January 24, 2014

JamieTo begin, I’d like to ask you a question. What does mental health look like? Truth is nobody can answer that. Did you know that 1 in 4 people experience mental difficulty during their lives? Look around you – think of your housemates. Think of your family. In a lecture full of people, how many are suffering? It’s impossible to tell.

1 in 10 students have suicidal thoughts during their studies

According to research carried out by NUS in May 2013, 64% of students did not use any ‘formal’ services for advice/support in relation to their mental distress. I was horrified to learn that 1 in 10 students have suicidal thoughts during their studies. Perhaps this data is largely impacted by the stigma surrounding mental health issues?

I expected to be judged or disliked for my mental health issues

It took me a long time to fully admit that I was suffering from mental health issues. Even then I did it in a guarded manner, expecting to be judged and disliked for it, or perhaps to be considered as just an attention seeking teen.

I often wonder what my trigger was. With an absent father, crippling family issues in my mother’s broken marriage, bullying at school, confusion over my sexuality, being a victim of sexual assault and family illness, it could be any number of things. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I am what I am – and sometimes that is the hardest part.

I plucked up the courage to really look for help from my GP

Growing up I had various ‘run-ins’ with local counselling services for a number of reasons, each of which involved a few weeks of chatting before being discharged into the big wide world again. It was only in 2010 when I plucked up the courage to really look for help from my GP.

I appreciate the difficulty faced by health services, particularly with the lack of awareness or education of mental health issues in society. I was one of many who was handed some tablets with the hopes of a quick fix, and it certainly wasn’t. My first dose of medication caused me to be hysterical, paranoid and a danger to myself and others. It took quite some time before I found the medication I could comfortably take though even then I was still occasionally victim to an episode in particular circumstances.

 A carer of someone with mental illness can often feel they spend their life walking on eggshells

Mental health issues run in my family. My own mother suffers from circumstantial depression and has had a number of breakdowns during my adolescent life. Supporting her through this has always been my priority, and looking after someone with mental health issues is no easy task. With little professional knowledge who knows if what you are saying actually makes any difference? I’ve always been an ‘agony aunt’ and naturally feel the need to fix everyone else’s problems, so I look after numerous friends and acquaintances with mental health issues too. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing; a carer of someone with mental illness can often feel they spend their life walking on eggshells. The pressures of this added to my own personal issues has been a strain at numerous times, though I wouldn’t change this for the world – I always strive to make other people’s lives better, if I can.

I lost a lot of confidence in pretty much everything, including myself

During my third year I was on placement and following a relationship breakdown and family illness I ended up in a pretty bad way with regards to my mental health. I had several weeks of absence from work and relied quite heavily on a ridiculous amount of nights out to ‘drown my sorrows’. Apparently also drowning my income and causing damage to my immune system and overall wellbeing in the process. After resigning from my placement earlier than planned I had an extended summer break to sort myself out. But following the stresses of entering my final year I had a full-fledged breakdown and was quarantined by my family after harming myself quite badly. My employment and academic life suffered massively and I lost a lot of confidence in pretty much everything, including myself.

Following this my anxiety took over my life – my job suffered, my attendance dropped for lectures to the point that I became scared to show my face in case nobody knew who I was. I sought help from Student Support and Wellbeing but ultimately most days I was too scared to leave my bedroom let alone talk to a professional.

The persistence of friends and family kept me going

I found that, as someone who often isolates themselves when they feel low, it was great to be made to feel involved by people. It’s easy to think that because someone is depressed they don’t want to attend social events, but even if they don’t – inviting them makes them feel wanted, which is often the first step towards recovery. I found that the persistence of friends and family in trying to get me to go outside and to motivate me to work hard to achieve my goals was what kept me going, and I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for their help and guidance. Even if people don’t reply straight away – a simple text or email can make all the difference to making a person feel as loved as they deserve.

Being involved in the Students’ Union has changed my life

Running in the Students’ Union elections was the biggest challenge of my life. There is no part of myself that felt like a leader. How could 32, 000 students look up to me as a role model when I could barely look at myself in a mirror? Struggling with my anxiety I was taken aback when people said my speech during question time was good, I threw up twice with nerves before getting up on that stage! Safe to say I was amazed when I won the election – though still doubting myself, it was amazing to think that so many people believed in me. I was really humbled, and genuinely think, though it’s quite cheesy to say, that being involved in the Students’ Union has changed my life from the first day I walked through the doors.

Without the incredible patience and support from my friends, family and my partner I don’t know if I’d even be here today

While I’m certainly far from recovered from my difficulties, I have learned to cope now. Without the incredible patience and support from my friends, family and my partner I don’t know if I’d even be here today. While some people might think the Sabbaticals are made of steel, I’m just as vulnerable as everyone else – a gay guy with mental health issues in a society which doesn’t realise how tough that can be.

Just remember you are never alone – believe in yourself, it’s amazing how far your life can take you with a bit of movement in the right direction. Challenge the stigma – It’s Time to Talk.

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