Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Students - mental health is just as important as physical health. Look after it!

Today is Uni Mental Health Day!

It's been great to see Twitter jam-packed with universities signing the Time to Talk pledge and raising awareness about students and mental health. As a student myself, it was great to see the stigma starting to be broken down around such an important issue. I decided that today would be a good opportunity to educate myself a bit more about the mental health of students.

It's obvious that going to university or college for the first time (and even school) can be extremely daunting. Students face massive life changes such as leaving home for the first time, living somewhere new, making new friends, finding themselves, managing workloads, balancing study/work/family/friends, and ever-growing financial worries. Therefore, many students are bound to feel vulnerable, and as a mature student returning to college, I know this feeling only too well.

Despite the fact that I'm now almost six months into my Access course, managing everything is not easy. Even now I'm worried that I'm wasting valuable revision time on blogging! I remember my first few weeks, worrying that no one liked me, that I wouldn't 'fit in' and that I'd fail like I had done before. What if I didn't get a uni place? What if I became unwell again? What if I hated the course? Thankfully, I have an incredible group of friends already, I love the subjects I study with a passion and I have four university offers. But managing the workload can be difficult, especially when I need to balance this with work, family, friends, running a house and actually having some time doing nothing.

We know that one in four of us will experience difficulties with our mental health at some point in our lives, and students aren't void from this statistic. What surprised me though is that there still seems to be a great amount of stigma attached to mental health for students. One recent study found that 43% of first year students didn't feel comfortable talking about mental health problems with their friends, and only one in ten make use of the counselling service provided by their institution. This is despite the fact that 20% of students consider themselves to have a mental health problem.

So how can we change this?

The University Mental Health Advisors Network (UMHAWD), supported by Students Minds and the Alliance for Student-Led Wellbeing, held their first University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day in 2012, with the aim to 'focus efforts that promote the mental health of people who live and work in Higher Education.'

Educational institutions need to work on creating an environment where students realise that it's okay to talk about mental health. Support services need to be accessible and made clear to students. There needs to be more done on how to help students recognise feelings of distress and what they can do should they want additional support. The stigma also needs to be broken down, and fast - in an NUS study, 64% of students reported that they had not seeked help from any 'formal' services in relation to their mental distress.

How can you look after yourself as a student then?

Seeking professional support is a personal choice. Whilst students may not want to have professional support, and this choice should undoubtedly be respected, there are plenty of ways in which you can help yourself and look after your mental wellbeing. Here are some tips:

  • Sleep - Yupp, sorry to say it, but despite the fact that you have a course deadline tomorrow, you've still got to catch some z's. Lack of sleep can severely affect your mental health, and too much of it could be a potential sign of depression. Whilst long lay ins and staying up late can be tempting, try and go to bed and wake up at the same time each day if you can.
  • Diet - What you eat and drink can have an impact on your mental health. Too much caffeine can heighten anxiety, and not eating enough (or eating the right things) can affect your concentration levels. There's some fantastic student cookbooks out there so grab one and get creative with your cooking skills.
  • Drugs and alcohol - I'm anti-drugs and I don't drink so I may seem biased here, but remember that drugs and alcohol can play havoc with your mental health. Alcohol is a depressive and can react to certain medications, whilst drugs may heighten paranoia or cause hallucinations for example. 
  • Physical activity - Exercising, particularly outdoors, can do wonders for your mental health. Many studies have proven that it can help with anxiety and depression, and boosts your confidence and self-esteem too. Look into university/college gyms, sports clubs and recreational activities. 
  • Do something you enjoy - Relax. Take a day off. Don't be too hard on yourself. If you're experience a period of low mental wellbeing, look after yourself and take a step back. There's nothing wrong with taking time out.
  • Talk to someone - If it's not a professional, then a friend or family member may be able to help. Perhaps they can offer practical advice and support, or just give you a much-needed different perspective on something you're struggling with. Remember that the little things can make the biggest differences, so stick the kettle on and have a natter. 

And if you do want help?

Speak to a member of staff at your institution, someone you can trust. Perhaps that's your tutor, your head of school or someone from the support services. Remember, they are there to help you. Many institutions provide free counselling services and can signpost you to other local agencies or specific services should you require/want it.

If you're struggling with your mental health as a student, try and get organised. Some people like to keep a mood diary that identifies triggers that cause mental distress. Work out a timetable that incoporates everything in your life, and make sure it's balanced so that you have some 'me' time.

If studying itself is causing you stress, try and plan ahead. Understand what is expected from you from your tutors, and if you're unsure, then ask. Having all the information allows you to work out what you need to do and when, and where to go should you need more help. If your struggling with deadlines, speak to your tutor. You may be able to get an extension or extra 1-2-1 support.

Don't forget as well that you might also be eligible for extra financial support. Contact your financial support service at your institution to see if you meet the criteria.

Being a student can be challenging, and for many of us, it is a life-changing experience that comes with both positives and difficulties. We need to breakdown the stigma of mental health in student environments, so don't be afraid to be open and honest - recognise that asking for help is actually one of the most bravest things you'll ever do and it is an incredible strength in itself.

Links

Priory research - UK students suffer in silence when it comes to mental health
Why is University Mental Health Awareness Week so important? - The Guardian
NHS Choices - Student mental health
NUS Student Mental Distress Survey
StudentMinds
 






Saturday, 15 February 2014

Happy (belated) Valentine's Day!

Afternoon everyone! I hope you're all having a good weekend and are staying well with this weird ol' weather we're having at the moment in the UK. We've managed to lose two fence panels so far... eek!

Anyway - as I'm sure you're aware, yesterday was Valentine's Day and so I thought I'd talk a bit about a little thing called lurrrrrve. But don't worry, this Hummingbird ain't going to go all soppy on you! Instead, I thought I'd look a bit about how mental health is affected by the 'most romantic day of the year.' We all see the 'perfect' Valentine's Day presents being displayed in shop windows, red and pink cards overtaking the stock pile at Clintons and those 'dine in for two' adverts on the tele. But what about if you're single? What about if life happens, and the day doesn't live up to your expectations? What about if you're living with a mental health disorder?

Valentine's Day is now extremely commercialised, and just like Christmas, this can put a great weight on our shoulders. We're bombarded with messages that suggest that love is measured by what you buy. Now before I go any further, I would never say no to a bunch of flowers, a meal out, or a thoughtful card (in fact, a lovely card is one of my favourite things), but I know my husband loves me every day of the year, not just the 14th February. For me personally, it's undoubtedly the thought that counts.

Being in love, or surrounded by people who love us, is good for our mental health, regardless of whether or not you have a mental health diagnosis. Physical touch, such as a hug or holding hands, has been proven to reduce blood pressure and lower your heart rate (NHS Choices, 2012). Ideal if you're experiencing stress and/or anxiety for example.

Let's consider the wonderful hormone, Oxytocin. When I was doing some research for this blog post, I got to learn all about this 'love hormone' as it has fondly been named. We release this hormone when we hug or touch someone, and is believed to be the hormone that allows us to trust and bond with one another. In women, the levels of Oxytocin increase during labour and when breastfeeding. There have even been studies that suggest those with schizophrenia who are artificially given Oxytocin experience less psychotic episodes.Dr David Fiefel, a professor at the University of California, has studied this in great detail, also looking at it Oxytonin levels relate to anxiety. You can see more about his publications by clicking here.

So, no excuse for a cuddle now, alright?

If you're single though, Valentine's Day can make you feel under pressure and perhaps feeling unworthy or unloved. But please don't fret - you can still get that boost of Oxytonin from being with friends and family. You can still get that 'feel good feeling' in other ways, such as volunteering, watching a favourite film, or treating yourself to a little something. There aren't any rules that say you can't buy yourself chocolates/flowers/perfume/a meal out, so do it if that's what you want! I'm a true believer that getting your self-care right, whether or not you have a mental health diagnosis, is the most important thing. If we don't know what we want, we can't necessarily expect others to know either.

Here are some tips for getting through Valentine's Day, no matter whether you're single or in a relationship, and regardless of if you have a mental health diagnosis or not:

  • If you're feeling lonely this Valentine's weekend, why not call a friend? Invite one over for a cuppa? Or go out with one for a meal somewhere? It's the small things that make a big difference, remember that.
  • Don't forget that Valentine's Day IS over commercialised these days, and it's not what you give, but the fact that you show your loved one how much you care about them EVERY day of the year. 
  • Show yourself some love. If you're experiencing low mood, stress or anxiety, why not use it as an excuse to have a pamper session? There's often lots of deals on this time of year because of Valentine's Day. Book a massage, have your hair done, or even transform your bathroom into a home spa for the weekend. Bubble bath and face mask = perfect. 
  • Get active. It's a great way to increase Serotonin levels, and just 40 minutes of exercise can boost our mood. So take the dog for a walk, go for a run, dance in the kitchen or hoover the house top to toe.
I know from first-hand experience that this advice might seem a bit wet, but it's true - remember that Valentine's Day is just one day. It's the same as Christmas, there's so much pressure to get it all 'right' but honestly, does it matter? In the grand scheme of things? In my opinion, no.

My husband and I agreed not to do presents this year, just cards. When I came home from college yesterday though, feeling exhausted, overworked and emotional, I was surprised with this incredible photo wall. As you can probably imagine, I was a blubbering wreck for about half an hour.

Want to know what the best thing was about this gift though? He didn't just do it for a Valentine's Day present. He knows I've been struggling again recently due to stress at college and the reduction of my medication.

He told me that he hopes that with it being the first thing I see when I wake up each day, it will make each day just a little bit brighter.


You can't really see from this photo, but he's pegged on the string of fairy lights lots of photos and quotes. The photos include ones from walks we've taken, our cats, holidays, all the good stuff. The quotes are from songs that mean something to both of us, from songs we played on our wedding day to songs from films we love. I know I am very lucky to have such a thoughtful, patient and supportive man in my life.

So wherever you are, whoever you're with and whatever you're doing this Valentine's weekend, I do hope that you're smiling that beautiful smile.





References

NHS Choices (2012) Benefits of love and sex. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodsex/Pages/ValentinesDay.aspx (Accessed: 15th February 2014).

UCSD Healthcare Dr. David Feifel's Publications. Available at: http://nbmu.ucsd.edu/Faculty/DavidFeifel/FeifelPublications.html (no date). (Accessed: 15th February 2014). 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

We're fighting the stigma, but are we fighting the shame?

This morning I woke up feeling really rubbish. Last night I knew I was coming down with something due to feeling hot and cold at the same time (how?!), stuffy, extremely tired and achy all over. I was also emotional, (which was probably not helped by the fact we'd just watched the Perks of Being a Wallflower) but it's often a tell-tale sign that my immune system is starting to struggle.

When I woke up today, that emotion over whelmed me. I felt achy, tired (despite a good nights sleep) and wanted to hide under the duvet with tea on tap. But I was meant to be going out, a family occasion, something I'd really been looking forward to. Cue the guilt.

Many people might say 'You have a cold/flu/something like that, why feel guilty? It's not your fault!" but my little brain works differently. When I spoke to my hubby, I felt overwhelmed with guilt. I tried my hardest to drag myself out of bed in to the shower, but my limbs didn't want it. I was so upset, knowing that my best option was to stay at home, admit defeat and write today off. But there was the niggle in the back of my head that I had let him down, let everyone down, let myself down. I had it in my head that I've used up my 'quota' of sick days, especially recently. Reducing my medication has been tough, and I've missed lots of events/social outings/family gatherings because of it. Some days, I can't face the world and I'm struggling to accept that it's alright to be like this right now. It feels as though I've had this 'excuse' for long enough.

When I read back what I've written and when I think back to how I felt when I woke up this morning, there's this part of me that is sad. Sad because despite how much we as a society are starting to get there with combating the stigma around mental health, there's still this underling problem of those who have the diagnosis feeling guilty or ashamed. What are we doing to tackle this problem? It's this issue that is halting the recovery of so many, and to be quite frank, it's putting a dampener on my recovery too.

We're taught from such a young age what is right and wrong. As we grow up, society, and the people around us, 'teach' us the norms and values of where we live. We learn what is acceptable and what's not. But why are there still such blurred lines when it comes to mental illness? I can't speak for anyone else, I appreciate that, but from my experience, I feel bad when I don't conform. If I need time out from whatever I'm doing, I feel like such an inconvenience, a burden, a weight on the shoulders of my loved ones. And yet why does it matter? If I can't commit to things for a few weeks, does that make me a bad person? Surely there are other more pressing issues we should be concerned about, right? Right. But why is it that I'm still left with this underlying heaviness of guilt?

I did a bit of research surrounding guilt, and found that from a cognitive perspective, guilt is experienced when an individual truly believes that have caused harm to someone/something, whether they have actually done something wrong, or not. If guilt is persistent for a long period of time, it can change how we decipher our thoughts, and we start to develop dysfunctional coping mechanisms.

So, how do we change this on a wider scale?

I don't have the answer to that, but I do know how debilitating guilt from a mental health disorder can be. It eats you up and you can't stop thinking about what other people think about you, and how much of a failure you are. You start to worry that loved ones won't put up with you anymore, which in turn just makes you feel a heck of a lot worse in the long run.

If you know someone is struggling with a mental health disorder, give them time. I'm not saying don't invite them out, or do anything with them, in fact I would encourage more of it, but also accept that everyone has days where they don't feel like taking on the world, and that's alright. Sometimes all we want/need is a cup of tea and a natter, and we need to let ourselves know this is acceptable. I'm learning this slowly, especially since the reduction of my medication has made me want to hide away from the world some days. And yes, today I had to write off to a physical illness rather than a mental one, but that's okay too. We don't have a maximum number of duvet days, it just doesn't work like that, and if we tried to enforce such a rule, we end up jeopardising our recovery, whether mental or physical.

One idea that I really love is sending someone an e-card. Time to Change has a good selection of ones you can send to a friend for free. Just click on this URL. http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/take-action/send-an-ecard It's these little things that let people know you're there for when they want to talk, whenever that might be.