Monday, 30 November 2015

Give the gift of self care this Christmas

Grace writes about how going home for the holidays can be a stressful, and the importance of self care. 

 - Grace Anderson 

Christmas; a happy time of year with lots of festive fun and a good time to be had by all. This is the view that is ingrained into us from a young age. Although, as the winter holiday season approaches some people may be anticipating a less than happy Christmas. Many people struggle with this festive time of year. Struggle with the countless events planned, socialising, affording Christmas presents and activities, unrealistic expectations, being sad in a time when everyone is expecting you to be happy.

All this pressure to be “merry” and “happy” may be too much for some, and can even lead you to breaking point. The holidays can be stressful and disappointing at the best of times for anyone, regardless of if you are experiencing mental health problems. However, these mental health problems may make the experience more difficult. If you are experiencing depression, the idea of doing festive things is beyond overwhelming. Attending many social events if you are experiencing anxiety may be terrifying.

If this person is you, then don’t worry you are not alone and I am sure that you are not the only one struggling with difficulties this Christmas. Don’t let the pressure get to you as holding the belief that you “should” be having fun can actually lead to you feeling worse about Christmas. So get rid of those “shoulds” that come with the holiday season. I give you permission to chuck them in the bin. Do what you want to do over the festive period. And most of all don’t beat yourself up about how you’re feeling, you're entitled to have those feelings.

You don’t have to attend every social event that you are invited to, because having to smile and pretend that everything is ok is draining; it’s ok to say no. However, locking yourself in your room and isolating yourself from everyone can make things harder. Try taking small steps to see one or two people, or even text or speak on the phone and gradually build up to socialising.

I've found that drinking too much alcohol can cause me to feel worse. The tip I'd give would be to keep it to a minimum over the holidays. Who cares if everyone else is drinking, you don’t have to. You need to look after yourself and how you are feeling and not try and fit in with others.

If leaving the house is difficult then buy presents online and have them delivered from your door, not only can you do this from the comfort of your own home but you also avoid the sheer number of Christmas shoppers. Cards can also be ordered online and websites like moon pig and funky pigeon do personalised cards for those people who mean the most to you.

Just remember the sheer stress of the holidays can be too much for anyone, regardless of whether you are experiencing mental health difficulties,  the holidays aren't always easy, but you are not alone.

Keep an eye out for the next Mind Matters email about how to manage mental health during the holidays. 

Why it's okay to make mistakes

Making mistakes is a part of  life, and can really shape your university experience, but it's not all bad...
- Thom Sobey

When I went to university, I had not even considered what I would do if I started to have mental health difficulties. It was something that was not on my radar. I am sure many of you know how I was feeling: I had just finished school, had got into university with some good results and was on a high of leaving home for the first time.

But then some things happened that I wasn't used to: I started to make mistakes. And that is what I want to talk about.

I want to be clear: it is not a reflection on ourselves if we make mistakes that lead us to have mental health difficulties. It is not our fault that we make mistakes sometimes. Life is a long learning process that each of us does individually; we encounter our own challenges and problems.
When we make mistakes, it can be very hard to recover from them, and it can be even harder to admit to ourselves that we have made mistakes. It was a very long and difficult process for me to admit to my own mistakes, and took even longer for me to talk about them to the people who cared about me. But what I didn’t realise is that there are lots of other people who have made mistakes too.

So I started talking about my mistakes. To my family, my friends, even strangers who I had only just met. And the more I talked, the more I found so many people like me who had made mistakes as well.

I began to find it easier to accept my mistakes. And, in turn, it also greatly increased my capacity to accept other people’s mistakes and understand what may have led them to make them. And in turn, they accepted me. Or, more specifically, I felt that more people understood and accepted me for who I was.

The mistakes we make are, a lot of the time, not our fault. University is a very challenging time as we undergo so many changes, the world opens up and things happen that you never expect to. And, it’s okay to make them.

But it’s also okay to talk about them, and the more we do, the more we let ourselves be accepted by other people and, most importantly, ourselves.

Since I have left university I have been thinking about how I can help other people, specifically students, recover from the mistakes they may have made. A huge part of the way in which I was able to accept myself was the people on the other end of the conversation. They listened to me and helped me understand who I am.

They also gave me the understanding that, if I want to help you, one of the best things I can do is listen to you. And I want to thank everyone who I have ever met who has taken the time to listen to me, and who has helped me on my journey to understanding who I am. You really did make a difference and helped me a lot. I am sure there will be many more out there.

And, I guess, that’s all I really want to get across to anyone. That when someone starts talking about mistakes they have made, we listen and try to understand what they may be going through so we can try and help them recover. We should never underestimate the power of a simple conversation and the limits of their comfort zone someone may be going to so they can talk about their mistakes.

One in four people in the UK will have mental health difficulties each year. So when someone, anyone, starts talking to me about their mistakes, I hope that I listen with an open mind and try to understand. And maybe, just maybe, I can help too.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

I'll be there for you: The importance of friendship & support in looking after mental health

Sophie writes about how supporting someone to get through the toughest times of their eating disorder is one of the most rewarding feelings. 
- Sophie Rees

It was the summer after finishing my GCSEs when my Mum and I mutually agreed to go and see a doctor about my eating disorder. Up until this point I had felt as if I had done nothing to harm my health and that I was perfectly fine. After seeing my doctor I had realised that I had enrolled myself into something quite serious and something that I knew would take a considerable amount of time to get out of. Writing this fully recovered four years later, I can confidently say that is was the support of others around me that got me through my recovery. I cannot thank everyone who had helped me enough for their understanding, their patience and their strength. I found that it was the simple, little things they could say or do for me that made me believe I could go on to help myself out of my eating disorder. My little sister’s smile would be of graceful welcome whenever she saw me, my friends would always be there for me whenever I wanted to talk about my problems and even the people I had studied my A levels with who weren't close friends of mine would show that they cared by including me in their conversations and not making a huge fuss about what I was going through.

Whilst I was recovering during my A levels, a close friend of mine had just began a serious stage in her eating disorder and it made me see exactly what I had done before having to motivate myself to recover. After some time in hospital, my friend was back in sixth form and was still battling her eating disorder whilst trying to study. She wasn't as open as I was with other people when she returned so she and I had developed an empathetic bond in our friendship which allowed her to express what she had sometimes felt about her disorder and I explained how by letting others support was what had helped me. Gradually throughout our sixth form years, after I had gone to university and she had taken a gap year, my friend had recovered excellently through the help of others and building of her own motivations to go to university herself. It made me so proud of everything she had achieved and overcome. What is amazing is that only took some time and support from others to set things straight again. In both gaining support for myself and offering it to my friend, I strongly believe that good support can get people through the toughest of situations and motivate them to never give up.​

This December Student Minds is looking to raise £28,000 through public donations to fund a new university peer support programme - Supporting Supporters, which will help students to support friends experiencing self-harm.

We're teaming up with the Big Give to take part in the Christmas Challenge 2015, meaning any donations received on the 4th & 5th December will be doubled. 

To find out more about how you can get involved click here , or check out our video below: 

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Managing Your Mental Health on Your Year Abroad

Kirby reflects on managing anxiety and depression through keeping a travel journal, and developing other personalised techniques to deal with mental health whilst on travelling. 

- Kirby Moore

So far this year, I have travelled around Spain, worked as an Au Pair in Madrid, Seville and Rome and chosen to spend my year abroad in Mexico.

La Finca, Seville
Using my experience, I would like to share some useful travel tips for maintaining a healthy mind, when travelling.

Firstly, I would say that having the diagnosis allowed me to accept myself for who I am. Part of the treatment, was to understand the illness and in doing so, I developed small but effective techniques to manage the irrational thoughts.

Not wanting to be defeated by my illness, I was eager to challenge myself and in Easter, I spent three weeks travelling to Barcelona, Mallorca and spending a few weeks, working with an amazing Spanish family, in Seville and Madrid.

This was my first voyage away, for a while. Although a little apprehensive, my treatment had taught me to focus on the here and now, living in the moment and not thinking about what may or may not happen.

I began to write a travel journal, in order to record not only what I had been doing each day but the thoughts, feelings and emotions I was going through, at the time. Dedicating a time in the day to jot down my thoughts, proved to be an effective way of dealing with any issues faced during that day, allowing me to move on.

Walking around Rome with so much to see

Summer 2015, I found a willing family in central Rome, where I would spend the summer. This was a life changing experience, yet I still had some difficult times with my mental health.

My travel journal continued to clear the mind as well as keeping busy and filling my day. Luckily, Rome is a city full of wonderful adventures to have and even when I was alone, usually the most difficult times, I was able to explore the many streets and historical sites on foot, which helped to lift any negative thoughts.
Taking time out to read a book in piece, is something that I struggle to do because my mind gets distracted easily, the words are ignored and my attention turns to the anxious thoughts.

People from around the world that I met in Rome
I have realised that with the right book, this struggle can be controlled.
Being a social person, I rely heavily on the company of others as a way of dealing with my illness. I surrounded myself with friends, spending the mornings at a language school and the evenings in bars and restaurants, meeting more and more people, from all over the world.

My decision to spend the year abroad in Mexico was one that raised a few issues. One of the reasons why I chose to study at the University of Southampton, was due to the opportunity to travel to Mexico. I was not going to let this dream of mine be compromised by my illness, however, getting permission by the University to travel here, was full of many hurdles.

I had to meet with various senior members of staff, from the faculty, get written permission by my doctor and have written reports submitted by enabling services. In some ways, I felt like I had to prove to the university that I was mentally stable to go to Mexico. 

The unbelievable scale of Mexico City
Choosing to study or work outside of Europe, seems to require a lot more investigation and meetings than deciding to stay within the safety of the EU.
My risk assessment, completed by all students going on a year abroad, had to include steps to take in case of an emergency, concerning my illness. This was useful as it allowed me to investigate the local health services in Cancun, which I would advise to do before departing.

Living day to day, with every sunset comes a new day
Travelling to Mexico, there are potential problems with accessing medication. The best bet was to speak with my doctor, who gave me what I needed in terms of  medication and wrote me a doctor’s note to explain the medication, including the dosage and the diagnosis.
Now I am here, I have continued to write in my travel journal. I have started my blog which allows me to reflect on my time in Mexico, as the weeks go by. Being able to talk to the right people is important and I keep in contact with the university as well as my mentor, back in Southampton.
The prospect of travelling can be nerve-racking for anyone. At times, you can feel very isolated and the temptation to return to the comfort of your own country, can be very attractive. It is extremely important that you understand your mind, before leaving for a trip.

For our Student Minds guide to a year abroad for yourself or a friend,  click here 

Friday, 6 November 2015

The lessons I learnt by taking medical leave from University

Andrew writes about the experience of deciding to take time out of university, and the valuable lessons he has learnt. 
 - Andrew Read 

Deciding to take time out from your studies due to a mental illness is an incredibly difficult decision. Firstly, you have to admit to yourself that you have a mental illness, which for many of us is something that is incredibly hard to come terms with. Perhaps this is due to the stigma, or perhaps its because mental illness has a funny way of convincing you that it doesn’t actually exist, but too often we are guilty of blaming our struggles on a ‘weak character’, or some ‘innate personality flaw’, as if we are not entitled to the official label of an illness. 

Secondly, and maybe even more challenging is justifying to yourself that your illness is serious enough to warrant time away from study – its far too easy to persuade yourself that you are taking the easy way out, when in reality its an incredibly brave decision to make. The problem with medical leave is that, actually, it’s not something any of us want to take. To walk away from your friends, degree and a university you worked so hard to get in to, can easily feel like a position of failure. But being strong enough to put yourself and your mental health above your studies can only ever be considered a success: your health is with you for the rest of your life, so look after it.

I first considered taking medical leave 10 months ago. I was struggling with a relatively new battle with depression, and my Oxford finals were fast approaching. My senior tutor was a bubbly Scottish lady, the kind who thought that a cup of tea and a biscuit could solve anything; with an uncanny resemblance to Mrs Doubtfire but without the winning charm. She discussed with me the benefits of taking time out, and the freedom to be able to do whatever you want. I remember the immortal phrase: “somebody spent a year doing a baking course” – as if we’d all love to drop out of university to develop our culinary prowess. But whilst her wise words weren't the best advertisement for taking time away, my doctors & I decided it necessary, and I trudged off to rural England with my parents, my dog, and a few cows for company.

At first, all you feel is isolated - incredibly alone. All you think about is what you had, and now what you don’t have. It’s a horrible experience, but in hindsight I can’t imagine it was any worse than struggling through my finals whilst battling depression. One of my close friends constantly reminds me that all I did was moan about how the year was going to drag on, but looking back I cannot believe how quickly its passed, and how many lessons I’ve learnt from it.

Some of these were literal lessons: I learnt to drive. Others were more figurative: I travelled for a few months and learnt to be more reliant on myself; I realised that I didn’t need the support of others to make myself happy. I learnt to accept that I have a mental illness that might never go away, and that there are certain ways you can cope with it in every day life. I used the time to do some work experience and fill in applications for next year after I return. Whilst the year was certainly tough, and indeed horrible at times, you’re blessed with a freedom to put your academic life on hold, which I hadn’t had the opportunity to do since the age of 4. It’s important to see how you can use the time to better yourself in other ways, even if it is learning to bake.

I’m now on the verge of returning to my studies. Most of my friends have left university and I’ve been out of a science related degree for 12 months, having forgotten everything. It’s scary. But more importantly, I feel more able to deal with my depression, and I have the necessary support at university to be able to complete my degree. I’ll have 6 months to make new friends, and live a whole new experience of university life. 

Whilst medical leave is not a decision to be taken lightly, and requires careful consideration, in hindsight I’m incredibly glad that I did, and have certainly benefited from the time off. Putting your mental health first is an incredibly brave decision to make, and can only ever be a success.

If you are in the process of making a decision about whether to take time out of university, talk to student services or your personal/academic tutors. 

If you are feeling low mood at University - The Positive Minds course has been designed to give students the skills they need to keep low mood at bay. If you are interested in learning new ideas to help you keep your university experience a positive one, this course is for you! Find out if the course is right for you: here

You can find more support here

Monday, 2 November 2015

How I manage my stress at University

It’s National Stress Awareness Day on Wednesday 4th November. In light of this, one of our bloggers writes about how stress is a common part of university life, and how it can be helpful to know how to manage it.  
                                                                                                                                    - Sophie Dishman

Stress is something that we all go through whether we are in university or not. It can be exacerbated by university - deadlines, assignments, having a social life and doing extra-curricular activities - not being organised…they can all take their toll and lead to a bout of stress that no-one wants. Things can build up and without talking about it, it can become a challenge and turn into a breakdown.

But there are many ways I've found that have helped me deal with stress:   

1.    Be organised. Organisation doesn’t stop me from becoming run-down but it certainly helps me keep on top of things at university and in my personal life. 

I write things down in my diary and use coloured sticky notes for different things. Blue if I need to contact someone, green for tasks for university or things I’m involved in and purple for remembering things – e.g. buy equipment. The best thing is that I can move my sticky notes around, so I don’t feel like I have to do something on a certain day. If something comes up, I can be flexible. If something has a date next to it then unfortunately it has to stick permanently.

This way I am aware of deadlines and what’s coming up so I can plan other commitments around them.   Since using this method, I haven’t become stressed. I used it in the third semester of university and from September this year since starting my new journalism course. I now feel organised and as if I am able to manage my time effectively and know that I won’t burn out.

2.    Don’t take on too much. Many people tell me this, I understand it can be hard to hear as a I have a lot of commitments but it’s important. If you take on too much then you can become stressed because of the expectations that you ultimately had control over in the first place. There’s a word that you and I should use - the word “no”. This word is very powerful and can stop you from feeling overwhelmed. You don’t have to take an opportunity right now - it may come around again. If it isn’t meant to be - then it isn’t meant to be.

3.    Talking to people helps. Communicating when things are getting a bit tough can stop the situation in its tracks. You can stop it before it gets worse. You can talk to people who can give you advice on what to do.

4.    It’s all about time management. Maybe start that assignment earlier instead of going out? Plan your essays ahead of time, get books from the library before the assignment is due to be planned. Work out the way of managing your time that suits you best.

5.    Have some “me time” everyday, if you can. At best a few times a week. This may be going out for a run, to the gym, out with friends or watching Netflix. I usually do some yoga, meditate or read a book (not the ones for my course!). Having time for yourself can help you relax and rewind and make you energised. You are taking a step back and helping yourself.

What do you do to minimise stress? Student Minds is running #StudentChats on our Twitter on National Stress Awareness Day with Anxiety UK, On Wednesday the 4th of November at 7pm. Get involved to share & learn tips on managing stress.