Monday, 30 January 2017

Why I’m not afraid to be open about my anxiety

Severina writes about her anxiety, and explains how speaking up showed her the courage she never knew she had.                                                 
                                                                                                        -  Severina Berry

I suffer from anxiety and have done so for the past 3 years. While there’s certainly been times where it’s felt overwhelming, I can’t ignore the voice and determination that managing anxiety has brought out in me.

Mental health problems affect 1 in 4 people, and of those who do suffer, 9 out of 10 face stigma and discrimination. I never really spoke openly about suffering from anxiety until I saw other bloggers talking about their own mental health issues. It gave me the courage to speak up about my personal struggles with anxiety, in the hope of raising awareness of what it’s like to suffer from a mental illness.

There are a number of reasons why I now speak openly about my mental health.

Receiving support
Bottling things up and keeping difficult emotions to yourself can often make the situation worse. I found that speaking about my anxiety and being honest allowed me to receive the help and support I needed. It was daunting but ultimately, it helped so much. If talking to a medical professional seems overwhelming, try speaking to a parent, family member or someone you trust first.  They’ll be there to support you.

Educating others
There’s a lot of unwelcome stigma surrounding mental health.  I speak openly about my anxiety to raise awareness, and to reduce misconceptions that people might have about mental health. By speaking out I want to educate others on what it’s like to live with anxiety and how it can affect my day to day life. An open dialogue will help end the stigma associated with mental health illnesses. 

Helping others
I want to help others who may be going through a similar situation to mine.  I hope people who read what I write find comfort in what I say. I want to send out the message that there are people who understand what you’re going through and its okay. Most importantly, I want people to know that they’re not alone in what they’re going through.

I’m no longer afraid speak openly about suffering from anxiety. Seeing the voice it has brought out in me and looking back over the pieces I have written, I feel extremely proud of myself. I have come a long way and I’m now stronger and braver than I was before. After so long, I’ve finally found the courage to say that everything will be ok in the end.

Don’t let your mental illness define who you are, because it doesn’t. Don’t be afraid of suffering from a mental illness. Don’t be afraid of seeking help for your mental illness. Let it give you the strength and the determination to overcome your mental illness - it may not be easy but it certainly is possible!

Want to talk to a friend about their mental health, but don't know how? Visit our Look After Your Mate guide for tips to help you start the conversation.

Source of statistics:

Sleeping Tips for People with Depression

Eugene talks about how treating sleep problems may be able to help certain people who suffer with depression.  
- Eugene 

It’s pretty normal that we all go through occasional feelings of grief and sadness. In fact it's a fundamental human emotion which occurs in reaction to loss, life’s struggles and its ups and downs. But going through persistent feelings of intense sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness for weeks and even months and not taking interest in things that once seemed enjoyable are clear symptoms of depression.

Depression is becoming a common problem. According to the National Sleep Foundation, depression affects nearly 20 million Americans. It affects our mood, health, performance but most importantly our sleep. Because sleeping too much or sleeping too little is considered a symptom of depression. However, only 15% of all people suffering from depression are reported to oversleep, whereas 80% report suffering from insomnia and it’s easy to understand why. When you have feelings of loss or guilt it can interrupt your sleep. You may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

Apart from insomnia, many other sleep problems are linked to depression such as obstructive sleep apnoea. According to a Stanford University study including 18,980 people in Europe, depression increases the likelihood of sleep-disordered breathing by 5 times. Another study found that depression among people suffering from sleep-disordered breathing can be cured by treating their sleep problem. They found that their depression was significantly elevated as a result. More studies are piling up that treat depression by treating sleep problems of depressed patients. A recent study included 56 participants suffering from both insomnia and depression. The participants received psychotherapy for sleep problems but researchers found that in half of the participants, depression also eased as a result even though the therapy did not target cure for depression.

The relationship between depression and insomnia is far from simple. For some people, the symptoms of depression occur before having sleep problems and for others sleep problems appear first. According to Dr. Tracy Kuo, research psychologist at Stanford University, “Chronic sleep loss can lead to a loss of pleasure in life, one of the hallmarks of depression. When people can’t sleep, they often become anxious about not sleeping. Anxiety increases the potential for becoming depressed.”

This explains why depression is very common among insomniacs. According to a study conducted by the University of Texas, the rate of depression in insomniacs is 10 times higher than normal people.

So the good news is that by dealing positively with sleeplessness, both depression and insomnia can be treated and I can say that with personal experience. The preparation for good sleep begins way before you hit the pillow, so the healthiest way to improve your sleep is by making a few sleep friendly changes in your daily routine.

Here are some tips to combat sleeplessness:

Exercising is an excellent way to improve sleep and alleviate depression. According to the National Sleep Foundation people who exercise have much better sleep quality than people who don't do any physical activity even if they both get the same amount of sleep. The best time to exercise for a peaceful sleep is a few hours before bedtime. The reason is that when you exercise your body temperature rises for a few hours and stays above normal before dropping. This drop in temperature helps your body to settle for sleep so it's best to give it sometime and exercise in the evening if you want to go to bed early.

Smart Dinner Choices
Scientists have linked our food to our sleep and found that there are certain foods that help to promote sleep and they are simple foods like cherries, turkey, milk, nuts, lettuce and jasmine rice to name a few. So instead of going for sleeping pills and other drugs go the natural way by preparing your dinner meal with sleep promoting foods.

Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol before Bed
Alcohol and caffeinated drinks such as tea, coffee, red bull and cola drinks are all sleep disrupters. A cup of tea in the late evening hours can make you count sheep at night so it's best to avoid such drinks.

Avoid Screens
If you don't want to end up tossing and turning in bed worrying about random stuff, skip the TV session before bed. Also, avoid using your laptop, checking emails and even your phone at least 30 minutes before bedtime. The light from these screens keeps the brain alert and disrupts sleep.

Keep A Sleep Routine
Try to keep a sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. This way your body’s circadian clock will map with your routine and will learn to settle for sleep close to bedtime. Also avoid napping in the afternoon as it may disrupt your nighttime sleep.

Set the Scene
Set the scene by keeping your bed clean, wearing comfortable clothing and turning off the lights. Adjust the room temperature to a comfortable level. Place any electronic gadgets such as cell phones, laptop, and tablets outside the room to create minimum disturbance. It’s best to turn them off and plug the chargers. Make yourself a warm cup of herbal tea and if you are into reading you can spend the last hour before bed reading a good book. Reading and even listening to soft music will help you to unwind after a long day and prepare you for sleep.

These tips are simple but they will have a great impact on your sleep and can help combat insomnia and depression.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Eating Disorder Recovery and Doing a PhD.

Daniel ties his PhD Journey in with his recovery from an eating disorder.
- Daniel Rough

PhD research is often exciting, rewarding and genuinely enjoyable. You're given 4 years in which you dedicate your time to becoming the leading expert of a topic you are genuinely interested in! It's a wonderful opportunity, but one that at times can feel like a punishment. Nearly every PhD student I've spoke to has experienced times of tremendous stress, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy.

In this post, I want to offer my experience of balancing eating disorder recovery and my PhD.
From, a helpful online to-do list
Write things down
We can often become anxious when it feels like we're not making progress. Sometimes we find ourselves sat in the office chair in the late afternoon thinking "what did I actually do today?" Likewise, starting the day with no specific tasks in mind can leave us drifting and distracted. I actually wrote a blog post on writing while I was feeling particularly 'meta'.

"Write what you've done. Write what you want to do. Write notes on papers. Write notes on spontaneous thoughts that occur. Because thoughts are ephemeral, they disappear, never to be seen again. Words, written down, recorded, they stick."

I'm not just talking about PhD-related thoughts either. Starting a personal blog, even if you keep it private, can be tremendously helpful. During my recovery, I used my blog to vent frustrations and to chart personal successes.

Structure your day
Structuring what we do during our working hours can extend to organising what we do with all the hours of our day!
Take time to relax and enjoy yourself
As PhD students, we have a lot of what I call 'unstructured time'. It's not exactly free time, as many of these hours have to be filled with work. However, if we don't organise our time properly, procrastinate, work ungodly hours, it can feel like all our time is spent working. This can affect both your physical and mental health.
  • Don't burn the midnight oil. I'm admittedly terrible for this one, but particularly in winter, daylight hours are scarce, and being up and awake for them has been proven to have a positive affect on our mood. 
  • Have a 'quitting time'. It's all too easy to say to yourself "I just need to get this little bit working" at 5pm, and still be chipping away four hours later in desperation. Be strict with yourself, whatever stage you're at with your work, stop. It'll still be there tomorrow! 
  • Have hobbies and interests outside of work. What do you enjoy doing in your free time? Playing an instrument, cooking, playing a sport, going for walks, tiddlywinks, whatever floats your boat! Have something you can look forward to at the end of the day or on weekends. It can be with others, or on your own. Just make sure to get some 'me' time. 
  • Talk to your peers. Sometimes it can feel like you're the only one struggling, like everyone else has their head screwed on. It's not true! It can be reassuring to find that others aren't coasting along with no difficulties. And of course, it can be nice to get out the office and talk about something other than research! I myself have spent days, often weeks avoiding people during phases of my anorexia. While being social felt like the last thing I wanted when I was stressed and upset, interacting with others distracted me from thoughts of work. It helped me realise that there is more to life than just the PhD.

Taking a leave of absence
There's no doubt about it, focusing on recovery while focusing on a PhD is tough. Sometimes, it's simply necessary to stop. I remember sitting in the lab by myself at 3am. I had read the first sentence of a paper 10 times, and still failing to focus my weary eyes on it. My stomach was filled with nothing but cold coffee, and I clutched my hot water bottle despite the warmth of the room. It was then I stopped, put my head in my hands, and said aloud:

"I can't do this"

Right then and there, I had admitted to myself that I needed time off to focus on recovery. This is not a sign of weakness, inadequacy, or failure. To acknowledge that our health has to take priority, accepting that we need help, is a tremendous act of strength.

Taking time off to live at home and focus on getting back to health saved my life. I returned to university 6 months ago, happy, healthy, and focused. Work no longer affects my health, and health no longer affects my work.

Getting help
Your university will have services and people who understand mental health issues and can offer you help and support. I would also suggest talking to your supervisor, whether you decide to take time off or not. Supervisors' roles involve ensuring that their students are looked after and not suffering as a result of work.
St Andrews has an Advice and Support Centre for students
You can find more information and support about Eating Disorders here

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

University Life with OCD

Natasha writes about how she battled through her OCD whilst at University.
                                                                                                                    -Natasha Neary

Being a student is hard enough without having to deal with the added struggles that come with poor mental health – in my case, OCD. Looking back on my experiences, I wish that I’d have done things differently when it came to taking care of myself. However, now things are on track and I thought I’d share my story of living with OCD as an undergraduate student.

From what I remember, I began to develop signs of OCD as soon as I entered my first year of college. I had no idea what OCD was at this stage and so I just trundled along, confused and anxious, somehow able to get through another three years of education.

Things became a lot harder with the prospect of starting university just around the corner. I moved away from home, away from my friends and family, and thanks to my anxiety that tags along with OCD I started to feel lonely, scared and at a total loss. It was at this stage that my symptoms became more apparent and a family friend eventually sat me down and told me that it was possible that I had OCD. After doing some research, things suddenly became clear as I found a reason for my behaviours.

However, I still struggled – a lot – during university. I tried to seek help from my GP, but unfortunately my illness wasn’t taken seriously and I completely shut myself off. I rarely talked about my problems so even my closest friends didn’t know what was going on. I confined my OCD to the tiny little room I had in halls of residence and became fixated with my rituals. Then, slowly but surely, my anxiety grew. My thoughts became scarier, and my mind continued to believe that if I kept doing the rituals (which also got worse) then everything would be fine.

Now, having all of this going on when trying to complete my weekly seminar work, meet deadlines and have somewhat of a social life was often just too much. I was exhausted. Every assignment would result in a breakdown of tears, self-loathing, and feelings of not being able to do this (the work that is). And when I say every assignment, I do mean every…single…one. You do think that it would be easier to quit at this stage, but I needed to do this. My future career depended on it and I would not let my OCD stop me.

I suppose what I want people to take away from this brief insight into my undergraduate study is this: doing a degree is hard. Doing a degree with a mental illness feels 100x times harder. However, persevering is worth it. There will be many times when you feel so exhausted that you just want to throw in the towel and walk away, yet something keeps you going. In a way, I do think my OCD was a part of this. The fear and anxiety that accompanied the thoughts of failing was so strong that completing every assignment became a ritual in itself – and to reach the goal of finishing my degree, I felt that this was ok. I dragged myself, kicking and screaming, to the end and completed my BA with the highest award I could get. And as I did this with the added struggles of OCD, I felt proud.

However, looking back now, I do wish that I had done things differently. Yes, I got through my undergraduate degree, an MA, and now I’m dragging myself through a PhD, yet I only realise now that it didn’t need to be so difficult. There have been a lot of lows, even a lot of highs, and in my future blog posts I’ll share with you some of the deeper details of my experiences and impart some of the advice I wish I had been given at the start of my journey to recovery.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Students are sharing stories at Story Sessions

This year Student Minds are helping students share their mental health stories. Story Sessions is an event in January which will teach students how to shape the narrative of student mental health with their stories. We asked attendees what they are looking forward to about Story Sessions...

"I’m so excited and humbled to be attending Story Sessions! After being diagnosed with mixed anxiety and depressive disorder in November 2015, I have been open about my struggles and actively campaigning against stigma. I’m looking forward to sharing this amazing opportunity with other students like me, and help one another to positively and safely share our stories. From different views of mental health that I’ve seen as a campaigner, it is so important for everyone to talk about mental health. Some students are scared to seek help, and this needs to change. I hope to gain a new way of reaching a wider audience so judgements can eventually cease. No one should be afraid to talk about mental health."
Katie Ellen Sinfield - University of Leicester, 2nd Year Geology

“As I already write a personal mental health blog, I knew that attending Story Sessions would be an excellent opportunity to develop my skills in talking about mental health. I am particularly looking forward to meeting other students with similar experiences to me and getting to know a bit more about their own story. Talking openly about student mental health is one way to encourage others to seek help when they are struggling, something which not everybody finds easy to do. Yet, mental health problems amongst students are much more common than many people realise and often there is not enough support available. Hopefully by sharing our stories, we can help to change that.”
Lisa Woodley - York St John University, 1st Year Psychology

“I’m coming to Story Sessions so I can learn more about talking about my experiences with depression. Nobody deserves to suffer with mental illness, so if I can use my experiences to help even one person get through it then I’m going to seize that opportunity with both hands! I’m looking forward to meeting everybody and learning as much as I can! Mental Health is a huge factor influencing the university experience of a vast number of students through their own difficulties or those of friends, but it’s rarely acknowledged as such. The more we discuss it openly, the more people will have access to the help and support they need!”
Gareth Raynes - Aberystwyth University, PhD in Biological Sciences

“Hi, I’m Holly! I am coming to Story Sessions because I want to challenge myself by sharing my own personal experience of having a mental illness, so I can encourage my peers to do the same. I am looking forward to meeting new people from the session and having the opportunity to be around people who share the same passion as I do, which is to get students to talk openly about mental health. It is so important to get students to talk about their mental health for it will increase the awareness of mental health within universities and promote positive mental health in order to reduce stigma.”
Holly Moyse - University of Derby, 2nd Year Creative Expressive Therapies

For more information about Student Minds' work in the press, head to our Press Hub.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Rejection - A not-so dirty word

Joanne writes about her experience of searching for graduate jobs, and the effect it can have on your mental health.                                                                                      
- Joanne Sarginson

It’s often said that Generation Y millennials view themselves as special – valiant heroes of this difficult world. Maybe this is true, because I, like many heroes, have a sidekick. My sidekick possesses several qualities displayed by good sidekicks.  He is persistent and loyal like Robin. Like Chewbacca, he is almost always by my side. Like John Watson, he makes me think about how I can perform better. But he also makes me doubt my abilities. He makes me sad. His vision of my future differs from mine.  My sidekick’s name is rejection.  

Mine and rejection’s relationship is like that of Shrek and Donkey’s - it has a knack of leaving me stranded in a swamp of person specifications and application forms. But rejection will never break through my ‘onion’ layers and worm its way into my heart. If anything, hanging out with rejection is building up those layers. Thanks to rejection, I’m developing an increasingly thick skin.

Everywhere you look, there are graduates working their way towards promotion by developing client-tailored marketing strategies and perfecting the exact milk: water: sugar ratio of their manager’s ideal cup of tea. But when you’re yet to establish yourself on the career ladder, this can be a difficult concept to get your head round. So I’ve developed three ways to protect my self-esteem after rejection makes its unwelcome appearance. 

1. Try Not To Personalise Rejection 
In the current graduate job market, receiving a rejection is not because you’re incapable, but more due to lots of other equally capable applicants and, ultimately, one person who is slightly more capable than the rest. Just because you’ve not been successful doesn’t mean you’re not valuable. Learn from the experience and take it forward with you - soon you’ll be that stand-out candidate. 

2. Look at Failure In Terms of Success 
Whilst getting rejected at the interview stage might initially seem like a failure, it’s not. If this was one of your first interviews on your job hunt, remember that walking into an unfamiliar and intimidating situation takes bravery and doing so is a personal success in itself. If this is the next in a long line of rejections, consider how resilient you’ve been to continue applying. Rework your thought processes so that you don’t see rejection as a result of things that went wrong - think instead about things that went well. Consider where you could have improved; even email your interviewer to ask for feedback. 

3. Realise That You Are So Much More Than ‘An Unemployed Graduate’ 
In the Social Media age, we’re constantly exposed to the successes of others, which can have the effect of belittling our own achievements. A CV is essentially a list of accomplishments and receiving a rejection can sometimes feel like an ignorance of these achievements. When writing a CV, we filter our achievements, including only those important to the employer. Try writing a personal CV of achievements that are important to you - include things as big as gaining a degree or seemingly small as carrying a spider outside. Take time to reflect on your list and realise how strong you’ve been to overcome the challenges you’ve faced. 

4. And finally, always remember: your value as a person doesn’t revolve around your status on the career ladder.

Joanne also includes some great tips and advice on coping positively with postgraduate life on her own personal blog. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

Recovering your Identity from Anorexia

After years of living with in the bubble of an eating disorder, Chloe lost sight of her life beyond the illness. Here, she reflects on the process of recovering her identity.... 

 - Chloe 

Only a few years ago, I was anorexia. 

My life revolved around food, exercise, calories and weight. Losing weight was the only goal I strived for and the one thing that made me 'happy'. I completely lost myself to the eating disorder. I was no longer the bubbly, happy, chatty and fun little girl I had been. I was no longer Chloe; I was anorexia. 

During this time, I spent less and less time at school due to my ill health. Consequently, I began to lose the few friends that had stuck by me. I'd always decline offers to go out, for fear that food might be involved. My bedroom was my comfort zone, where I would exercise in secret - it was a place that belonged to my eating disorder. 

When I was forced into recovery by doctors and nurses, I was terrified. I was scared of the food, weight gain and hospital walls around me. However, what I feared most was losing 'anorexia'; the illness had become so entangled with my identity, I didn't know who Chloe was anymore. As much as I hated being known as "the girl with the eating disorder", I convinced myself that this was better than having no personality at all. 

I hated myself for the worry I was causing my family, yet their concern about me made me feel loved and wanted - something which anorexia tried to tell me I was not. I needed support and I felt that losing my eating disorder would leave me with no help at all. I feared the misconception that physical progress is the same as mental progress; that, because I was gaining weight, I was completely fine. 

During my hospital admission, I felt more anxious than ever before; however, because  my weight was improving I didn't believe I could admit these  struggles. For so long, I convinced myself that anorexia was a safety blanket, which told the outside world I needed help. So what did I do? Despite all these fears and uncertainties, I powered on. I chose to trust in recovery.

It was the hardest fight I have ever faced, but I battled through the guilt and the tears and slowly but surely I returned to a healthy weight. Yet it was through my mental recovery, that my life became less about anorexia and more about Chloe. My thoughts around food, calories and weight were replaced with music, fashion and friends. 

I could concentrate again, I laughed and I remembered how to have fun! I was getting my personality back and I realised that there is so much more to life. My fear of losing my identity vanished as I returned to the former bubbly, happy and fun girl I used to be. 

Most importantly, I allowed myself to acknowledge my own bravery. Although a lot of people think eating is a completely natural thing to do, for me each bite was an achievement. As time went on I became stronger and and things became more manageable. 

Furthermore, when I reached my target weight I continued to receive the help I needed, to guide me on my way to health and happiness. Now, 5 years later, I can say that I am so glad I chose recovery!

For more information on understanding Eating Disorders, click here.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Why going to a LGBT-friendly university was so important for my mental health

A Student Minds volunteer writes about her experience of coming out at university, and the importance of finding support that works for you. 

Going to university
I came out to friends just before I went to university and luckily most of them were really supportive - many of them had already guessed anyway. I had told my mum, though she didn’t quite believe me yet and was uncomfortable about the whole thing. As for my dad, making jokes about gay people was one of his pastimes, so I was far too scared to tell him. In a way I was happy to leave home so I could be the person I wanted to be without those pressures.

Meeting people who made me feel comfortable
In my first few terms of university it was actually quite difficult to know when I should tell people I was gay. I still felt a little uneasy and wanted people to get to know me for who I was before I got labelled as a lesbian. It was awkward when I was trying to make friends, especially when I got invited to a girly films and pizza night. Everyone was talking about the guys they fancied in the college. I felt so out of place and isolated because I thought I’d shock the room to a halt if I started talking about the women I liked. But soon enough I found people I did want to be friends with. The course mate that hit on me during fresher’s week became my best mate and I got involved with the LGBT group and made friends through their socials. Pretty soon everyone just sort of knew. In time, I lost the feeling that I needed to explain myself to everyone I met and just let people guess through the pronouns I used and the stories I told.

Going back home to family was challenging
The hardest bit was going back home for the holidays, and knowing whether or not to tell family I had a girlfriend or whether she might even be able to visit. I had a couple of girlfriends at uni and both of their parents were really welcoming. But this made me feel guilty and upset that my mum was more awkward and I couldn’t introduce them to my dad. My mum did let me have girlfriends stay, and even tried to talk to them for a bit, but it was incredibly tense and I knew it would have been completely different if it was a boyfriend I was bringing home. I eventually told my dad too, and the way he reacted I would never want to have introduced him to a girlfriend.

Feeling unaccepted by my parents was one of the major stresses (among others) which contributed to me having a number of breakdowns. There was self harm, suicidal thoughts, self-destructive behaviour, and constantly telling myself I was a “selfish arsehole”. I drank myself through university, and used sex and alcohol to legitimise myself.

But this year things started to get better. I went to counselling and realised I needed to talk to my parents. As I became more comfortable in myself I grew the confidence to talk to them and tell my parents how their actions made me feel. It turned out they were actually both quite ashamed about how they reacted and it took a series of conversations and most importantly time to clear the air. Now I can talk to my parents about girlfriends or LGBT related things and it feels okay. This year my mum even got involved in Pride and I would now be quite happy to introduce someone to my dad should the time come.

LGBT-friendly university settings are important
I’m not going to lie: There is still discrimination about being LGBT. People occasionally shout at you in the street. People might ask you to stop kissing your partner because they think it’s more important they’re not offended than for you to exercise your human rights. But university was generally a supportive and liberal environment for me to come out in, and that was so important. I was surrounded by like-minded people and friends who I could vent to and even laugh about any injustices that still sadly exist. And it was this which gave me the confidence to be myself, to be comfortable enough with who I am to have those much needed conversations with family or friends back home. And these supportive networks still exist after university; the movement to reduce stigma around LGBT issues is an inspiring thing to be a part of, and becomes a support in itself.

I have written this anonymously for my parents' sake because they have really have worked to challenge their initial prejudices over the years. 

At Student Minds we recognise that the student LGBTQ+ community can be under-represented at times and may be at risk of experiencing mental health difficulties at university. 
If you would like to find out more, or find further support you can find more on our LGBTQ+ webpage.