“How mental health has affected my studies”

Until two years ago, I never thought I’d be the person  talking about how mental health has affected my studies. This was not due to ignorance or lack of education on my part. On the contrary, in fact. My younger sister was diagnosed fairly young with bipolar disorder and that has been part of my life for a very long time. Quite early on, I understood all too clearly what psychosis meant, and how to talk to someone who is hallucinating. For my entire adult life, I have kept my phone in my right pocket just in case my sister really needed to call. I know how to sit quietly with someone suffering from severe depression, and exactly what to do if someone has a panic attack. I’ve never been afraid of mental illness because I feel like it’s been a part of my life forever.
My sister and I are very good friends, and very different people. She has always been quite shy and unsure of herself. I was a classic high achiever. As a child, I was confident and outgoing, and had far more hobbies than I had free time, which was fine by me. I sailed through school with excellent grades, and not always the most effort. As a teenager, I had my fair share of pubescent angst and trauma; falling out with my dad, a lot, losing my first lover and having to attend the funeral of one of my closest friends. My dad struggled with a drinking problem, which made my teenage years difficult for all of us, but throughout all of that, my mental health never took a dent. To this day, I am consistently described as amazingly calm in a crisis. If you had asked me then, I would have described my mental health as robust.
Two years ago, I tried to kill myself. I was diagnosed with depression and put on some medication. I was referred to a therapist. And it didn’t help. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t sleep but I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t wash or put on clean clothes, I couldn’t even put the light on in my room because it was too bright. I had started an MA here at Manchester in the September, and come February I was incapable of attending a single class.
Over time, I started to get better. Slowly, I found I was able to do small things; get up, make a cup of tea, maybe even read a book. I kept attending therapy and I kept taking my medication. My doctor kept telling me that I was making progress, which was starting to terrify me, because I wanted to explain that I felt like I was living someone else’s life. What had happened, I wanted to know, to that person who could do all those things? My brain felt slow and sluggish in my head. I’ve been writing songs and poetry all my life, suddenly I couldn’t string together a simple verse. It was as if someone had taken me apart and put me back in the wrong order.
Still, in a way, my doctor was right. I was making progress. I did continue to get better. I got well enough to contact the University and to officially interrupt my studies. The service was prompt and courteous, if a little confusing to my still depression-addled brain. The emails were full of dates and procedures to follow in order to come back, something that seemed impossible to me at the time. But I was determined to do it. Understand that, until this point, I had never handed in a piece of work late, I had never missed a single class. Through my undergraduate degree, come hell or high water, come hangover, come festival, come not even one hour of sleep, I made it to class because that’s what I was there for. I mean, that’s the kind of person I am, right?

As you can see, I did make it back to Manchester. But you are probably thinking, and rightly so, that if I came back last year, surely I should have graduated by now? Well the truth is that mental illness has completely changed my life. I came back last year determined to crack on, full speed ahead, and get my degree finished. Unfortunately, I came to learn that my life simply doesn’t work like that anymore.
I was very embarrassed about having been so ill that I’d had to drop out of University, even if it was only temporary. I felt that my tutors and professors would feel that I was no longer ‘one of the good ones’, that I could not handle the pressures of academic life. I was also terrified of it happening again. Depression had struck so suddenly and with so little warning that I had no idea if or when it might happen again. I still don’t.
I began to suffer, quite badly from anxiety. If you’ve never had anxiety, imagine that butterfly feeling that you get when you’re about to do something for the first time. Combine that with the sick sinking feeling that you get when you feel guilty, and add to that those feelings of shame that creep in on you sometimes when you’re trying to get to sleep at night, those times when you remember all the stupid things that you have ever said. Then imagine changing temperature all the time, imagine being hungry but feeling so sick that you can’t eat. Imagine shaking and having a dry mouth. Now imagine feeling like that all the time.
I couldn’t concentrate in seminars, and I couldn’t keep up with my reading because I had become convinced that I couldn’t understand anything. My tutors responded differently; some were encouraging and tried to tell me that I had such potential and that I needed to just grasp it. That only made me feel worse. Others quickly grew frustrated with me, not understanding why I was struggling, and seeing my need for help and reassurance as attention seeking. I stopped going to class.
At this point, I had missed two deadlines and was beginning to feel that my return to study was a total failure. I was obvious to me, and, I thought, to everyone else, that I just didn’t have what it takes. I began to seek assistance from the services here at the University. Student Services in my school were helpful and informative, but could really only assist me in practical matters. They wanted me to be able to hand my work in, certainly, but they couldn’t really grasp why I was having so much trouble completing a piece of work. The Disability Support Office are quite difficult to contact and require a lot of paperwork in order to help you. I had a diagnosis, a letter from my doctor and a prescription, but getting all those things together and then leaving my house to see them, and doing all those things at the same time, is quite a lot to ask of someone who sometimes can’t leave the house without having a panic attack.
Finally, I approached the Advice Service, here in the Student’s Union. I came to them with nothing but myself and my situation, and they just sat me down and listened. And then, an amazing thing happened. They said that they were going to help. They saw that I wasn’t coping and they understood that even the effort it took to get the support that I needed from the University was, at this point, beyond me. They emailed my school and helped me to secure a second interruption. They worked with me and my school to allow me to go part time in my studies, which they had suggested might be beneficial to me. They helped me pause my deadlines, and assured me that taking the time that I needed to get better was important, and that it did not mean that I had failed. They made me feel like being unwell was okay.
Two days ago, I handed in my Research Outline for my Dissertation. I cannot remember the last time that I was so excited about a piece of research. I currently have no outstanding work and this year I have not missed a single deadline.
My life is quite different now. I have to think about everything. I can’t stay out all night, and I can only occasionally have a drink. I used to be involved in everything; campaigns, societies, music, sports; now I have to choose carefully. If I begin to feel anxious or tired, I have to stop what I am doing and go home. I have learned from experience that not listening to those cues can be disastrous. I don’t see a therapist anymore, but every now and then, I stop by and have a chat with the Advice Service. It’s comforting to know that they are there, even if I don’t need them. I suppose they are a bit of a safety net for me, because they let me know that nothing is a catastrophe and everything has a solution.
Currently, I’d say that my mental health is in good shape. How long it will stay that way, I cannot guess. It might be forever. It might be a month. I do know, however, just how important that safety net is to me. I know first hand how one supportive service in an entire University can make all the difference to students. Statistics have shown that students suffer disproportionately from mental illness, and the right training and the right support really does make all the difference. I know for a fact that without that support, I would not be studying here today and I certainly wouldn’t be able to stand here and talk to all of you. In a way, their support has given me the opportunity to impress upon you the importance of mental health training. Their support literally changed my life, and that is why it is so important that training is available to everyone, and that support is available to all students. Because when we talk about mental health, really, we’re talking about saving lives.


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