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Meet the Team: Stephanie Richards, Student Success Mentor and Associate Lecturer in Criminology

A Warm Welcome

Hello all! I would like to introduce myself. My name is Stephanie Richards and I am your Student Success Mentor (SSM). Some of the criminology and criminal justice students would have already had the opportunity to meet me, as I was their Student Success Mentor previously. So, it will be great to touch base with you all and it would also be great for the new cohorts to say hi when you see me on campus.

It is that time of the year when we see new students and our existing students getting ready to tackle the trials of higher education. Being a SSM I am fully aware of the challenges that you will face, and I am here to support you throughout your time at UON. As a previous student I can testify that studying at university is incredibly challenging. The leap from school/ college can be daunting at first. A new building that seems like a maze or the idea of being  surrounded by strangers that you probably think you have nothing in common with can be enough to encourage you to run for the hills….stepping into a workshop for the first time can give you a stomach flip, but once you take that first seat in class you will come to realise it does get easier.

Upon reflection of my experience as a new undergraduate student I would have to be honest and express the difficulties that I suffered adjusting to my new way of life. I could  not keep my head above the masses of reading, and when I did manage to get some of the seminar prep completed, most of the time I struggled with the new questions and concepts that were posed to me. This will be the experience of most, if not all the new students starting out on their university education. This is part of the complex journey of academia. My advice would be to pace yourself, time management is key, if you struggle to understand the work that has been set, ask for clarity and develop positive relationships with your peers and the staff at UON…………..being part of a strong community will get you through a lot!

My role is not just about assisting the new students that have started their university journey, I am also here to help UONs existing students. Getting back into the swing of studying can be daunting after the summer break. Adjusting to face-to-face education can be an overwhelming process but one that should be embraced. We will all miss our pyjama bottoms and slippers but being back on campus and getting some normality back in your day is worth the sacrifice.  

The team of SSM’s are here to support you throughout your journey so please get in touch if you require our assistance. We never want you to feel alone in this journey and we want to assist you the best ways we can. We want you to progress and meet your full learning potential, and to get the most out of your university experience.

The ‘Dangers’ of Travelling

This month, during the brief lull between the teaching and marking season, I had allocated myself a bit more free-time than usual. I have not been able to indulge in my hobby of travelling for a while, so instead of this, I have been watching travel related-television programmes with the hope that these will provide me with some kind of joy.    

This attempt has been a partial success; an influx of comedy travel shows have worked wonders to uplift my spirits whilst simultaneously reminding me about the beauty of nature; animals, plants, sea, land…(and even humans).    

Covid has taken over travel related news at the moment, but in ‘usual’ times it does not require much effort to come across travel documentaries or news reports that seem to encourage prejudice by depicting other countries and travelling as being strange or dangerous. I do worry that this type of coverage might discourage people from wanting to explore the world.  

It is difficult to assess the extent to which the television influences our opinions, but when I was a bit younger and discussing my travel plans with others, sometimes I would be met with the following comments:  

Response: I would love to travel but I can’t  

Me: Why can’t you?   

Response: It is dangerous!    

Me: How do you know this?  

Response: …It said so on the television  

There are many genuine reasons that prevent people from travelling, such as, money, responsibilities, health, conflict, misogyny and racism etc. But I find the above reason to be such a shame.   

I have encountered many myths over the years which seem to have been gained from watching the television. Here are some of my favorites:   

Myth 1: If you see a [insert wild animal here], it will eat you alive  

My experience: Take crocodiles for example, these are not as bad as they seem. Yes, arguably crocodiles are death machines but I have seen many in the wild and I am still alive.  

Myth 2: The local ‘criminals’ are dangerous   

My experience: On very rare occasions I have witnessed crime being committed whilst abroad. I once sat on a coach full of people who were attempting to smuggle cocaine to Brazil. I have also stumbled upon situations which the media described as ‘riots’ and I have also witnessed a few thefts. In these situations, the locals were not a danger to myself, but crime seemed to be a way of being able to afford to live or the result of the occasional angry outburst amongst crowds of protesters, motivated by frustrations with the state.  

Myth 3: If you accept the hospitality of strangers you will be murdered in your sleep  

My experience: The chances of this happening are very slim. Travelling tends to restore my faith in humanity, the people that I meet whilst travelling can be incredibly kind and helpful.   

I found that whilst I was a student, I was able to travel to many places on relatively limited over-draft funds. I hope that the students that I teach are able to do the same, as travel really can broaden the mind. Although, maybe I am wrong for encouraging others to travel, as travelling also makes you very aware of the damage that has been caused to the world, and my own part with in it.    

@SchoolOnScreen #BlackenAsianWithLove

Corona is liminal, this crisis stage of the pandemic will pass. Corona upended so much of our lives. Humanism suggests that we will grow from this experience if we forge a solidarity and vigilance, like with HIV/AIDS, a pandemic that initially attacked, as diseases do, the vulnerable. Now with Covit, you have people in my ole Kentucky homestorming the state capitol with guns, to un-peacefully protest wearing masks. They act in solidarity with no one but themselves, a key cue to empathy erosion.

Along with several of my cousins, I am a teacher, and have been teaching online for over a year now. Whether online or face-to-face, I know that I need to demonstrate the sort of behaviour I expect students to bring to the class. I am fortunate to have learned this first hand, having had years of positive classroom experiences from a litany of mentor-teachers. Along with my family and religious/spiritual community, educators showed me the power of giving one’s full attention – it creates the conditions that cultivate compassion. Therefore, I am acutely aware that I need to ‘look’ at my students, and listen without prejudice. I want to; I want us all to connect. Yet, most refuse to turn on their cameras. I’m often looking at the green light above my screen.

iHumanize

Despite my urging, most students have not even bothered to upload a profile picture so that the icon sitting on the screen during class would at least display a human. Therefore, on the occasions when they do speak, their voices are visualized by a bland, neutral, grey-scale silhouette. This virtual space dehumanizes us. Sometimes it does feel like “Hanging on to hope, when there is no hope to speak of,” so I keep an uplifting musical playlist synced to every device.

In reflecting on several of her own dehumanizing experiences in the classroom, bell hooks asks readers: “Imagine what it is like to be taught by a teacher who does not believe you are fully human.” Like bell hooks, I have spent years “Listening to students talk about the myriad ways that they feel diminished when teachers refuse to acknowledge their presence or extend to them basic courtesy in the classroom” (hooks, TCC, 61). Further, we know that interfacing through screens lends itself to the old banking model of education, where “teachers present the material and students passively receive it” (hooks, TCC, 10). This, too, risks further dehumanization. I believe one purpose of my role as teacher/role-model is to treat students as human, some arriving so wounded that this all feels brand new.

I believe that turning on my camera signals that I am actively engaged and focused on the matter at hand. It’s even been fed back to me through co-teachers that students appreciate that I take the first few minutes of each session to chit-chat. I call this time “mic check,” and simply inquire about their well-being and share my own. I then segue into each lesson by asking each mic-checker about their own experiences or thoughts related to the topic. I hardly think they’d actively participate if I began by lecturing from slides, thereby fixing them in the passenger seats.

iEmpathize

I have worked in the classroom since the 90’s, through the early days of social media and concurrent normalization of smartphone addiction. In this time, many have grown accustomed to phubbing- snubbing people IRL for the sake of the phonewhich dramatically screws up kids. I have also observed a variety of negative implications from students’ own reliance on technology, e.g. anxiety and depression fueled by the fear of missing out (FOMO), poor impulse controlattention deficiteroded self- esteem and awareness. This first led me back to Engaged Pedagogy (hooks’ teaching Trilogy), then further research on empathy erosion (Baron Cohen’s Zero Degrees of Empathy), and ultimately the role of technology therein. That led me to MIT Professor Sherry Turkle, who has been using her interdisciplinary research for years to sound the alarm around our growing individual disconnectedness, alongside our growing mass tech-addiction.“Empathy cannot be performed,” she’s consistently said. Empathy can, however, be cultivated.

Commenting on a year of online education, Sherry Turkle recently appeared on one of the radio talk-shows I’ve been able to closely follow during Corona’s solitude. She reflects: “To make my students feel that I’m…making eye-contact, I have to look at the little green light at the top of the computer, which means I’m not looking at anything at all. So, in order to give the illusion of connection, I have to basically look at nothing…and that doesn’t give me a feeling of empathy, I’m performing. That’s a very empathy draining thing to be doing.”

It is draining. I continually try a range of tactics to get students to share in creating an engaging and worthwhile classroom, and periodically receive positive feedback from both colleagues and students. I urge them to see the power in more fully cultivating the human connection, in spite of this virtual reality. I also remind students that I don’t do lectures, but facilitate classroom discussions around appropriate, well-curated materials. Every so often, there are students who are easily attuned to this new working rhythm. Most struggle. 

FOMO fear of missing out.

Reality. Virtuality. Fictionality.

Notably, our students here in Vietnam more easily cooperate with using their cameras and, perhaps subsequently, more actively engaging. My husband – who is teaching Vietnamese students online at this very moment – has suggested that this comes from the local cultural significance, and subsequent authority teachers hold here as compared to the west. He also believes that students here are more willing to be vulnerable. Turkle also affirms that: “We become accustomed to enjoying that lack of vulnerability by doing so much of our personal business and our business business hidden behind a screen.” The grey-silhouette is a like a superhero’s mask that displays invulnerability within that virtual world.

“You have reasons to not like Zoom,” Turkle continues, “… the better you are at Zoom, the less of a real connection you’re making.” In the face of much resistance, I try my best to hold steady to the idea that learning is social. While it remains true that facts can be studied, remembered and regurgitated on command – even met with great accolade – true understanding relies on the ability to think critically. “Thinking critically is at the heart of anybody transforming their life,” hooks says emphatically. Critical thinking relies on empathy. Empathy relies on human connection. In order to take best advantage of the virtual classroom, we must be about the business of creating the conditions and expectations for real human connectedness.

Reflecting on reflection

For some years now students taking the third year Critiquing Criminalistics module on our criminology course at the university have had an assessment relating to a reflective diary. Most educators and those in other professions will be aware of and understand the advantage of reflection and reflective diaries so it is probably not necessary to revisit the well-rehearsed arguments about benefits to learning and personal development.  Each year, I have found that over the course of the module, the students have come to recognise this and have intimated how they have enjoyed reflecting on what they have learnt in the class or how reflecting on personal experiences has been beneficial. And they comment on how they have sought out further information to gain additional knowledge or to put what they have learnt in some form of perspective.  It is of course what we as educators would want and expect from a reflective diary assessment that after all counts towards their marks for the module.

What has surprised me though is how much reviewing these modules has benefited me.  I have learnt from and continue to learn my students. We all recognise or at least should the old saying ‘the more I know, the more I realise I don’t know’ or similar.  My students prove that is the case often with each round of diary entries I review.  The diaries can provide an insight into students lives and thoughts.  For some of them it may be a cathartic release to capture their feelings on paper, for me it is enlightening and provides a greater understanding of some of the challenges they face not only as students but also as predominately young adults in a challenging and at times hostile social and economic environment.  Perhaps what is equally as enlightening is the additional knowledge that students provide about the subject area being discussed and taught. It is almost like sending out my own little army of literature reviewers with a challenge to advance their knowledge and ipso facto, mine.  I am clear that part of the reflection process is about taking what you have learnt further and as this an assessment, demonstrating this additional knowledge with some academic rigor.  And so, I find that in some cases what I have stated in the class (currently online) is challenged and that challenge is supported by academic reading. When I read some of these little gems, I smile but alongside this is the additional work created as I review the journal article they have referenced and then decide whether to revisit my lectures to add in the additional information. Even if I don’t, it all adds to my knowledge and, on reflection as my students are proving, there is plenty of scope to find out more.

Reality and the fairy tale world of policy and procedures

https://pixabay.com/photos/once-upon-a-time-writer-author-719174/

In the concept of managerialism, we see that both policy and procedures form part of the techniques employed to enhance productivity and cultural changes. These changes use a ‘calculative and rationalistic knowledge base’ which appears both ‘universalistic’, and [at first sight] ‘seems entirely good sense’ (Gilling, 2014:82).

However, this knowledge base is far from universalistic and to the ‘street level bureaucrat’ (Lipsky, 1980) often falls little short of complete naivety.  Lipsky (2010) provides a valuable insight into how individuals in public service adapt unworkable policies and procedures as the idealistic meets the reality of overstretched resources and ever demanding and needy consumers of services.

Whilst both working in and studying the police as an organisation subjected to and adopting managerialist policies, I witnessed the nonsensical notions of measuring activities and the subjugation of professionalism to management ideals (Hallam, 2009).  Perhaps, there could be no better example than the measurement of the length of time a call handler spent dealing with a call. This derived from the need to answer calls within a target time period. It all made sense until you begin to take into account reality – the lack of resources and the nature of calls which demanded that on some occasions operators ought to spend far longer on the phone to deal with more protracted matters, such as someone in crises who really needed help and a comforting voice whilst someone was on their way.  The result of the measurements was often counterproductive, officers being sent to incidents that amounted to little more than a waste of time, ‘My Jimmy is missing and I haven’t seen him for three days’ – when the officers turn up, Jimmy turns out to be a cat or, officers being sent to locations where information regarding the incident is scant because little time has been spent on the phone to get sufficient details.  In the clinical world of the policy maker, there are ideal call takers, those that have knowledge about every eventuality, and ideal call makers, those that are precise, unemotional and to the point.  Nothing of course could be further from reality.

Disappointingly, I find little solace in academia.  Policy and procedures abound. Teaching styles are based, not on the nuances of student types but on the ideal student.  The student that has the requisite skills to read and write and think critically. The student that is always engaged and always turns up and above all else, teaching is based on idealistic (see Morse and Lewis for tutorial sizes) small student classes.  Policies that are well meaning such as catering for additional needs, become unworkable in an environment where class sizes and teaching demands outstrip available resources.  Like the call handler, for the lecturer, it becomes impossible to cater for those that need more attention and time. And like the call handler, lecturers are subjected to managerialist idealistic measurements of success and failure.  I once heard of a manager that referred to academics as ‘slackademics’, I think is probably just an indication of how far removed from reality managers are. There are two worlds in organisations that provide a service to the public, one is based on reality the other, a fairy tale world of policies and procedures based on the ideal.

References

Gilling, D. (2014) Reforming police governance in England and Wales: managerialisation and the politics of organisational regime Change, Policing and Society, 24 (1): 81-101.

Lipsky, M. (2010) Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Meet the team – Amy Cortvriend, Lecturer in Criminology

I am one of the new members of the criminology team at UoN and have joined from the University of Manchester where I have been a teaching assistant (probably the equivalent of associate lecturer at UoN) for the last couple of years while I’ve been working on my PhD. I’m looking forward to my new role as lecturer in criminology and hopefully at some point meeting students in real life, face to face. It’s a bit strange starting a new job in a new town when I’m still sat in my living room in Manchester, but the rest of the team have made me feel welcome regardless.

My journey into criminology is a funny one. I did life the opposite to many people, having my first child at 16. When my second child went to school I decided to return to education and as I didn’t have A-levels I has to undertake an Access diploma to get into university. I was required to choose three subjects and at first, I opted for English literature because I love(d) reading (I’m sure I still love reading but I’ve not read anything non-work related for a long time). I picked sociology because it sounded interesting and the same with history. At the last minute I swapped history to criminology and never looked back. From my first lesson I knew this was my future, although at that point I wasn’t sure how.

I always had imposter syndrome and never thought my work was good enough (still do today but we’ll save that for another blog post), but my Access tutor believed in me and suggested I apply to the University of Manchester. As I was a mature student, I had to attend an interview with two of the lecturers. I was super nervous, but I got a place and never left. The undergraduate degree was difficult at times because there were only a couple of mature students and they eventually dropped out. I wasn’t in halls and had kids at home, so I didn’t have the same student experience as many of my cohort, however I made some great friends particularly those who stayed to undertake our MRes.

I finished my undergraduate degree with a first and was awarded a scholarship for my research Masters’ then luckily got another studentship for my PhD which is near completion and here I am. Since I’m teaching research methods modules this year my students will be pleased to know that my BA (Hons) and MRes were heavily focussed on research methods and my PhD has given me three years of real-life research experience. My dissertations and thesis have all followed my research interests in the psychology of victimisation and border criminology. My PhD thesis explores the victimisation of refugees and how they cope. That’s all I will say about my research right now, but I will write another blog about it at some point. Probably when I’ve finished writing it and the hard work is a distant memory.

On a personal note, the daughter I had at 16 is now grown up and lives on her own and my youngest is a sassy 14-year-old girl. We have also just got our Pomeranian puppy Prince. In my free time I’m usually doing something active. I’m a Crossfitter and many of my closest friends are gym friends so the gym is both my mental health crutch and my social life. When I do eventually sit down, I love a good box set. I’m currently watching The Morning Show with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Recommendations via email are welcome.

Now you know a little bit about me. I’ll look forward to getting to know all the criminology students soon, either virtually or face to face. Hopefully some of you will put your cameras on at least for a day so that when we eventually meet, I’ll know who you are.

A commuting student and how to be as organised as possible

As a commuting student, I have a very different experience to most students. Many go to uni to get a sense of freedom away from their parents and away from their hometown. I knew this was not something for me. I had no reason to want to get away, I have a job and friends around me that I am not ready to leave.

I would say most students think that those of us who commute are not experiencing a sense of freedom, however I found the opposite. I would feel more trapped being in student accommodation and not having the freedom of leaving whenever I pleased. Keeping university and my home life separate meant my life didn’t really need to change that much, compared to the traditional student.

For me, university is a part of my life, not my whole life. This balance was much more manageable for me. I wouldn’t have been able to make my whole life about uni because that is not who I am. Completing my assignments in a quiet place at home, with my dog by my side was much more appealing to me than being in halls surrounded by noise and distractions.

As I have said, I was not ready to leave my job and all the friends I have made there over the years. Without my job, I wouldn’t have the freedom that I do. My job pays for my car and that is my lifeline when it come to getting anywhere. I need it to get to uni and to get my education.

I have really enjoyed the balance of university and home life. However, I can see the appeal of it, it’s just not something for me. I couldn’t imagine moving away from my parents and my little dog. I didn’t want university to change my day-to-day life much and it hasn’t.

As a commuting student, to some it may seem difficult to keep motivated as you are surrounded by home comforts and home life. I do believe you have to be very disciplined with yourself, especially when you have a deadline due and you can’t join in with a family night. Although I did try my best to get assignments done as soon as I could for the sake of this and if I was desperately needed at work. Although at sometimes I felt swamped by assignments and overtime at work, if you manage your time right, in the end you wonder why you even worried yourself about it.

Another way I keep my uni and home separate is by using my uni laptop for assignments and society related tasks. I do not use it for anything else and this helps me keep my two lives completely separate. This way I never get them mixed up and confused. My uni email strictly stays on my uni computer, which keeps it as only a part of my life and not overtaking it.

I would say to anyone wishing to commute to university to go for it. It’s the best thing I have ever done. But you need to remember to keep uni separate and make sure it doesn’t swamp the rest of your life. In my house, uni consists of one shelf and a desk. And if you are fortunate enough to have your own car, it makes a world of difference as you can come and go as you please from uni, with no strings attached.

To anyone beginning their studies, I would say start prepping your assignments before you think you should. Get ahead and then you’ll never fall behind. If you have a day where you just want to take some time to yourself, you will be able to as you have already prepared in advance. If you let it slip and fall behind with assignments, you have no space to breath when it comes to needing a break. I think this may be easier for commuting students due to the lack of distraction, but even in halls, separate your time according to how much work you have to do and if you need to take time out for yourself.

Overall, I would say to those commuting, be organised, be on time and get ahead. And to those in halls, ignore distractions when you have deadlines to achieve, be organised and make time for yourself.

“Things you need to know about criminology”: A student perspective – Bonnie Middleton (2017-2020)

Vincent van Gogh – The Prison Courtyard (1890)
We are all living in very strange times, not sure when life will return to normal...but if you're thinking about studying criminology, here is some advice from those best placed to know!

The most important module to my understanding of criminology is: All of them! Every module contributes to your understanding of Criminology and all are different and enjoyable. Personally, my favourite module was Violence: From Domestic to Institutional in Year 3; this module ties together everything you know about Criminology; the reasons why we are subjective as criminologists and our ability to look beyond the scope of what we know.  
 
The academic criminology book you must read: 
Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance (1963) by Howard Becker. Albeit a dated book, its ideas are relevant and relate to many criminological such as; how and why criminals are labelled and stigmatised; why are the youth demonised; why people reject the norms and values of society and become criminals in doing so.

The academic journal article you must read: 
This is a hard one. Articles are great for discovering new ideas and methodologically testing theories. I would recommend reading: Arrigo, J. (2004). A Utilitarian Argument Against Torture, Interrogation of Terrorists. Science and Engineering Ethics. 10(3), pp. 543-572. This article poses many questions for a criminologist which enlightens you to think subjectively and challenge your own views; which is what Criminology is all about. From reading this article you will learn to think critically when faced with a challenging dilemma; the rights of a terrorist and how can the law can be tailored to fit the crime.

The criminology documentary you must watch: 
Where do I begin? Louis Theroux and Stacey Dooley are both great journalists and documentary makers. If I had to pick one, I would recommend watching the BBC’s documentary on Grenfell If you watch this documentary you must consider; the government’s response; who is accountable; why are the residents of Grenfell still in temporary accommodation. These are the sorts of questions you should be asking as someone studying Criminology.

The most important criminologist you must read: 
Familiarise yourself with the ideas of Lombroso, this will aid your understanding on how criminological theory and ideas have developed overtime through biological, psychological and sociological standpoints.

Something criminological that fascinates me: 
Domestic abuse. I had done my dissertation on this as I have a great interest in male dominance and power over women, especially in intimate relationships. Gender plays a key role in this which when examined in depth, will change your view on gender paradigms.

The most surprising thing I know about criminology is: Criminality was believed by Lombroso to be inherited and that criminals possessed physical defects, criminality would be measured by the size and shape of particular body parts; this was later discredited. I can remember learning this in first year and it fascinated me.

The most important thing I've learnt from studying criminology is: 
To not judge a book by its cover and to not take everything at face value. Do not be afraid to challenge other’s standpoints and beliefs. Thinking critically is the most important skill to have, search deeper into issues and apply your own thoughts and experiences. 

The most pressing criminological problem facing society is: 
Mass incarceration and reoffending rates. The UK is yet to move away from the ‘tough on crime’ approach favouring law and order and punishment. The penal system needs to be reformed to ensure offenders are rehabilitated to break the cycle of criminality; definitely educate yourself on political party’s manifesto’s and what they say about crime and justice before voting.

When family and friends ask, I tell them criminology is: I tell family and friends that criminology is such a broad field of study; we look at law, psychology, science, sociology, politics, penal systems, criminal justice organisations, media and much more. From this, you attain the ability to think critically and reflect, it can help you in many situations not just criminological issues. It is an incredibly insightful and enlightening field to study; it opens up many opportunities.

Time to hear from our students

As part of their commitment to provide an inclusive space to explore a diversity of subjects, from a diverse range of standpoints, the Thoughts from the Criminology team have decided to introduce a new initiative.

From tomorrow (Sunday 21 June) all weekend posts will come from our students. We know that all of our students have plenty to say, they are smart, articulate and have both academic and experiential knowledge on which to draw. We know our readers will be as impressed as we are, by their passion and their criminological imagination.


Over to you, Criminology Students!

Navigating your mental health whilst studying at university during a worldwide health pandemic

Image rights: Polly Vadasz; https://www.sighh.co/

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”

Helpful Contacts

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;

Other helpful support (local and national)

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

http://thelowdown.info/

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

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