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Nearly a month has passed since I told @paulaabowles that I would be writing another blog post, one that would act as a continuance of the last, thus a part 2 of ‘Navigating Mental Health at University’, I can’t deny it has been frustrating that I haven’t allowed myself the time to write this post because although it helps me in some small way to share and create, my goal is to help anyone else who may be struggling with similar issues. Hopefully there will be some helpful information in this blog post that will inform and guide you on how to take control of any mental health issues you may be dealing with right now, and so I truly hope that you enjoy the blog and that it may help you in some small way. Thus, I present…
‘Navigating your mental health whilst studying at university during a worldwide health pandemic’
I hope to make you feel at ease with your mind by knowing that you are not alone in how you feel, it is then, that you may be able to realise that ‘well if it works for her then maybe it will work for me’, and when you get to that realisation it is important to thank yourself because you are allowing your mind and body to try something that may ease that strain on your mental health.
Firstly, I want to begin by discussing what has happened to me during these past two months and how I have handled the issues that have faced me during this extremely difficult time. If you have read my other post ‘Navigating Mental Health at University’ then you will have a little insight into my story of which I’d like to start with the topic of the Anti-Depressants that I have been taking since Christmas time.
(Please note that the following is not recommended and please take advice from your GP)
Just three weeks ago I decided that I finally felt so uncomfortable with the pills that I decided to stop taking the Fluoxetine (20mg – a relatively low dosage), I never felt that I truly needed them despite my PTSD, Anxiety and Depression but I gave them a go because I felt that it was the push in the right direction of allowing my mind to heal. I can’t deny that I feel they certainly have had a positive effect on me, especially when dark moment’s come to pass, throughout my life I have regularly had moments where I would completely give up and felt that absolutely nothing could be done to feel better (these were usually my very lowest moments of thoughts of suicide) and these have haunted me ever since I was little, but now they come and they pass within seconds. If you’re wondering how it is possible that now I react completely different then I would say that it comes down to varying factors such as maturation and life events but one key difference that I do now is I try to remain as present in the moment as possible and when that thought passes through my mind I don’t let it consume me, instead I question it and once I’m finished detangling that thought I actually speak to myself via my internal dialogue, I’d say something like ‘thanks for your input’, ‘I appreciate your emotions but suicide is not the right response’, by physically or mentally responding in such a way you are actually training your mind to disperse those negative thoughts and allowing them to pass through you, whilst you are simultaneously acknowledging and digesting how you feel then you work through why you feel that way and then you let it go. So maybe my responses have changed because the Fluoxetine raised my serotonin levels enough to be able to respond differently, but I feel that is naive to put down such a great feat to only a tablet, Instead I’m giving myself a little pat on the back because it’s the fact that I choose to be conscious and aware in that moment that allows the change in mindset and these are the very small difference’s you can make to take that step in the right direction of healing your pain.
The physical-mental space connection
One thing that works greatly for me is keeping my space tidy, fresh and full of houseplants I own around 70 plants because I am fortunate enough to have the space however all you need to do is own just one and allow yourself a few minutes every couple of days to take care of it because it is during this time that you allow moments of calmness and mindfulness whilst proving to yourself that you can have the responsibility to take care of a living thing which will in turn allow you to realise that you have the ability to take care of yourself. However please don’t limit yourself to a houseplant! Maybe take a moment right now to consider what has been lacking your attention recently? Does the bathroom need a good scrub? or is there a huge pile of clothes that need to be sorted? Well start small and work your way up, allow yourself the time to clear and take care of your space because it will truly work wonders on raising your low mood but remind yourself to aim for done not for perfect! For me I spend a great deal of time on developing and bettering my physical space although it certainly feels like an urban jungle I cannot deny that the positive effects are numerous, I walk into my study room and I smile because I have filled that room with things I love, books and paintings and personal trinkets and by doing this It makes me want to stay in that space and study! I don’t force it; I just wonder into that room and feel so comfortable that I don’t want to leave!
TIP: Must of us students don’t have a great deal of money (I certainly do not), and if you want to add something new to your bedroom or home on a budget whilst a lot of shops are closed look to places like Facebook Marketplace or try to shop at local and independent business such as found on Depop and Etsy! However, if you are decluttering your space, then use your social media outlets to sell your items or even to pass them along to someone who may use them!
And on that note…
Declutter your mental space
And let me tell you why… When your mind is constantly filled with information, things to do, people to message, essays to write, what to cook for dinner … if your mind is consistently focusing on these little (granted important) tasks then you are not allowing yourself to be totally present and totally focused on the task at hand, even if the task is watching Netflix then you are not allowing yourself to truly relax because you are concerning your mind with so many other things. De-cluttering your mind applies to when you are suffering from anxiety and depression too, for me when I have a particularly negative thought pass through my mind or maybe where it’s one of those days that I cannot help but to think negatively of myself, I use the tools I’ve learnt such as being present and focused on this moment that I am in and this moment that I feel right now which essentially grounds you in that moment, combined with watching my breath I allow myself to think the thoughts (you know, the nasty negative ones) and then I imagine a windscreen wiper just wiping them out of my mind… and it really is those small moments that once you’ve tackled them, leads to much bigger and much more positive changes in your mental health overall. Don’t deny your emotions and certainly don’t bury them but allow yourself to fully immerse in the emotions and those thoughts that weigh you down and then just let them go.
TIP: Another way to declutter your mind is to simply write down all of your thoughts, whether it’s a to do list or perhaps just lots of thoughts running around your mind, then just write them down, as it is the act of taking them from your mind and putting them onto paper that will allow you to work on them because your mental space is free.
So, what about my studies?
In all 8 weeks of lockdown do you know I have spent barely a handful of those days studying and yet I don’t feel guilty for it, I did feel bit guilty at first and I was beating myself up a-bit because I was adamant that I would be a failure if I didn’t study. So I kept in mind that I was capable of putting more effort into my studies, and for the past few weeks I stopped feeling guilty and I stopped putting pressure on myself, If I had a good idea for an essay that is due then I’d jot the idea down and stick it on the wall or if I had a tiny bit of admin to do I’d space it throughout a couple of days or do a power hour. Overall I have stopped forcing myself to study and I’ve stopped guilt tripping myself because it only creates negativity and negative thoughts that make us feel even worse, it is these bad habits that feed our mental health issues and it is these habits that need to stop.
So I am in my second year right now and I still have 4 essays and 1 exam to complete, I pressured myself so much into believing that I could complete them for their primary due dates but those dates have passed, so for a while I stayed in a kind of limbo state on how to tackle these outstanding assessments but we are fortunate enough to have the freedom to rely on the no detriment policy which personally for me has been undeniably helpful and so I am choosing to take the time I need and remember that not only am I trying to complete assignments but also focus on my mental health, take care of my home and myself and partner, maintain my friendships, support my grandparents, but that I am doing this during a time where the present and the future doesn’t make sense and offers a whole new world of difficulties to overcome. So next time when you are internally beating yourself up for not reading that extra journal article please go easy on yourself, take a breath and return back to studying when you feel mentally able to, it is then that you will produce great work!
How to approach studying?
If you’re like me and have spent maybe a handful of days studying in the past 8 weeks, or maybe none or maybe everyday but feel like you’re stuck in a rut… then don’t ignore how your feel, What I would recommend when you feel like this is to jot down every single thing that you feel needs to be completed, by doing this you are simply transferring all of that information out of your mind and onto paper which frees up your mental space!
In addition to my personal take on how to tackle your mental health I’ve asked a couple of fellow students to share their own take on how they are handling their health during the lockdown and to provide you with a little comfort knowing you are not alone in how you feel…
…“So as you know, my mental health those last few weeks at uni was really bad. Luckily, I managed to get my transfer for work, and I moved back home literally a day before the government announced the lockdown. I believed my mental health was so low because I was lonely, as soppy as that may sound, but the second I stepped through that front door to that new house my parents had bought back in December, in which I had no time to decorate my bedroom (lol), I instantly felt better somehow.
Just being at home, with my parents and my partner, somehow was the one thing that made me feel better about myself and this situation.
I’ve been keeping busy during the lockdown, doing uni assignments and prepping for ‘exams’. I’ve been cleaning and decorating, baking and playing games. I’ve brought a car to finish my driving lessons, so that was a big exciting thing for me the past week. I’m also a key worker, so going to work to support people that can’t do so for themselves really gives you a sense of perspective. In all honesty with you, I haven’t been worried about this pandemic. I have simply been doing want I want to do, when I want to, to the terms of the lockdown of course. I haven’t let uni stress me out, I’ve kept it slow and steady. The closest I’ve come to worried about this pandemic is when my mum told me her workplace, a care home, has had an outbreak of covid-19 and they are thinking of a strategy to deal with it. But like I said, other than that, I’ve actually been great”
“I am finding the current situation with COVID-19 rather difficult as I would usually have a routine and structure for a few weeks so I can plan out my schedule whilst also fitting in things that are non-university related. I know I need to crack on and get my work done however, at the moment I am feeling lethargic and lacking motivation on almost a daily basis which is difficult for me to swallow due to my usual motivated and positive attitude. Waking up and knowing every day is the same is my current biggest struggle. At the moment I am lacking the energy to do some revision for my upcoming exams, even though I have longer to do the exam and its open book I still want to have a good level of understanding for when the questions are released. I have written 2 essays since being in lockdown and I have managed to write these to reasonable standard as they were timed assessments it seemed to provoke the urgency within me that is obviously lacking in other areas. As this situation is unprecedented, I do not know whether the amount of preparation I am doing now is too little or too much which fills me with a touch of anxiety as I am usually comfortable in my normal routine. I would say my overall feeling is seeing that that there is an amazing opportunity to get some great exam results but alongside this is definitely a feeling of anxiety and an overwhelming lack of motivation.”
“I haven’t given much thought into my mental health throughout my later teen years onwards, however, during this recent pandemic it has given me time to really reflect on how (what I guess people call) my mental health is and how I cope with it. I have come to the terms that I am a hypochondriac (constantly worrying about every little thing and making situations 10x worse I’m my head). Therefore, during my studies, I become quite conflicted. I have recently taken a lot of time off from revision and TCAs, by reading or watching Netflix, totally ignoring the fact that I have work to do, so now exams have become almost a week away, the huge wave of stress has come over me that I have done little to no preparation for the past 3 weeks. Therefore, I go into a state to complete adrenaline, doing work throughout all hours of the day while constantly battling with myself that I should have done this sooner.
However, as I stated, during this lockdown, I have had time to reflect on my mental well-being. As before I saw having days off or even the odd few hours as a failure, I now see it as a necessity to be able to switch my brain off and find some calming relief within this crazy world. Being able to engage in things I enjoy and make me happy to bring my stress levels down and relax for a while.”
“I find it very difficult, to say the least. It is very hard to stay disciplined and focus on revising/getting any university work done, because I’ve always struggled with creating a routine for myself. I think it’s not even the fact that you kind of have to figure everything out on your own at home, it’s more the mental state that keeps putting me off. I’ve been dealing with a lot of anxiety because of everything that has happened since the pandemic, e.g. losing my job. For the first work or two i could not get myself to do anything because depression was creeping around the corner. its not easy. I think what has helped me to get out of that mindset is trying my best to find positives rather than negatives. I’ve been doing things i normally don’t have the time to do, things that make my soul happy – reading greats books, painting. In terms of doing my university work – I’m sure everyone is struggling right now, and the main thing is to understand that its normal. I’ve stopped beating myself up if I don’t feel like I’m able to do the work, instead I plan a different time to do it, so it helps me prepare for it mentally. I think it is very, very difficult at the moment, because there is so much going on around, but it’s very important to take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Understanding that life does go on and this will come to an end, therefore not letting yourself drift off. it’s important to remind yourself of your goals. Doing at least one thing everyday that makes you happy, for example buying lots and lots of plants! it is hard and I think all I was trying to say is – it’s okay not to be okay. and celebrating every little thing is key!!”
“The way I have been handling it is basically watching a load of Criminal Minds and Waterloo Road. I also think being in my accommodation has helped a lot, like I’m still with friends so I can have my “me time” but also go and hang out essentially. I feel like my mental health is fine like I’m still the same, I don’t feel depressed at all or anything like that. Pretty lucky I guess but the only thing is i miss my family, like I would go home but with my mum being terminally ill I don’t want to risk it until things are better. But overall, I feel pretty good, I’m doing things that I actually want to do such as binge watching and not worry as much. I’m in my own little bubble, I’m doing what I want and I’m happy with that even if I can’t do outdoor things”
- Counsellors – The Counsellors will listen to you and help you respond to the difficulties in your life, they will allow you to develop your abilities to address and resolve issues in your life. https://firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mental Health Advisors – The Mental Health Advisors will help you to discuss your mental health difficulties and work with you to develop coping strategies whilst studying. https://email@example.com
- Assist – Assist can give you advice and guidance for managing your disability whilst studying, the DSA application will give you the opportunity to have 6 appointments with the counselling team who can further help work through your issues . https://www.northampton.ac.uk/student-life/support/about-assist/ ASSIST@northampton.ac.uk
If you have been affected by any of the issues I have discussed during this blog post and your struggling to manage or cope with these issues then you can also use any of the following services;
- Speak to your GP, they can refer you to the NHS Mental Health Services.
Other helpful support (local and national)
A Spoken Word poem for young people everywhere, esp Youth in Asia, who may never know WE LIVED before smartphones…and live to tell about it.
Walk down the street.
Find my way.
Go someplace I had previously been.
Go someplace I had previously not been.
Meet friends at a specific time and place.
Meet new people.
Meet new people without suspicion.
Strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Make myself known to a previously unknown person.
Now, everything and everyone unknown is literally described as ‘weird’.
Eat in a restaurant by myself.
Pay attention to the waiter.
Wait for my order to arrive.
Sit with others.
Listen to the sound of silence.
Listen to music.
Listen to a whole album.
Listen to the cityscape.
Overhear others’ conversations in public.
Watch kids play.
See the same picture in the same spot.
Read a book.
Read a long article.
Read liner notes.
I used to be able to stand at a urinal and focus on what I was doing,
Not feeling bored,
Not feeling the need to respond to anything that urgently.
Nothing could be so urgent that I could not, as the Brits say, ‘take a wee’.
Wait at a traffic light.
Wait for a friend at a pre-determined place and time.
Wait for my turn.
Wait for a meal I ordered to arrive.
Wait in an office for my appointment.
Wait in line.
Wait for anything!
I used to appreciate the downtime of waiting.
Now waiting fuels FOMO.
I used to enjoy people watching…
Now I just watch people on their phones.
It’s genuine anxiety.
Walk from point A to B.
I used to could walk between two known points without having to mark the moment with a post.
Now I can’t walk down the hall,
Or through the house or even to the toilet without checking my phone.
I avoid eye contact with strangers.
Anyone I don’t already know is strange.
I used to could muscle through this awkwardness.
Have a conversation.
A friend and I recently lamented about how you used to could have a conversation and
Even figure out a specific thing that you couldn’t immediately recall…
Just by talking.
I also appreciate the examples we discussed.
Say you wanted to mention a world leader but couldn’t immediately remember their name. What would you do before?
Rattle off the few facts you could recall and in so doing you’d jog your memory.
Who was the 43rd US president?
If you didn’t immediately recall his name,
You might have recalled that the current one is often called “45” since
Many folks avoid calling his name.
You know Obama was before him, therefore he must’ve been number “44.”
You know Obama inherited a crap economy and several unjust wars,
Including the cultural war against Islam. And
That this was even one of the coded racial slurs used against him: “A Muslim.”
Putting these facts together,
You’d quickly arrive at Dubya! And
His whole warmongering cabinet. And
Condi Rice. And
That whole process might have taken a full minute,
But so would pulling up 43’s name on the Google.
This way, however, you haven’t lost the flow of conversation nor the productive energy produced between two people when they talk.
(It’s called ‘limbic resonance’, BTW).
Yeah, I used to be able to recall things…
Many more things about the world without my mobile phone.
Allow my mind to wander.
Entertain myself with my own thoughts.
Think new things.
Think differently just by thinking through a topic.
I used to know things.
Know answers that weren’t presented to me as search results.
I used to trust my own knowledge.
I used to be able to be present, enjoying my own company,
Appreciating the wisdom that comes with the mental downtime.
Never the fear of missing out,
Allowing myself time to reflect.
It is in reflection that wisdom is born.
Now, most of us just spend our time simply doing:
Surfing, scrolling, liking, dissing, posting, sharing and the like.
Even on a wondrous occasion, many of us would rather be on our phones.
Not just sharing the wonderful occasion –
Watching an insanely beautiful landscape through our tiny screens,
Phubbing the people we’re actually with,
Reducing a wondrous experience to a well-crafted selfie –
But just making sure we’re not missing out on something rather mundane happening back home.
I used to could be in the world.
Now, I’m just in cyberspace.
I used to be wiser.
For much of the year, the campus is busy. Full of people, movement and voice. But now, it is quiet… the term is over, the marking almost complete and students and staff are taking much needed breaks. After next week’s graduations, it will be even quieter. For those still working and/or studying, the campus is a very different place.
This time of year is traditionally a time of reflection. Weighing up what went well, what could have gone better and what was a disaster. This year is no different, although the move to a new campus understandably features heavily. Some of the reflection is personal, some professional, some academic and in many ways, it is difficult to differentiate between the three. After all, each aspect is an intrinsic part of my identity.
Over the year I have met lots of new people, both inside and outside the university. I have spent many hours in classrooms discussing all sorts of different criminological ideas, social problems and potential solutions, trying always to keep an open mind, to encourage academic discourse and avoid closing down conversation. I have spent hour upon hour reading student submissions, thinking how best to write feedback in a way that makes sense to the reader, that is critical, constructive and encouraging, but couched in such a way that the recipient is not left crushed. I listened to individuals talking about their personal and academic worries, concerns and challenges. In addition, I have spent days dealing with suspected academic misconduct and disciplinary hearings.
In all of these different activities I constantly attempt to allow space for everyone’s view to be heard, always with a focus on the individual, their dignity, human rights and social justice. After more than a decade in academia (and even more decades on earth!) it is clear to me that as humans we don’t make life easy for ourselves or others. The intense individual and societal challenges many of us face on an ongoing basis are too often brushed aside as unimportant or irrelevant. In this way, profound issues such as mental and/or physical ill health, social deprivation, racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia, ageism and many others, are simply swept aside, as inconsequential, to the matters at hand.
Despite long standing attempts by politicians, the media and other commentators to present these serious and damaging challenges as individual failings, it is evident that structural and institutional forces are at play. When social problems are continually presented as poor management and failure on the part of individuals, blame soon follows and people turn on each other. Here’s some examples:
Q. “You can’t get a job?”
A “You must be lazy?”
Q. “You’ve got a job but can’t afford to feed your family?
A. “You must be a poor parent who wastes money”
Q. “You’ve been excluded from school?”
A. “You need to learn how to behave?”
Q. “You can’t find a job or housing since you came out of prison?”
A. “You should have thought of that before you did the crime”
Each of these questions and answers sees individuals as the problem. There is no acknowledgement that in twenty-first century Britain, there is clear evidence that even those with jobs may struggle to pay their rent and feed their families. That those who are looking for work may struggle with the forces of racism, sexism, disablism and so on. That the reasons for criminality are complex and multi-faceted, but it is much easier to parrot the line “you’ve done the crime, now do the time” than try and resolve them.
This entry has been rather rambling, but my concluding thought is, if we want to make better society for all, then we have to work together on these immense social problems. Rather than focus on blame, time to focus on collective solutions.
Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching on modules in years 1 and 3.
I wear several hats in life, but I write this blog in the role of a lecturer and a psychologist, with experience in the theory and practice of working with people with psychological disorders.
In recent years, there has been an increase in awareness of mental health problems. This is very welcome. Celebrities have talked openly about their own difficulties and high profile campaigns encourage us to bring mental health problems out of the shadows. This is hugely beneficial. When people with mental health problems suffer in silence their suffering is invariably increased, and simply talking and being listened to is often the most important part of the solution.
But with such increased awareness, there can also be well-intentioned but misguided responses which make things worse. I want to talk particularly about anxiety (which is sometimes lumped together with depression to give a diagnosis of “anxiety and depression” – they can and do often occur together but they are different emotions which require different responses). Anxiety is a normal emotion which we all experience. It is essential for survival. It keeps us safe. If children did not experience anxiety, they would wander away from their parents, put their hands in fires, fall off high surfaces or get run over by cars. Low levels of anxiety are associated with dangerous behaviour and psychopathy. High levels of anxiety can, of course, be extremely distressing and debilitating. People with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear to the point where their lives become smaller and smaller and their experience severely restricted.
Of course we should show compassion and understanding to people who suffer from anxiety disorders and some campaigners have suggested that mental health problems should receive the same sort of response as physical health problems. However, psychological disorders, including anxiety disorders, do not behave like physical illnesses. It is not a case of diagnosing a particular “bug” and then prescribing the appropriate medication or therapy to make it go away (in reality, many physical conditions do not behave like this either). Anxiety thrives when you feed it. The temptation when you suffer high levels of anxiety is to avoid the thing that makes you anxious. But anyone who has sat through my lecture on learning theory should remember that doing something that relieves or avoids a negative consequence leads to negative reinforcement. If you avoid something that makes you highly anxious (or do something that temporarily relieves the anxiety, such as repeatedly washing your hands, or engaging in a ritual) the avoidance behaviour will be strongly reinforced. And you never experience the target of your fears, so you never learn that nothing catastrophic is actually going to happen – in other words you prevent the “extinction” that would otherwise occur. So the anxiety just gets worse and worse and worse. And your life becomes more and more restricted.
So, while we should, of course be compassionate and supportive towards people with anxiety disorders, we should be careful not to feed their fears. I remember once becoming frustrated with a member of prison staff who proudly told me how she was supporting a prisoner with obsessive-compulsive disorder by allowing him to have extra cleaning materials. No! In doing so, she was facilitating his disorder. What he needed was support to tolerate a less than spotless cell, so that he could learn through experience that a small amount of dirt does not lead to disaster. Increasingly, we find ourselves teaching students with anxiety difficulties. We need to support and encourage them, to allow them to talk about their problems, and to ensure that their university experience is positive. But we do them no favours by removing challenges or allowing them to avoid the aspects of university life that they fear (such as giving presentations or working in groups). In doing so, we make life easier in the short-term, but in the long-term we feed their disorders and make things worse. As I said earlier, we all experience anxiety and the best way to prevent it from controlling us is to stare it in the face and get on with whatever life throws at us.