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Navigating Mental Health at University

To navigate means to travel along a desired path, one which has been planned and prepared for, one which you have intended to travel along; and if you deviate from that path then you prepare the necessary tools to get back on the right track. In terms of our Mental Health something which I consider to be an extremely delicate aspect of human beings that must be nurtured and cared for just like any other part of our body and yet many of us do not place value in it or ignore it to the point of crisis.

I would like to share some very raw and personal stories throughout this blog to inform you on the value of managing a mental health crisis whether it be for yourself or someone you know, the following accounts will reflect upon the importance of caring for our mental health and what happens when we don’t, I hope that this information may prove to be invaluable one day.

From a very young age I was met with difficulties, both parents were heavy drug users and after my arrival on this planet my father left and I wouldn’t meet him again until I was around 10 years old, My mother without a job and 3 children continued to abuse drugs and so me and my brothers lived with my grandparents. Throughout my childhood I experienced panic attacks and zero confidence, I felt unloved and unworthy and so as we all know our childhoods greatly affect our adulthood. At 19 years old I decided I would escape from my reality and travel Australia leaving my dead-end relationship and my wonderful friends and my extremely complicated family. Upon my arrival in Oz land I truly felt free for the first time in my life and I had so much ahead of me. So young, hopeful and slightly naive I travelled to central Australia in my 3rd week where I embarked on a tour with 8 other people to travel further south, this tour however was pivotal in the downward spiral of my Mental Health. It would be on the 3rd day of the tour that all the backpackers enjoyed some beers together whilst watching a truly magical sunset over Uluru and it was later that night that I would be locked in a bathroom with the tour guide leader having been drugged and then raped. Rough I know. For many years I abused my body and my mind and grew an overwhelming addiction to not getting better via drugs and alcohol and bad people. And If I am completely honest it’s not until this new year (2020) that I finally feel free from the clutches of that horrific event. Getting better takes time, and it’s been 5 years since I went to Australia, but the important point I’m trying to make here is that for 5 years I’ve mostly ignored my problems and so they have festered. Some years ago I tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy/Talk Therapy via the NHS and it really did help me for a small amount of time, but unfortunately the NHS is under a lot of pressure and so I only had these appointments for around 3 months most of it was self-help homework to help me understand my emotions better, and what I call my ‘Brain Doctor’ really cared and made me realise my childhood and being raped was not my fault, and if you can take anything away from this blog post then remember that you are not at fault, you are human, and if you need help then that’s okay.

So fast forward a few years, and I’ve plucked up the courage to come to University, I have the support of my partner who I live with, in our lovely apartment in the town, my wild childhood friends, and a very dysfunctional family, however I now have the added support of those at the University. However let me just say University life is definitely not easy, I’ve been kicked out of my accommodation whilst having to complete a 72hour TCA 3000 word essay, working out of a room with none of my belongings around me trying to revise for exams during exam season whilst extremely ill and massively depressed trying to figure out where I would be living, I’ve had to rush from lectures to get to the hospital to take care of and feed my extremely ill Granda, and just last November I started taking Anti-Depressant medication for the first time and a week later found out I was pregnant, whilst supporting my suicidal friend and repairing my relationship with my mum. Now I’m not going to say that if I can get through that then you can get through what you’re going through because the weight of our issues can be heavier to one person than the other, but the one thing I did differently throughout all of this compared to how I handled childhood problems and the rape, I actually spoke to people, I spoke to my partner, my friends, my family and for the first time I fully opened up to people at the University, it started with a tutor so I could request an extension (oh because of course during all of this I had like 50 essays to complete), then my personal tutor so my non-attendance at lectures could be excused, it was that conversation that led to me writing this blog post! And from that it continued, I then spoke to Assist and the Student Support Team to figure out whether having a baby whilst studying was even a viable option, and it was but I knew in myself I did not have the strength to embark on that particular journey and my choice was supported not just by my friends, family and partner but also by the University via supportive emails from tutors, and being allowed mitigating circumstances on assignments I just couldn’t complete right now. Support comes in many different forms but it’s so important that you open up otherwise how can anyone support you, you don’t even have to say what’s wrong you just need to let someone know something is wrong and when you’re ready and comfortable you can open up and get the help that you might need.

So at Northampton University there is a great deal of support available to us students all it takes is an email or popping by a drop in session, I understand that in itself can be a difficulty trust me I’ve made many appointments and not turned up and if you feel that way also then what I’d recommend is maybe asking a friend to go with you or letting your personal tutor know so they could offer some advice on how to deal with that because there really are people who want to help you become the best you that you can be.

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but rising every time that we fall – Confucius

  • Assist – Assist can give you advice and guidance for managing your disability whilst studying, for me they helped with a DSA application regarding my Anti-Depressant medication, the DSA application will give me the opportunity to have 6 appointments with the counselling team who can further help me work through my issues by providing me with a safe and comfortable space to talk. 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;

If you have been affected by sexual assault;.

https://www.northamptonshirerapecrisis.co.uk/ (Northampton Local Centre).

https://www.nhs.uk/service-search/other-services/Rape-and-sexual-assault-referral-centres/LocationSearch/364 (Find sexual assault referral centre in your home town/local area).

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/help-after-rape-and-sexual-assault/

https://www.nhft.nhs.uk/serenity

Other helpful support (local and national)

https://www.mind.org.uk/

http://thelowdown.info/

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/

On being a University Student with Asperger Syndrome

To all new students starting university who are on the autism spectrum and Asperger Syndrome – YOU CAN DO IT! YOU WILL THRIVE!

As a child I was different. 

I preferred spending time on my own, did not care much about what others were doing, and kept myself to myself. In primary school I was a daydreamer, and always lived in a world of my own. I was always very happy and had a smile on my face. The early years of my life were cheerful and full of happiness. I loved painting and drawing and being outdoors. When I started secondary school, I faced a variety of challenges.  

I struggled socially, especially as I went to a mainstream school, and generally disliked being around other people. I loved studying and learning, and was always very ambitious when I was in my teenage years. I dreamed of being an author and a lawyer among many things, and always aimed high. Due to being different I was left out, but didn’t care much.  I struggled with my senses at times, and became overwhelmed when there was lots of loud noises.  My memory was unusual – I could remember silly little details, facts and useless information. I loved learning new things, reading and filling my head with knowledge. In my family, I was the oddball – I had specific interests, displayed intense focus, and displayed signs of phalilalia (repeating myself). [1]

My mum suspected that I was ‘different’, and she wanted me to be properly seen by a medical doctor. One morning, after a number of referrals, it happened; Friday 2nd February, 2010, 9:35am 42 seconds within the minute, I received my diagnosis: High Functioning Autism/Asperger Syndrome. This diagnosis explained so much about me.

Fast forward 3 years, on Saturday 15th September 2012, after an hour long drive away from home, I was settled into my new flat at the University of Northampton. My family left and I was with my new flatmates. The start of a new chapter in my life. My time at university enabled me to flourish and blossom in ways I never knew I could! At this point, I knew that I could not stay in my shell and isolate myself, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, tried new things, and challenged myself. I wanted to be able to integrate and enjoy myself as much as I possibly could.

Aware of how my Aspergers affected me; from sensory difficulties, challenges in reading people (which I’m much better at now), to social awareness (knowing how to behave in different social situations), but I was determined to learn and grow. I overcame them all by going out, meeting and learning from new people, and enjoying myself!  First year at university was one of the happiest years of my adult life! I remember smiling so much that my cheeks hurt. I fully immersed myself into university life, and loved every single minute of it! I got myself a job, did some volunteering, and loved studying. Being away from home helped me to really grow, and was the best decision I ever made!

I’m somewhat of a chameleon; meaning that I have learned to blend in and ‘mask’ my Aspergic traits. My social skills were very good already, so, to the majority of people I met, no-one could pick up on my Aspergers. I have an unusual memory for detail, am very focused, driven and energetic. There were times where I would interpret things differently, or misunderstand. That’s ok. I just asked more questions and for clarification, so that I could understand.  

After getting my DSA (Disabled Students Allowance) approved, I was given specialist equipment and software’s to help meet my academic needs. These were so useful and handy! I had never recieved so much support for studying before! I was given all the training and guidance I needed to help get to grips with everything.

On my assignments, I had an extra front sheet, informing my lecturers of my Aspergers, so that they were aware and could take it into consideration when reviewing my work.

Students with disabilities can also get a mentor, note-taking support, and other support in accordance with their needs.

When I was in my first year, I founded the Auto-Circle Spectrum Society; the first society of its kind in the country, supporting students with autism, Asperger Syndrome and other learning disabilities. Upon seeing that there was no group in the Student’s Union to represent this demographic of students, I wanted to help others.

The second and third year flew by very quickly; I found myself starting each year with excitement and enthusiasm. I loved studying too. I remember collecting several books, finding my corner in the library and reading for hours, noting each reference as I went, putting together bodies of information for my assignments.

Auto-Circle Spectrum also grew over the 3 years, and I met so many incredible individuals who brought their own sense of uniqueness, fabulouslness and eccentricity to the group! I became increasingly aware of the challenges other students with autism face, particularly, transitions and dealing with change. After a parent got in touch with me, concerned for her son who was to start university. Wanting to further my help for students on the spectrum, I undertook the Change Maker Certificate, guided by the incredible Tim Curtis; which, after numerous meetings, resulted in a, Autism Spectrum Condition Taster Day, which was a huge success!

Today, I am the first person from both sides of my family to go to university, and the only one to have a masters degree. Do NOT let others tell you what you can and can’t do. You can overcome all odds if you put your mind to it and let yourself grow. The more you put into university life, the more you get out, and the more memorable it will be. YOU CAN DO IT!

Links to info about Aspergers/Autism

[1] National Autistic Society ‘Obsessions, Repetitive Behavior and Routines’ Available online at: https://www.autism.org.uk/about/behaviour/obsessions-repetitive-routines.aspx   

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