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My intention for writing this piece is that it will go some way in encouraging others to speak out about their mental health experiences, in addition to helping to destroy the stigma and misconceptions around mental illness. I touch on my own personal experiences working as one of the Full Time Officers in LUSU whilst also struggling with my mental health, as well as the importance of challenging stigma and how people can get involved in the campaigns on campus. I feel I must insist that you do not read any further if you feel that anything that I may discuss could cause you any distress. I do go into quite some detail about suicide and self-harm. It is believed that 1 in 4 people in the UK suffer with a mental health problem in any given year, which is why I find it odd that there is still a huge cultural stigma surrounding mental health. I believe that the lack of face to face connections and open conversations are partly to blame for this, as the sudden rise in technology slowly drains our human connections into meaningless Twitter updates and Facebook messages. Social media is allowing us to create false lives, false emotions, and false hope. We’re often sat alone on our laptops or tablets watching pointless TV shows, avoiding our priorities and our relationships. Very, very slowly we are isolating ourselves from the outside world in which we live, which gradually eats away at our self-esteem and feeling of empowerment as agents within our society. We are also seeing images of models and celebrities who are so far photoshopped that we are naively, but understandably, beginning to believe that there is such a thing as perfection. It is these things, I believe, that are partly to blame for the current mental health epidemic in the UK.
I have lived with what I believed to be depression and anxiety for many years. However I was recently diagnosed with a condition called bipolar disorder. You may have heard of it due to the fact that Stephen Fry is well known for having it. It is a very misunderstood and debilitating mental health condition that brings with it extreme highs and terribly low lows. An average month can see a sufferer experience manic episodes in addition to depressive and suicidal episodes. For me, I often have short periods of extreme productivity and motivation, believing that I can take on far too much than I can cope with, eventually forcing me into a deep depression that lasts for weeks at a time: when the amount I have taken on comes crashing down onto my shoulders.
During my undergraduate years, I definitely had my highs and lows, as most people do. I went through some of the best times in my life, and some of the worst. I suppose you could say that this is almost, and extremely sadly, normal for an average student. A particularly poignant night that sticks out in my memory is one where I actually got so drunk one night that I came home and actually contemplated taking my own life. This was the first time I attempted suicide. It was soon after this that I began getting involved with the national mental health movement known as ‘Time to Change’, which is a campaign aiming to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health. I ran events on their national ‘Time to Talk’ day and events for Mental Health Awareness week. I encouraged LUSU to sign the ‘Time to Change’ pledge to promise to reduce mental health discrimination. Looking back, I think this was my way of coping and trying to avoid my issues. I was keeping up a huge emotional lie and it was exhausting. I became a hypocrite. I encouraged others to come forward and speak about their mental health whilst I stood, watched, listened, supported, and kept everything that I was experiencing hidden from those around me. One thing I did do which was positive is utilise the university’s counselling service, where I was allocated an extremely empathetic and helpful counsellor who managed to get me talking openly about what I was going through. I received Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Clinical support and I finally felt free. I learnt invaluable skills that I still use now and I cannot thank the service enough.
Something I have recently been struggling with is coping with my mental health problems whilst working as a Full Time Officer in LUSU. This is a job I was elected to by students in March and begun in June 2014. Over the Summer I was really enjoying the job and socialising with my team outside of work, but I gradually began to drink more and more heavily leading to me gaining weight and forcing my depression to a point where I couldn’t function normally any more. I decided to go to the doctors about what I was experiencing and, of course, I was given the usual “drink in moderation” and “do more exercise” advice and was sent on my way. Having now reflected on my visit, I feel such anger towards that GP for not wanting to help me get to the bottom of WHY I felt the need to consume so much alcohol. Why was I so concerned about people approving of me? Why was I so unhappy? I allowed myself to be fobbed off by the doctors once again – this definitely wasn’t my first visit relating to mental health problems.
I don’t know what it is about the winter months, but they always seem to be the cause of a low mood for most people. So, when November came, I was already struggling with my mental health. Being a Full Time Officer definitely didn’t help the situation, because I was being criticised and judged for everything I did whilst also trying to cope with critically low self-esteem. I’d gone into work early one day, worked through my lunch hour, and had to stay behind until 8pm for a really tough meeting. It had definitely been a strenuous day. I left the meeting and just burst into tears, sobbing and sobbing as I got the bus home and entered the house. I ran straight upstairs to my room and continued to cry and cry, feeling more and more helpless; more and more hopeless. That night, I took and overdose. I decided it would be better for everyone, including myself, if I ended my life and they could continue happily with theirs. As I begin to swallow more and more pills I had a sudden realisation that this was wrong. I was stronger than this. I needed help. I took myself to A&E. When I got there I was extremely distressed and in tears as I told the receptionist why I was there. I was told to wait in the waiting room, where I waited. I waited and waited and waited. In that hour that I waited, I hacked at my hands with my house keys, and as they began to bleed, still I was kept waiting. I was eventually seen by a nurse, who then recommended that I wait to see a psychiatrist, and reassured me that ‘nobody thinks you’re crazy’, which I found an odd thing to say as it hadn’t even crossed my mind. It’s this sort of comment that creates stigma. I waited in the waiting room for a further four hours before I was told that I had to be moved to a Ward because people weren’t allowed to be left waiting for longer than four hours. I was told to ‘go to sleep’ in a hospital bed next to an elderly woman who lay screaming in agony. I certainly wasn’t in an appropriate place. I was awoken by a man shaking my shoulder that introduced himself as the psychiatrist, and took me into a ‘common room’ area that wasn’t even a private space. I got the usual twenty questions about alcohol intake, feelings of guilt and my childhood experiences. I was asked what I wanted to do about what I’d gone through. I found this strange, as I thought that’s what he was supposed to tell me. Eventually we came to a mutual conclusion that I should contact my doctor and ask to be placed on anti-depressants in addition to cutting down my alcohol intake, increasing my activity levels, and eating healthily. I was told that a member of the crisis team would be in touch with me the next day. A taxi was ordered for me, and I was sent home.
That night (at this point it was around 3am), I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up all night feeling numb, empty and completely helpless. What happens now? I contacted work to let them know I wouldn’t be coming in the next day as I had spent the night in hospital. I didn’t want to go into the specifics because I felt ashamed and embarrassed and thought people would judge me for what I had gone through.
The next day, a few friends came round to visit me and that really helped to reassure me that people did care about me and supported me. I saw my doctor again and got placed on an anti-depressant known as sertraline. Things were as good as they could be considering the circumstances. I went home a couple of days later where I had to explain everything to my parents, which was really hard, but they were incredibly supportive and I am so lucky to have them there to help me through everything. I took two and a half weeks off at home whilst I went through the worst side effects imaginable. However, once they’d worn off, I really did start to feel the positive effects they were having on my emotions and mood. Although they affected my sleep, they also stopped me from feeling overly emotional and teary and helped to stabilize my moods.
Christmas and New Year went by and I managed to have a well needed rest and thoroughly enjoyed spending time with my family and good friends. I came back to work in the new year feeling ready for a new term, and I had my techniques and routines in place to help me cope with my busy working life. I visited the doctors a couple more times, explaining how I was getting on and this was when they began to suspect that what I was actually experiencing was bipolar disorder. I was told I needed to be weaned off sertraline and that I would be placed on different medication, which I am still in the process of sorting out.
Sadly, I am certain that there are thousands of people out there who can in some way relate to my experience, and that makes me extremely angry, and also extremely sad. My experience has taught me that the government don’t put anywhere near enough money and resources into mental health. I’ve learnt that medical professionals just do not know what to do to help people who are suffering with their mental health. They want to know what to do, but they just haven’t been trained and there isn’t enough resources for people. We should be putting more funding into talk therapies and counselling. That’s what really works for people. We shouldn’t just fob them off with health tips and drugs. It’s degrading and naïve to think that mental health is as simple as that. People are waiting up to 6 months to get onto the NHS counselling list. They are waiting weeks to get an appointment with their GP. They are waiting hours to get seen in Accident and Emergency when they are in crisis. Why are we allowing this to happen? People’s lives are at stake here, and that is not me being dramatic, it is a fact. This needs to be addressed, and it needs to be addressed RIGHT NOW. If there’s one thing you can do to help, it’s to keep raising awareness of these problems. Not only will this ensure that everyone knows about the issues that those with mental health problems are facing, it will also help to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, which is something that needs to be eradicated in order to encourage people who are struggling to come forward and seek the help that they need.
So, how can you get involved at Lancaster? You can contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to hear about what we have planned for the remainder of this academic year. This includes a Time to Talk event where people can share their experiences of mental health, mental health awareness week, and personal pledge signings aiming to get people to promise to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health. On Tuesday 10th March 5-7pm in Bowland bar we will be holding a Time to Talk event, which will see students sharing their stories about their experiences of mental health. It is my hope that this will play a part in tackling stigma, create a culture of support and provide information for those who need it around what the Union is doing in terms of campaigns around mental health. Don’t be the person who takes the role of the bystander. Be the person who makes a positive change. If you don’t, who will?
It’s time to talk openly about mental health at Lancaster University. Mia Scott- LUSU Vice President (Welfare and Community)