Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Accepting help, despite thinking you don't need it

Caitlin writes about her time at University, as she put her mental health first and accepted the help surrounding her.
- Caitlin

It all went a bit wrong for me, about a week ago. I should have noticed myself, really, that my old ways were coming back. It should have been my canary in the coal mine, when two people asked me if I was okay, in the same afternoon. I didn’t want to accept that I was losing control again.

Perhaps it’s the freedom of being at university that allowed me to lose control at all. I felt much the same as I had through my A-levels, my reference point for all things mental health. I was inexcusably nervous over the smallest thing, like sitting on the front row in class (which had been, at one point, my coping mechanism, but clearly not this time). My hands were shaking all over the show, embarrassingly, so it was easy to fall back on how I would sit on placement, with “hands in a basket” (if you’re unfamiliar with this, it’s what teachers sometimes tell children who can’t stop fidgeting. It’s also what my head of sixth form told me, when I was preparing for university interviews). I could feel my words drying up, like a tap being switched off. I became a wallflower, in spectacular fashion, finding it easier to observe rather than participate. In school, on placement, I didn’t have the time or the headspace to allow my mental health to creep in, at least, not in the presence of the children. I know that I must have been a nightmare of a placement partner sometimes. Strict routines in a primary school are really good for me. General freedom and loose routines at university - not so much.

For someone who hadn’t had much experience with mental health, accepting that I needed help felt impossible. Why couldn’t I just get on with things and be normal? Why was it such a big deal to cope with everyday, menial tasks?

So I’ve spent a week at home, which at first felt like the biggest confession I’ve ever made to my brain. I’ve skipped a lesson, a couple of days, but never a week.

Fast-forward, and the fog is lifting. It’s not as dark. My mum (my magical, superhuman mum) says I’ve come back out of my head, and that’s how she knows I’m getting better. She means that I went quiet for a while, just sort of floating through life. And now it’s like I’ve come back up for air; started living again. I’ve started noticing things, and began making my own happiness. I’ve made more progress on my novel in this last few days than I have in months. 

This is probably aided by my new medication, two new boxes of pills trying to curb the sharp edges of my anxiety, and soften the blow of mild depression. But I’ve also found it to be just the way my brain works. It’s hard to remember this, in the depth of an intensely low period, but as a rule, there’s always a reprieve, a high after a low. As bad as things were before, they always seem to come around eventually. Even when I was an absolute train wreck, in a very anxious French lesson, I could usually (usually!) find something to smile about afterwards, even if it was only the peculiarity of a French novel about a hunchbacked, madman of a rabbit farmer (not even joking.)

In a roundabout sort of way, I think what I’m trying to say here, is that things will always get better. When things have stopped going wrong, there’s only one other way for them to go. You have to get yourself up somehow, dust yourself down (as I’m writing this, I’m imagining Amanda Thripp, the girl who was thrown by her pigtails in Matilda) and pick up where you left off. Even if that means checking your university portal with horror, trying to work out where to start with catching up. There’s a quote that I always find myself returning to, that seems quite apt here.

“You wake up every morning to fight the same demons that left you so tired the night before, and that, my love, is bravery.”

We’re all just fighting the same demons over and over again. Scary stuff. Catching up lecture notes? Easy peasy, in comparison.

(As an extra note, I have another quote that I like, that sometimes is easier to relate to! “I’m just going to put an Out of Order sticker on my forehead and call it a day.”)

Monday, 27 March 2017

Coping with Anxiety at University

Jasmine talks about her battle with anxiety whilst at University

I am a very anxious person and occasionally, when things get too much – say I get a bad grade or deadlines are piling up I’m prone to having a bit of a breakdown. Yes, I did consider this as a con when deciding to move away from home for University, but at the end of the day, my love for trying new things and the University that I chose overcame these cons. 

I’m relatively independent; I like alone time and I’ve never been one of those people that has to rely on their parents 24/7, so during the first month of University my anxiety never really got the best of me. However, when my required reading started piling up and I began getting grades back and realising the extent of how hard University can be, I then realised how far away from home I really was. Breakdowns aren’t a new experience for me, between GCSE’s and A Levels and the surge of hormones you’re gifted with during adolescence, I’ve had more of them then I can count, but usually I have my support system around me to calm me down. Back at home I could go to my mum for a hug, or meet up with my friends for a relaxed outing to distract me from my thoughts. However, being in a new place, I didn’t think I was close enough to anyone yet to reveal the “anxious mess” that I could occasionally become.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d made friends and I wasn’t alone at all, but we’d only known each other for a few weeks and I didn’t feel it was appropriate so show up at someone’s door crying and asking for a hug and some support. However, late one evening, after a horrible day consisting of dealing with a panic attack alone in my room, I decided to join everyone for a night out and take my mind off things. It’s University, I’ve been out a lot, but going out on this night in particular is probably one of the best things I could have done. On the way to the club I started getting into an emotional (granted, slightly alcohol fuelled) conversation with a girl from my halls about how rough my week had been only to have her turn around and tell me she’s experienced the same thing so many times! Words can’t describe how much of a relief it was having somebody tell me they understood what I was going through and were there for me. To this day whenever I’m feeling low or stressed I know I can go to her for a hug and a hot chocolate and she knows that she can do the same, and it’s made dealing with University away from home so much easier.

I cannot stress how important having some sort of support system is. Feeling alone whilst anxious or stressed is a horrible feeling, and it will only get worse if you feel the need to hide your anxiety and stress from people. I’m not saying that you should shout it from the rooftops and load your problems onto every single person that you meet, but you’d be surprised how much sharing your issues could help you in the long run. Now, having completed my first term at University, I would say I have 5 to 6 people that I know I could go to in tears, free of judgement and have them listen and help me, and it’s such a reassuring feeling. None of that could have happened if I hadn’t felt like I could share my issues with those around me.

University is tough. You’re away from home and courses are difficult, it’s okay to have the occasional panic or down day, but my advice to you is to build yourself a support system. It could be one person, or it could be 20 people – it’s different for everybody but make sure that you have someone! Trust me, it can make all the difference.

Personal Advice from a Travelling Uni Student with OCD

As a lover of travel and long-term OCD sufferer, Jodie knows how the two can sometimes create an ugly mix making it harder to shhh that OCD bully inside your head. 
- Jodie Randell 

This article aims to assist anyone wishing to travel with OCD, by outlining some personal tips I have learnt. It is important to note that I am not a healthcare professional, and you should always consult a doctor for professional advice. 

Research your destination
I always hear people say it’s exciting to go to a destination blind-eyed but, in reality, that can create more problems than it’s worth. Researching your destination will minimise any unnecessary stresses that might push your OCD into alert mode! Find out simple things like the kind of laws and customs the country your visiting has, so you don’t stumble across any major surprises! Also, research more specific things, for example: if your travel insurance covers mental health; if your medication is legal and available abroad; if you're allowed to take any medication on the plane, and what mental health services are available at your destination. Be sure to check the FCO mental health page for more advice on travelling with a mental health issue.

Be aware of your fears, and rationalise them
Travelling can present OCD nightmares, such as fear of flying, fear of contamination or fear of being away from the ones you love. Ignoring these fears is much easier said than done, but if you try to rationalize the fears OCD creates, they should have far less of an impact on your wellbeing. If you’re scared of flying, look up information on the safety of flying, or take a fear of flying course. If you are unsure about eating abroad, research advice from the NHS on food abroad, or take some easy meals along such as porridge oats, which only requires boiling water, making it an quick and safe meal.

Keep in touch with friends and family
Talking to your loved ones and having a bit of a giggle can distract you and bring you back to reality, positively impacting your day and your OCD! For me, when my OCD gets really bad I know my friends and family can cheer me up by a simple chat on the phone. Also, don’t be afraid to make new friends – you can learn many things from different people, including being introduced to other cultures and ways of thinking.

Plan your first couple of days
I find my OCD is worse when I do not have a set schedule. This is because my mind has time to wander and stress about the smallest things. So, make a set plan for your first couple of days, or even the first week. This eliminates the panic of organising things on the day in an unfamiliar place, making your mind less vulnerable to OCD!

Have down time and save money for rest days
OCD can be an exhausting game! Make sure you treat yourself and be kind to your mind by not overworking it – this will make it stronger to tackle that pesky bully OCD creates! Take a day to read your favourite book, listen to your favourite music, or simply swing on a hammock in the breeze. Set money aside for these rest days; perhaps there is a hot spring or spa around the corner you can immerse yourself in!

OCD can be exhausting and tough, but let's not allow the OCD bully win by stopping us do the things we love!

Going on a year abroad, and not sure what to expect? Visit our Year Abroad resource for lots of information and tips to read before you fly off!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Being Active Doesn’t Mean Sweating

Leanne rights about being active for her mental health and ways in which you could become active for your mental health.

- Leanne Hall

Keeping active is scientifically proven to make you feel happier, it releases endorphins, a chemical known to reduce stress. It’s important for everybody to stay active, but it can be especially beneficial if you suffer from mental health problems.

If you aren’t into cardio or weight training then you might prefer something a bit gentler, like yoga. It takes your mind off of everyday stresses as you focus on the positions, it relieves tense muscles and it gives you a work out. You can do it in the comfort of your own home if you don’t feel like seeing anyone that day or you can bring it outside and relax with nature.

Being active is often thought as having to go to the gym, something that can be exceptionally daunting if you suffer with mental health problems. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Being active can be anything, from dancing to your favourite heartbreak song in your room, to going for a long walk outside.

People at university don’t often have the money for a gym membership, but a yoga mat will only set you back £10, and if you’re doing it in your bedroom, heck, you don’t even have to buy workout clothes.

For me, yoga is an important part in helping me manage my anxiety, I try to do 50 minutes, three times a week. It gives me the chance to focus on myself, my breathing and my body.

Something that rarely happens living in London. One of my favourite Youtuber’s who teaches yoga is https://www.youtube.com/user/yogawithadriene there are different videos depending on your experience, and depending if you want to relax or go more hardcore. It’s a great way to reflect on the day past, without interfering thoughts popping into your head.

So, if you’re as lazy as I am, but you feel like you could benefit from moving your body a little bit, give yoga a go. Let me know in the comments how you keep active for your mental health, what works for you?

Find out more about University Mental Health Day 2017, watch or read more on our Active Mental Health stories page!

Without sport, I wouldn't be here

Yasmin is a staff member at Imperial College London, where she leads on areas relating to sport and mental health as well as running Student Minds’ Mental Health In Sport Workshops. She studied at Sheffield University where she raised awareness of mental health through charity fundraising.

- Yasmin, Imperial College London

It’s vital to talk about mental health.1 in 4 people are affected by mental health issues - of course it is something to address. Mental health issues aren’t always visible, but that level of prevalence needs to be addressed, for treatment, overcoming stigma, and resolution. If we don’t know we can’t help.

From a personal experience, mental health is close to my heart. I know people who have mental health issues and I understand what it takes for them to get through the things others take for granted – such as even getting out of bed. Everything becomes so much more of a challenge. We should talk about it so everyone understands, supports and removes the embarrassment associated with having a mental health condition. Turning mental health from an issue to an element of wellbeing is key to overcoming the stigmas but if we don’t talk, we won’t know and we can’t help.

"Quite simply without sport, I wouldn't be working where I work"

Mental health at Imperial

I recently took on a new role combining student sport and student support within Sport Imperial. I will be delivering the Student Minds Mental Health training to all incoming Sports Committee members, creating an online chat forum with the students, and working with the University ‘Mentality’ Society about new ideas. Furthermore, we will look at the Stress-Buster activities around exam times and promote and develop these further as well as providing regular drop-in sessions for students who have concerns or questions about mental health.

My main focus will be on promoting mental health in a positive light by addressing it as wellbeing incorporating sport as one of the key developments and encouraging students to engage in activity.

University Sport and Student Wellbeing
University sport is highly beneficial to students’ wellbeing for many reasons: tackling home sickness, engaging in new opportunities to challenge the brain, stress relief, and dealing with depression. Sport and exercise can change people’s lives. Being a student is a key time to pick up on potentially stressful situations that can cause declines in mental wellbeing, and turn them into opportunities for personal development and an increase in student wellbeing.

Engaging in sporting opportunities can get students out of their rooms, into social environments, and help them make friends – students often worry about fitting in when they move to university, and such activities will overcome this barrier. Engagement and participation will leave students with a sense of achievement. The adrenaline rush and the ‘feel good factor’ that is associated to sport is a positive and uplifting experience.

Furthermore, sport has positive associations for feeling good, being active and leading a healthy lifestyle, whereas mental health carries a ‘stigma’ because it is a sensitive subject. Marrying up a stigmatised topic with one of positivity can really help to break the ‘stigma’ down and help us understand mental health and wellbeing in a positive light - where sport is encouraged as a therapy for depression and general stress that are common in academic institutions.

Yasmin's story is one of a series of Active Mental Health stories, collected by Student Minds for University Mental Health Day 2017. To find watch or read more, visit our Active Mental Health stories page!

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

I tend to get down on myself sometimes, when I'm not playing well

Arianna has played for the Wales National Lacrosse team, and is now captain of the Ladies 1s Lacrosse Team for Imperial College London. Here she talks about how she tackled mental blocks to improve her tennis.
- Arianna, Imperial College London

I always enjoyed playing all the sports that were offered to me at school. From the age of about 10-11 I started to play tennis quite seriously (I was training about 4-5 nights a week). On the weekends my parents would take me to tournaments and originally it was tough. A lot of kids start tennis a lot younger than I did and I lost about 20 matches before I won a match. This was obviously tough, but I've always been the type to try and power on.

"I'm active for my mental health because it helps me to be more productive with my day to day life"

After this losing period I started to win a few matches at tournaments, but I really struggled to implement what I was being taught because I was too scared to make mistakes. I thought it would be better to play it safe and try and tire the other person out instead of beating them with my shots. I found my parents watching quite hard as I knew how much time and money they had invested in tennis and I didn't want to let them down. This led to me being really nervous on the court and looking like a completely different player to when I was training. Although I was winning more matches overall, I was losing to people that I should have beaten, simply because I wasn't putting into practice the things I was taught.

This is something I have only recently started to improve in tennis in the past few years. I think things changed for me when I realised that playing well and with a good technique was more important than winning matches.

"I did tend to get a bit down on myself sometimes, when I feel like I'm not playing well"

I was captain of my school’s tennis team in my final year and this gave me the opportunity to watch my team playing matches. I saw a lot of them struggling with the same confidence in their shots that I struggled with and I decided I needed to set a good example.

I realised that in order to improve I needed to use the things I have practiced in matches. I hoped that this would encourage my team members to do the same. We managed to get through to the Aegon team tennis finals for the first time in my school’s history - which was great!

I don't play tennis competitively at university, but I try and make time to play at least once a week as when I go home I still play in some competitions and with my family. I have my Level 1 tennis coaching qualification and help at local tennis camps in the summer. I find it really rewarding and is something I'd like to do more of in the future.

Arianna's story is one of a series of Active Mental Health stories, collected by Student Minds for University Mental Health Day 2017. To find watch or read more, visit our Active Mental Health stories page!

Maintaining training with university is all about finding a balance between the two

Tom has a history of competitive sport, and is now studying sport at Edge Hill University, and volunteering on a schools mental health & sport project called Tackling the Blues.

- Tom, Edge Hill University

Tom has a history of competitive sport, and is now studying sport at Edge Hill University, and volunteering on a schools mental health & sport project called Tackling the Blues.

I started athletics aged 13 and quickly progressed in the sport. At 16 i was invited to take part in different talent identification schemes in north-west England and also in Scotland (my dad is Scottish).

I was competing against people older than me, competing in the senior men age group. I finished 4th in the u23 national champs two years in a row and was asked to compete for Scotland's under 23 team. I was also offered a lane in an event called the Celtic games and invited to the world championship trials twice, and Olympic trials as well.

"Before the race, sort of, pulling on my vest and just feeling like overwhelming pride and it just felt like a really good fit"

I think that sport really helped me as it gave me something to focus on. If there was a bad race or a hard week of training it taught me to learn from these, not dwell on them, and focus on future goals which supported my mental health.

"I think that sport for me, helps my mental health because ti always gives me something to focus on"

Also after enrolling at university, I started to volunteer on the sport-based mental health programme, Tackling the Blues, which really opened my eyes to the benefits sport can have on mental health. Before coming to university I would say that I was uneducated about mental health, but working on Tackling the Blues has really helped me to learn about it, and question my experiences of sport, and the links to my mental health.

Tom's story is one of a series of Active Mental Health stories, collected by Student Minds for University Mental Health Day 2017. To find watch or read more, visit our Active Mental Health stories page!

Dancing helps me to switch off from external stresses and relax

Izzy is a psychology student at Nottingham Trent University. She talks about her experience dancing and how this helps  keep her calm and allows her not to stress. 

- Izzy, Nottingham Trent University

In terms of my experiences of physical and mental health, dance helps as it offers me personally a chance to clear my head and de-stress. I find that after I have been to dance I feel happier and more content.

"I'm active for my mental health because it keeps me calm, allows me not to stress"

In terms of NTU Dance, we have Social and Wellbeing Officers, along with myself, who have undergone mental health training from the university. They are always available for anyone to talk to and at the end of every term we do a feedback session, aiming to offer individuals another opportunity to express any concerns which they have. 

I am taking part in the University Mental Health Day video as I think it needs to be made clearer to students who they can talk to in terms of mental health, and what is an available route for them to take within university to help them tackle their issues.

"It does encourage people to feel a bit more comfortable because they know they have got the support out there"
Izzy's story is one of a series of Active Mental Health stories, collected by Student Minds for University Mental Health Day 2017. To find watch or read more, visit our Active Mental Health stories page!

Not only does exercise benefit your body, but it benefits your mind as well

Pete is a postgrad at Nottingham University. He talks about his experiences using a wheelchair at university, and how exercise has helped him manage his health, physically and mentally, and helped him find a community. 
- Pete Rumble, Nottingham University

The term ‘disabled’ bothers me. I understand the need for a term that defines those with an impairment, however, to me, ‘disabled’ also means deactivated, or put out of action. I prefer to regard myself as ‘inconvenienced’. Fixating on what I can’t do, or what I’ve lost physically, or what I’ve missed out on, wouldn’t get me anywhere. The emphasis needs to be on ability. 

"I think part of what motivates me is a refusal to accept that state of mind"

I was 16 when I began to lose the use of my legs for the second time. None of the family knew how to talk about it, especially me. I tried not to show any weakness. It was exhausting. It wasn’t just the physical effort of trying to walk, and the pain of the tumour in my cervical spine, it was also the anxiety of carrying it all. 

Whilst I’m long past the stage of accepting the cards I’ve been dealt, my condition can still cause me anxiety in other ways. As sociable as university can seem, having a ‘disability’ can be isolating. In a wheelchair, I operate at a lower height. And when my hall-mates were traipsing in groups over the Downs to get to lectures, I was virtually circumnavigating the campus solo because it was a longer, but more accessible route. 

"When you have to get around on a set of wheels, the wold is just bizarre"
I believe that, to come to terms with this isolation, you have to feel as though you still belong in general society. You have to believe you’re still human.

I believe sports centres help. The gym can help with anxiety. It can help with the physical day-to-day tasks. It can help you cultivate the mental strength to deal with pain and depression. All such benefits ultimately make the individual feel more capable, confident, and happier with themselves. It can give anyone a sense of ability and control - perhaps what the inconvenienced lack more than most. Thus, the inconvenienced need sports centres as much as, if not more than, anybody. And thankfully there are a lot of sports staff who seem to share that belief.

The gym in particular is a place where the inconvenienced can experience new, assorted agonies in the company of fellow sufferers, as opposed to just facing their usual challenges in grim isolation. It works best as a place where everyone feels welcome, supported, encouraged, and human. The unifying capacity of health, fitness, and being involved has great significance for the inconvenienced. If it wasn’t for the way the sports staff engage with me, I probably wouldn’t be there at all.

A lot has changed since my first visits to the University gym in 2010. There is a greater awareness and understanding in the Sports Department. I’m seeing the campus Sports Centres become the communities they deserve to be. The help I’ve received has had a hugely positive impact on my life.

Pete's story is one of a series of Active Mental Health stories, collected by Student Minds for University Mental Health Day 2017. To find watch or read more, visit our Active Mental Health stories page!