My story with mental health whilst studying at university.

Below is the first of our guest bloggers. It’s been written by a recent graduate of the University of Cumbria. It is an honest account of dealing with a range of mental and physical wellbeing issues. Due to the honesty of suicidal thoughts and psychosis, it might be a difficult read for some people. It might be a blog to bookmark and come back to at a later date when you feel more robust.

“Studying at university is a challenge, but doing this whilst battling mental health issues can really take its toll. I’ve struggled with my mental health since I was young but during uni I really did struggle at times. At university I experienced anxieties, insomnia, depression, suicidal thoughts and psychosis. Now this wasn’t anything new for me, but at uni I definitely had moments which weren’t good. But onto those later on.

So first year… I really enjoyed it to put it simply. I had moved around a lot prior to going to uni so I was used to meeting different people which I guess made settling in easier for me. Something I was personally worried about was staying in the same place every night which I had not done for some time prior to university. During the first few weeks I was really fortunate to make friends on my course and on others. With the University of Cumbria being such a small uni I got to know people in all years very quickly. I studied Sports Science in my first year. Some modules I enjoyed, others not so much. Revision was usually met with going over a PowerPoint and then watching an episode of The Simpsons or watching Leicester win the Premier League. Not the best revision techniques anyway. I managed to pass my modules but decided to switch onto the Sports Coaching and Development course as my skill set suited that course more. At the end of first year I landed a job with Camp America at a camp in Illinois near Chicago as a Tennis Coach and Camp Counsellor. It was a great experience but when I got back my insomnia was awful. A combination of jet lag and a sudden bout of just feeling low rolled into one. In lectures I could not concentrate at all. My mind was always somewhere else. I had to resit my psychology exam in January of my second year which I scraped through at the skin of my teeth (0.2%). This anticipation phase building up to the resit I really did struggle with, especially with uni on the line for it. The rest of second year and going into third year was a good phase for me throughout university. Grades were improving and I was just in a much better place. I think the relief of passing that resit was almost overwhelming. Over the summer at the end of second year I started writing my dissertation so I was super organised and ahead of everyone for the beginning of my final year. I wanted to keep the momentum going as towards the end of second year were the best grades I had got to date.

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My final year of uni began and I was nervous but certainly motivated to do as well as I could. November came and this was when things were to take a turn for the worse. I noticed I was starting to have a sore stomach. Now I just thought this was stress/tiredness as my sleeping was pretty poor even by my standards.

Fast forward to January/February and this was when the vomiting with blood started. In the build up to this I had been drinking quite a lot on just not making sensible decisions. I remember one night saying to one of my mates ‘I’m sorry but I’d rather be getting high than either watching myself or my family die’. Anything to distance what I was feeling would be great at this point. I’d be getting inebriated to numb it all, all those nights I started thinking of suicide. Being physically and mentally unwell really exhausted me. Once vomiting with blood began, this was when I remember genuinely thinking ‘Something is wrong here’.

I went the Doctors the next day and they weren’t too sure what it was. So I had a lot of blood tests but again, no definitive diagnosis. After about 6 weeks of being sick most days, I eventually ended up in A&E on multiple occasions. Obviously with being sick this much my housemates knew about it, and my closest friends as well. Everyone else I was just hiding away so people didn’t see what state I was in. On an A&E visit, I had been in a lecture that morning and left halfway through as the pain I was in was just horrid. Within an hour I was being sick again and having a panic attack. I shouted my housemate and said I needed to go to hospital. He rang my mate for me and he came along with my other housemate. All 3 of them were amazing during this period! After having some bloods taken they again didn’t know what was up with me and deemed me not unwell enough to stay in hospital so I was discharged. They gave me some codeine pills to help with the pain. Little did I know at this point these pills were about to change my life for the next 4 months or so. I went into the doctors for an emergency appointment after hospital and then the Doctor thought he knew what was wrong with me. He said about something called ‘Gilberts Syndrome’. I had no idea what this was and when I heard the word Syndrome I panicked immediately. He reassured me very quickly though. This is an illness basically when your Bilirubin levels in your blood are very high which affects your liver. I had this since I was born as well, it’s just something that became more visible during this period. Now I had been abusing alcohol and cigarettes, so I told the doctor this and he wanted me to have an ultrasound on my liver. I had this a few weeks after and the results were that half of it was absolutely knackered, unsurprisingly really.

I started taking the codeine as they just really helped the physical and mental pain I was in during this time. Before I knew it they helped with sleep, removed nightmares or at least made them not as vivid. I had been used to having loads of nightmares which burnt within me like a forest fire. I started taking multiple pills a day just for the sake of it. Before I knew it I was getting high again off them and not really feeling with it with almost anything. I’d never had a good relationship with sleep but these pills improved that. However my aunt passed away in April, I went back to Stoke for the funeral and came off the pills so I would be all there mentally for the time I was seeing family again as they had no idea what was really going on apart from mentioning I had been having a sore stomach to a couple of them. I really struggled with this visit, to a point when I was in my brother’s bedroom and actually counted out how much codeine I had and whether it was worth ending it all. Now I have had suicidal thoughts since I was 16 but only thought about planning it once before which was when I was 17. But this time felt different. Really raw and heavy. I felt like depression was in control and I was just along for the ride trying to hang on whilst getting absolutely battered. I don’t know what made me not take them, maybe graduation in a few months? I don’t really remember to be honest. Anyway, I survived these days and went back to uni feeling quite scared. I could tell people on my course who saw me knew I was in a bad way, they looked and treated me differently. But I just played it off as they didn’t even know why I went back to Stoke. I was having suicidal thoughts every hour of every day for months which is exhausting on its own, on top of being physically unwell this made things unbearable. For my dissertation poster presentation I actually took them again so I was high during this as I was in ridiculous pain during the morning. I had got a reputation for falling asleep during conversations with people due to these pills, they were a nightmare but amazing at the same time. The pills almost became like my dark twisted fantasy. Giving them up was difficult though because they really did rid me of the blues, they opiated the hazy head I had. I’d find myself thinking ‘I’d love for you to stay. But that’s simply insane’ in reference to the codeine. †

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At this time was when I envied almost all things. Anytime I saw an animal, I envied it. Seeing a bird singing at that time almost brought me to tears, because it seemed happy and I felt like pure darkness. Anything from a horse, to a dog, I felt jealous. In the end I started therapy and have since been put on anti-depressants (Sertraline) and I am now in a much better place.

When I look back on uni despite all this, it was the best decision of my life. The people I met and were there for me. The lecturers were so supportive with me. Educationally and personally as well. I looked at them as mentors. The memories made I will treasure and look back on really fondly. I still keep in contact with the closest friends I made at university. The degree helped me get a job where I work now as a Graduate Intern for a company called ‘Hello Future’. I was not academic and despite being ill I achieved a 2:1. I went up two grade boundaries in 12 months which now I can’t believe still. But when I wasn’t being sick I was studying. That summer between 2nd and 3rd year was crucial to me getting a degree and I would encourage any student in this period to get ahead of their final year. It makes such a difference!

So I wanted to write a paragraph on coping strategies, interventions and everything in regards to this theme. What worked for me? What helped me get through things on a day to day basis? Setting a structure and sticking to it was really important. Making sure I get out of bed, shower, and brush my teeth and stay hydrated/eat properly. Sleep was always very alien to me so this was a time of day I struggled with. Listening to calm music always helped just calm me down. From this, when I was physically able to, running and walking helped so much. Every day I would run several miles, easily too. Now I had a perception that pills and alcohol improved things but they really didn’t. It bottled it up, didn’t deal with how I was really feeling and resulted in things being worse. I have had counselling twice. Once which didn’t last long enough and another which took place over about 8-10 weeks. The issue with this occasion was that at this stage I was out of my bout of depression, so it didn’t really work as affectively as it possible could have. Both times I have had therapy I really got on with the therapist. They are trained individuals and you can have really positive conversations with these people. Everything is kept private which I really utilised. Having someone to talk to really helped me, whether it was talking about mental health or just talking in general.

Final message – The key advice I would have to anyone struggling is to talk. Now I know this is cliché but it really does work. Take a few deep breaths, and enjoy life. Remove yourself from situations that have a negative impact on you. Take it a day at a time and don’t worry about what’s ahead. You have to live life in the now otherwise you won’t live at all. Obviously you need to plan some things, but don’t get caught up in it.

Remember to talk, whether its mental health related or just spending time with friends or family. It is good to have some alone time no doubt, but when you’re struggling, being by yourself can cause risks. I still struggle every day, but I have started to build my tool box of coping strategies. There’s a long way to go, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you can too if you look hard enough.

Remember to laugh, lots of laughter is great, the type of laughing when your stomach hurts, happy tears rolling down your eyes. Laughter is a sign of happiness, and happiness is amazing. It’s so amazing it doesn’t even have to be yours. Seeing people you love and care for being happy and laughing can genuinely make you feel better. Surround yourself around those who make you feel happiness and it’ll help you make it through a day at a time. Love yourself like someone you love.”

Remember if you are struggling with your mental health whilst studying at the University of Cumbria, you can always refer yourself to the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team. Click on this link to find out more. Or for alternative places of support, look at our main menu for “Urgent Support“.

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