Mental health issues are a big part of our university. Statistically speaking, one in four people will develop a mental health issue during their lifetime, and university can be a big melting pot of stress that can make life tough for anyone, especially if you’re a new student.
Plenty of people will have started university with their own experiences, and many more will go on to develop mental health issues during their time here at UEA . Moving into a completely new environment full of people you don’t know is a bit of a daunting prospect for most of us, but for those who have mental health issues, it can be a lot worse. That’s why we’re here. We want to make sure that everyone can feel comfortable talking about mental health, including those who have no experience of them. Why? Because – and we’re not scaremongering here – the chances are that you will come across someone with a mental health problem at UEA.
People with mental health issues aren’t mad, or psychos. They’re normal students, teachers and staff who have an illness. They are valuable, fantastic members of our society who experience life slightly differently to others. Some recover, some don’t, some use medication and counselling to help their day-to-day lives, others rely on the support of their friends.
So here are the facts. Read them, and keep them in mind. Think they might describe someone you know? Talk to them. Ask them how they are. Tell them you’re there to listen if they need you. We’re not expecting people to turn into counsellors, just someone their friends feel they can open up to. If you think you might fit the description, talk to a flatmate, a friend, a tutor, or use one of the excellent student support services we have at UEA.
Everyone has felt depression in their lives at some point. What differentiates clinical depression is that these feelings last all day, every day. You might see a change in your sleeping – either far more or far less than usual. You might experience feelings that you’re not good enough, hopeless, helpless, guilty and tearful. Feeling irritable towards people isn’t uncommon either, and people who are depressed often lose interest in things they enjoy, or find it difficult to concentrate. Depression can escalate into feelings of suicide, and people with depression may also use self harm as coping strategy (self harm, despite popular opinion, is not an indication that someone is suicidal).
People with bipolar disorder experience both extreme lows and extreme highs in a cyclical pattern. During lows, you’d experience the same symptoms as those with depression; however you’d also experience cycles of mania, where you’ll often have very high levels of energy and excitement which create patterns of behaviour that involve delusions or hallucinations and grand new ideas that are out of character and have bad consequences – either personal safety or in other ways, such as spending vast amounts of money on things you don’t need or can’t afford. People coming out of a manic phase will often be very distressed about their actions. The length of time that each cycle lasts differs vastly between individuals, and some sufferers have a period of regular mood in between cycles.
Eating disorders can be incredibly secretive diseases, and thus the sufferer may be able to conceal them for a long period of time. Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders are not restricted to just Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa, and symptoms of weight loss may not be present. With a disorder such as Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa, you might find yourself or a flatmate becoming obsessed with their body image, which is often delusional. This can go hand-in-hand with excessive amounts of exercise. The types of food eaten become restricted, and meals might be excessively picked at. Look out for excuses not to eat, especially not in front of others, and feelings of guilt after eating.
People with Bulimia Nervosa may experience these symptoms as well as characteristic binges which are followed by episodes of purging, through vomiting or the use of laxatives. On the other end of the spectrum are the lesser-renowned diseases; Binge Eating Disorder (BED) and Compulsive Overeating Disorder (COED). ‘Eating your feelings’ myths aside, these are genuine eating disorders which are underpinned by low self esteem and are often diagnosed as a comorbidity with previous traumas or mental health issues. BED sufferers will have episodes of bingeing. They feel a lack of control over the amount they are eating and often feel disconnected from their actions whilst doing so, and will continue to eat whether their appetite is satiated or not. People with COED have a genuine addiction to food which is obsessive and leaves them out of control of their eating habits. In the same way that “just eat” can be incredibly difficult for an individual with Anorexia to be told, “just go on a diet” is as difficult for someone with COED.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
We’ve all got our quirks and individual ways of doing things, and often we fall into the habit of saying “I’m so OCD about that!” however people with OCD will have very specific patterns of behaviour that affect their daily lives to a great extent. You might be plagued by unwanted thought about things to the point where they develop into extreme anxieties. This might then turn into an obsession, and you would spend your time trying to neutralise these anxieties, such as rechecking things a number of times, counting things, constantly cleaning things to reduce the risk of contamination, and asking for constant reassurance. People with OCD will often develop very specific routines about how things must be performed, and should the routine be disrupted in any way it must be restarted. Those with OCD may feel isolated from their peers, or in a constant state of anxiety.
Schizophrenia can be an incredibly scary concept to those who don’t understand it, and an even scarier one to those who have to live with it. It is a long-term condition that’s characterised hearing voices that to everyone else don’t exist, but to the sufferer are very real and can often be persuasive or threatening – either to the individual or telling them that others are threatening them. An individual may hold beliefs that are delusional or not based on reality, and their thoughts may become incredibly confused due to the blending of real and not real. A common misconception of schizophrenia is that sufferers have ‘split’ personalities, when in fact they are often delusional or attempting to battle their own thoughts.
Recognise any of these symptoms? There are a number of places you can go for help, or point a friend in the direction of. Book an appointment with the university medical centre; they are the first port of call that can get you started with the help you or a friend needs.
The university counselling service (uea.ac.uk/counselling) is free, confidential and available to all students. You don’t have to have been referred to them to be able to book an initial appointment. Then there’s Nightline, which is a student run helpline available through the night if you need someone to talk to. Phone them on 01603503504. There’s also Mental Wealth, a student-run society which offers a student support group for those with mental health issues. Get in contact with them at facebook.com/UEAMentalWealth.
Most of all, keep talking. If you’re struggling, talk to your flatmates or friends about how you’re feeling. If someone you know is having problems, ask them how they are and how you can best support them.
By Amy Nield – Mental Wealth Awareness Officer