com.

For children and young people suffering from eating disorders, Childline also offers help and support as well as information about eating disorders for young people. 

For men with eating disorders, check out Men Get Eating Disorders Too: http://mengetedstoo.co.uk/

Monday, 2 March 2015

Dear My Previous Self...

Dear my previous self - getting personal

- Ruth Beacon

The post you are about to read is a little different from the rest. This is a letter that I wish I would of read at the beginning of my recovery. It is written to my former self, not knowing where or what was happening. These are things that I now know and have learnt.

This is for all those in recovery- inpatient, outpatient, discharged from adult eating disorder specialist, those freshly diagnosed with an eating disorder; at university or home.


Dear my previous self,

You may feel completely lost, confused and lifeless. That is the reality of an eating disorder. It isn’t a glamorous illness. I know you are cold (from the bone), constantly hungry, and lonely.

I want you to know that the pain you cannot describe does fade. The bigger your life gets, the smaller anorexia becomes.

There are a few things that I want to tell you, remember:

  • Recovery is worth it: Every tear, mouthful and psychology session is going to be worth it. Once you experience life again you will realise that there is more to life than anorexia. Having the freedom to think beyond rituals and rules feels liberating, living a ‘normal’ life seems in reach.

  • You are amazing just the way you are: Think about all those people that love you; send you encouraging texts, messages and cards. They love you for your personality and all your quirky bits. Inner beauty shines out.

  • Scared? Nervous? Fearful? That is ok: These feelings are natural and are to be expected. Change is scary! Change means facing your fears, talking about feelings that you want to hide and gaining weight. Recovery is worth it! as who wants to fear food?

  • Listen to medical professionals and those around you: Medical professionals have had years and years of training, they know what they are talking about. LISTEN and TRUST them. You are not the first anorexic they have seen and the medical professionals have watched people recover and live their lives. Family and friends only want to see you get the help you need, so take on board their advice. Ultimately, it is up to you.

  • You can live without anorexia: Anorexia holds you back, lies, manipulates you, stops you living your life and it dominates completely. You probably think you cannot live without it, but you can, there are coping mechanisms that really really help. It's power over you diminishes and you become more in control of the eating disorder (and not the other way around).

  • You are not alone: I know you feel alone and the only person there has ever been to suffer with an eating disorder. However, there are lots and lots of people who suffer with eating disorders,  you are not isolated in this (side note: I have made lots of new friends from being an inpatient and there is a bond because we have all been through the same thing and kept each other strong).

  • This experience is not wasted: You may not believe this now but you will be grateful for all you have been through. It has made you realise what is important in life and you can empathise with people who are going through similar situations. You may be the one giving advice in the future!

  • Hope: There is a light at the end of the tunnel, life becomes brighter again. You realise there is hope. People teach you this and you realise this for yourself. Hope is what drives you to keep going. It is a beautiful feeling.

  • You are strong: Only one person has got you through this and that is YOU. You are the one who has worked so incredibly hard, you deserve happiness and you are STRONG.

Love, Ruth x

This blog was written for Eating Disorders Awareness Week. You can find other inspirational stories of recovery on the Student Minds website, as well as information about where to get support if you are experiencing an eating disorder at university.