May 15, 2013

Kate, a lecturer at GoldsmithsI'm a university lecturer at Goldsmiths and during Mental Health Awareness week I'm sitting on a staff/student panel, an event organised by our Disability Team, discussing the challenges of mental health issues and university life. The reasons I feel able to contribute to this?

First, I'm Senior Tutor in my department, which means I deal with the day-to-day welfare of our undergraduate students, and this often includes mental health issues.

Second, I have bipolar disorder and have plenty of personal experience as a mental health service user.

Third, my husband also has bipolar disorder, and he's an undergraduate student (at a different university) so I know first-hand what it's like supporting and caring for someone with a mental illness and the issues that they face in Higher Education.

I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2005

I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2005 when I was finishing my PhD. I'd been in the grip of a particularly bad bout of depression - the hopeless, despairing sort where I wanted to die because it was easier than living. Bit by bit, with the help of friends and SSRIs, I crawled back to functioning daily life.

Then it all got weird in a why-am-I-seeing-things-that-aren't-there kind of way and BAM! Ever heard a carpet talking? You're not missing much. Next thing I was hiding under a table in a dark room, trying to get away from the sensory overload, until my friends hauled me to a doctor who saw immediately that I was having a psychotic episode and gave me an urgent referral for psychiatric assessment.

I have, on occasion, faced stigma and intolerance

I have been lucky; I responded well to medication. I got through pregnancy and the birth of my child without post-puerperal psychosis, although the postnatal anxiety and OCD wasn't a barrel of laughs. I am currently stable and off mood stabilizers with the agreement of my psychiatrist, and a low dose of antidepressants keeps the intrusive thoughts at bay.

My bipolar disorder has gone from being a haunting presence to something I keep an eye on. I've stopped questioning where my personality ends and where the illness starts – something that took quite a while to accept. I've done things when manic that I am embarrassed about now. I'm regretful that I've put friends and loved ones through the emotional wringer. I have, on occasion, faced stigma and intolerance. However, I also firmly believe that talking openly about mental illness is hugely important and the more we talk about it, the more accepted it will be.

Academic life is both a blessing and a curse

Academic life and mental illness is not a smooth ride but it can be done. My husband is now in his second year of his degree after two previous attempts at undergraduate studies prior to his diagnosis left him burnt out and on antipsychotics.

This time round he has support in place. There are reasonable adjustments for his assessments, he has Disabled Student Allowance to fund further support, and his lecturers and fellow students are understanding about his condition. Although he finds it hard at times (and at the moment, at exam time, stress has triggered a mixed episode), it is his openness and willingness to talk about his condition that has made much of this possible. He is succeeding against the odds, and I am so proud of him.

For me, academic life is both a blessing and a curse. When I'm hypomanic my productivity is astounding and my research flows. A little higher and I pace the office floor all day, writing pages of elaborate schemes that will never be completed. When I am low, I feel the suffering of the world around me and I'm thankful for the flexible hours that allow me to organise my time as it best suits. I have often felt apologetic for my lack of consistency but I know I can do my job and I can do it well - I just need a little more time or a different way of working.

The best advice I can offer is "tell someone"

For my students, I hope that I can offer not just advice and adjustments but empathy and understanding. I know what it's like to hang on to normality by the fingertips. I know how it feels to watch someone I love labour through the simplest of tasks when ill.

There are times when coping seems so exhaustingly difficult but you still have to put one weary foot in front of the other and keep going. I've both struggled and soared through the university system with a brain that doesn't always do what I want it to. Despite that, I also know that it's possible, and that a life often turned upside down by mental health problems needn't be a barrier to using your mind. Help is there. We want to see people succeed. From my own experience, the best advice I can offer anyone facing mental health problems is “tell someone”.

Goldsmiths' Student Union signed the Time to Change organisational pledge. Find out what mental health awareness activities they pledged to carry out.

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