Let’s talk about Mental Health

According to Student Minds, “Students in higher education are at an age vulnerable to mental illness as 75% of mental health difficulties develop before the age of 25. 16-25 is the key age group to target with preventative & early interventions.” But how can we do that if mental health is still, so difficult, a subject to openly talk about?

Today Scroll talks with 3 very brave and open Ulster University students, who talk candidly about their struggles with mental health and how they wished they had spoken out earlier about their issues.

What type of person can suffer from a mental illness?

Our first student, Christina, is a coffee addict, who loves cake and to bake cake and occasionally runs (to burn off the cake). She’s an occupational therapy student here at Ulster University and is undertaking her placement year for Student Support coordinating the Mind Your Mood campaign. Charlene describes herself as an introvert and a fairly quiet person, until she gets to know someone. She would tend to say little in groups of 3 or more. On the other end of the scale is Jenny who has an outgoing personality, loves to meet people and socialise and is not shy about getting out of her comfort zone. She finds it easy to build friendships.

When did you first realise there was an issue with your mental health?

Christina – I realised while on placement in the second year. I didn’t even notice myself really. I thought I had everything under control. I just felt overwhelmed and stressed by everything going on in my life. I felt like I couldn’t cope.

Charlene – In first year of uni, but looking back I think I have had depression on and off for most of my life.

Jenny – When I was about 12 or 13 I began to feel a bit different, a bit angry. I felt like I didn’t know how to communicate my feelings properly so it came out in attitude and anger towards my parents. When I was 14, I began to realise perhaps I felt depressed. It went away for a while and would return every so often in different ways. For many years, it didn’t really affect me but for the past 2 years I’ve been struggling with accepting that perhaps this is what my subconscious thoughts are pointing towards – subtle feelings of loneliness, thinking about how people would react if I wasn’t here anymore.  Can I just… disappear?  Would anyone notice?

Can you describe the symptoms/ feelings you had?

Christina –  Stress was my main symptom. Not the good kind of stress that prompts you to work harder, but the “I can’t sleep, I can’t eat kind of stress.” I was worrying most nights. I would wake up early and fall asleep out of pure exhaustion. I  was constantly tired. I was committing to different events in the evenings just to distract myself from the fact that I felt I was failing at placement. I was overly emotional. I was not able to deal with simple things that went wrong. Normally I am not a crier, however, over those few weeks, I was crying almost every evening. It got to the point where I felt that I just needed a break. I needed something to stop.

Charlene – Tearful, angry, agitated, very tired all the time, anxious (heart racing, dizziness), not interested in doing anything, going out or socialising at all.

Jenny –  Anger, sadness, paranoia, physical strain in my chest, tiredness, lack of appetite/ increase in appetite, loss of interest in anything creative. Lack of emotional response to other people. Lack of motivation.

How did this affect your uni/social life?

Christina – It was affecting my grades. I was unable to complete my placement. I had to stop 4 weeks in. Although at the time I was so relieved. I could finally take a break. I needed that time to stay at home. In that time at home, I was able to reflect on the situation. I could recognise how things at spiralled downhill. I realised that the reason things had got so bad is that I did not know myself. I didn’t know how to look after myself. I didn’t know what I could do to make the situation better. In all honesty, I just needed to learn how to cope with different situations that came my way. I learnt that it is okay to say no. Sometimes one of my issues was that I couldn’t say no. I volunteered to help at so many events when I could have used that time to look after myself.

Jenny – It’s made me fall behind on work in some modules. It’s made me feel incapable of completing good work. It’s made me feel stupid; slow. It’s made me feel so so stressed and like I want to give up because I’m pushing against a tide.

It’s affected my relationship with my boyfriend. I feel like I can’t treat him with the attention and care necessary to have a healthy relationship and there’s a strain there and I’ve pushed myself away from my close friends.

Where have you found support?

Christina – My tutors out on placement pointed me towards Student Support. It was strange because I had to take a day off placement just to go into student support. At the time, I just wanted to avoid talking about the situation, because talking about the situation meant that it was actually happening. In the end, talking to friends and family also really helped. Looking back, I wish I had taken advantage of the counselling service that the university has to offer.

Charlene – I first contacted Student Support who referred me to counselling service. I also got a studies adviser and extra support during exam time.

Jenny – I got in contact with one of my lecturers and chatted to her about how I’ve been feeling about my uni work. She recommended talking to a counsellor here at the university and I’ve also contacted my doctor.

What steps have you taken to cope with your issues?

Charlene – I educated myself about the importance of minding my mental health. As a healthcare student, sometimes you feel like you need to help everyone else. What I have learned is that you need to look after yourself first. Then you can function at your best ability. It’s amazing to want to volunteer and help out with different clubs/societies. Being involved gives you a sense of community, but life is all about balance. Learn to recognise your “trigger” signs. For me, if I find myself avoiding an issue, it means that I am not coping with it the best. I learnt to talk about it and ask for help.

Jenny – I talked to my friend. I’d talked to people before, but this person really encouraged me to talk to people who could help me. They encouraged me to talk to my mum, and to seek professional counselling which was something I was already thinking about anyway. I felt I was able to be honest about exactly what I was feeling, how intense these feelings were and let the person know if there was anything increasing these feelings. I am now waiting to begin counselling sessions with a professional which I feel will significantly benefit me.

What would you say to another student who may be experiencing similar thoughts and feelings?

Christina – That it is not just you. You are not the only one out there. This is not an issue that you have to deal with alone. There is support available. And it is okay to ask for help. No matter how small the issue. It’s important to look after yourself.

Charlene – Speak to your GP and be brutally honest about how you are feeling. No-one needs to suffer in silence anymore. Mental health problems can happen to anyone, at any time, so you are not alone.

Jenny – Be honest. Talk. Exercise. Walk. Run. Sing. Scream. Cry. Laugh. Hug someone. Laugh. Eat fruit. Buy a tub of ice cream and eat the whole thing. Cry. Get over it. Talk to yourself. Tell yourself how magnificent you are. Tell yourself it’s okay to feel this way. Tell yourself you’re loved. Tell yourself you’re smart. Tell yourself you’re talented. Tell yourself this won’t last. Tell yourself you are important. And listen to other people when they say these things to you.

How important do you feel it is to talk openly about mental illness?

Christina – It is so important! Apart from the fact that there is a stigma around it, which makes it harder to get help, so many people (like me) don’t even realise that they have an issue until it gets out of hand. Everyone knows the symptoms of a heart attack, but we also need to recognise the symptoms that our mental health is deteriorating so that we can look after ourselves before it gets worse.

Charlene – I think this is vital if we want to reduce the length of time someone deals with mental illness before getting the help that they actually need.

Jenny – The most. You’ll break your heart and your mind and your soul if you try and keep it in. That’s how the ship goes down.

Anything else you feel that might be useful to know for others facing the same thing?

Christina – It is not just you. There is support out there. You do not need to do this alone. Inspire have a 24/7 helpline which is free for any student. It is okay to ask for help. Please, if anything, learn from my mistakes and ask for help early. No matter how small the issue.

Charlene – There are a lot of online resources and charities that can help too but I think just being aware of how you are feeling is the biggest step for most people. Many people don’t realise they have anxiety or depression, etc, it would be helpful if the signs and symptoms were more widely known.

Jenny – For some people, feeling hopeless seems like all you know. But you don’t have to settle for lacking. You don’t have to settle for less than everything. You were made to be so much more. You are meant to live- you are meant to thrive, not just survive. You are created to have hope- to have life and in abundance. To be whole, and to know your life has so much meaning. You do not have to sit in silence. You do not have to suffer alone. Hope is here.

So tell us more about the Mind Your Mood Campaign?

ChristinaMind Your Mood is a student-led mental health campaign. It aims to educate students about the importance of positive mental health. I am so passionate about it because it is promoting information I wish I had known. It provides free workshops to all students that cover all sorts of topics like mindfulness, SafeTALK, positive mental health in film and drama, coaching and so much more.

Mind Your Mood also aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. It is something we all have. Just like our physical health, we need to look after our mental health, so let’s start talking about it.

Mental health does not discriminate and can affect all types of people. Just because on the outside it seems like someone is OK, the reality might be very different, which is something everyone should be mindful of. Asking a simple “How are you?”,  “Are you ok?” may be all it takes to help someone to start opening up about their real feelings.

For more information please visit our website – Health and Well-being – Student Support

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