feature The Courier
By Amy Cowlard and Rhian Evans. Thanks to all who contributed their experiences and comments.
mind your HEAD
A review of mental health in aberystwyth Mental health issues are an often overlooked aspect of University life. Although national campaigns by charities such as Mind or B-eat attempt to increase awareness and dispel stigmas, the general knowledge of mental health disorders does not seem to go beyond the label of conditions such as ‘OCD’ or ‘depression’. In this feature, we hope to raise awareness of some of the problems affecting
students, what services are available in Aberystwyth, as well as providing a space for people’s experiences whilst at University. We recently set up a page on our website at abercourier.com, to allow people to post anonymously about their experiences of mental health disorders and their opinion on the services on offer. Thanks to all the people who posted, we are able to
present a broad range of opinions on the state of mental health in Aber. However, it’s important to note that the NHS definitions and people’s opinions we have selected for this piece can vary a lot depending on the individual, as mental health is obviously an intensely personal and
subjective issue. With 1 in 4 people suffering from mental health issues and 4% of students seeking counselling services it is an important and relevant topic, not only for those aﬄicted, but also those closest to them such as friends, family and flat mates.
“I am beyond frustrated” “You have a right to be heard” “For too long people have had to suffer in silence” “At this point I am beyond frustrated. It has taken a lot for me to go and seek help, and I expected, after trying for a year and a half, that I would have received at least some sort of counselling by now. I am a skint student and can't afford to pay for private counselling, but there seems to be no sort of free counselling available to me. I feel like everywhere I turn I am just having doors shut in my face. I understand that it is a difficult thing to fund, but this is people’s mental health at stake, it is not something to be ignored or put off ”
“My advice to any student suffering from mental illness is this; try all the routes that the university offers – you never know, maybe you’ll find a sympathetic counsellor or a different doctor will be on duty – but if it doesn’t work out for you, don’t give up. You have a right to be heard. We all do. Maybe, one day, someone will listen.”
“A huge number of people will suffer from some sort of mental health problem(s) to some extent sometime in their lives and for too long people have had to suffer in silence and it has been a taboo subject. Thankfully, this looks set to change. Thankfully, I am now in a much more stable and happy state than I was when I started my time in beautiful Aberystwyth. I really can’t urge people enough to get help when
they are feeling down all the time and might sometimes feel unable to cope. Don’t let it escalate. Talk to a friend, your doctor and/ or book yourself in at the Student Support Centre. Although it might not feel like it, things do get better. Mental illness is a horrible scourge that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I’m glad it’s finally getting the attention that it deserves.”
“None of the counsellors are experienced with “There seems to be a lack of real understandsuch disorders, it’s only good for venting” ing of mental health from certain pockets of staff” “Here in Aberystwyth there are no specialised services for treating eating disorders. Wales is generally not a good place to have an ED. A research in 2010 showed that in Wales 1 in 5 people do not think of eating disorders as a mental health issue and many believe eating disorders are a lifestyle choice. That’s with an estimated 56,000 people suffering from disordered eating in the country... Nonetheless, if you or someone you know need help see a GP. Eating disorders are very harmful and have a higher death rate than any other mental disorder.
You can find help in the Student Advice and Counselling Centre in the Student Union. But as none of the counsellors are experienced with such disorders, it’s only good for venting. Psychological Services at Bronglais have a very long waiting list (up to 4 months), and are unable to provide frequent therapy sessions. So I’d recommend going to B-Eat (http://www.b-eat.co.uk/), the only nationwide organisation supporting people affected by eating disorders, their family members and friends. They have a helpline, and have a lot of useful information”
“My experience as a student with a mental health difficulty at Aberystwyth University has been mixed. Some staff (academic, administrative and support) have been fantastic and very understanding of exactly how a mental health condition can affect someone, and of the fact that although two students may have similar or the same diagnoses, this does not mean that they both have exactly the same support needs. However, not all staff are so supportive unfortunately. I have certainly experienced a “pull yourself together” attitude from certain staff
in my department and in the central services side of the university. Certain procedures and policies indirectly penalise or create barriers for students with mental health difficulties and disabilities in general. There seems to be a lack of real understanding of mental health from certain pockets of staff. More practical training and speaking to students with a mental health difficulty to see what problems they actually encounter would be appreciated. At present, the university is very reactive to mental health, rather than being proactive and supportive all the time.”
A FEW people still think that depression is not a real illness and that it is a form of weakness or admission of failure. This is simply not true. Depression is a real illness, with real effects. When you’re depressed, you may have feelings of extreme sadness that can last for a long time. These feelings are severe enough to interfere with your daily life, and can last for weeks or months, rather than days. Depression is quite common, and about 15% of people will have a bout of severe depression at some point in their lives. However, the exact number of people with depression is hard to estimate because many people do not get help, or are not formally diagnosed with the condition. Depression affects people in many different ways and can cause a wide variety of physical, psychological and social symptoms. Physical symptoms can include slowed movement or speech, change in appetite, constipation, disturbed sleep patterns and unexplained
EATING disorders are characterised by an abnormal attitude towards food that causes someone to change their eating habits and behaviour. A person with an eating disorder may focus excessively on their weight and shape, leading them to make unhealthy choices about food with damaging results to their health. Eating disorders include a range of conditions that can affect someone physically, psychologically and socially. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, when someone tries to keep their weight as low as possible, bulimia, when someone tries to control their weight by binge eating and then deliberately being sick or using laxatives (medication to help empty their bowels) and binge eating, when someone feels compelled to overeat. Eating disorders are often blamed on the social pressure to be thin, as young people in particular feel they should look a certain way. However, the causes are usually more complex. There may be some biological or influencing factors, combined with an experience that may provoke the disorder, plus other factors that encourage the condition to continue. Eating disorders are more common in women than men as statistics show that around 1 in 250 women compared to 1 in 2000 men will experience anorexia nervosa, and that 90% of bulimia sufferers are female. As students it is also important to note that many cases of anorexia develop at around the age of 16 to 17 and many cases of bulimia between 18 and 19. Binge eating is more difficult to distinguish, behaviourwise, than anorexia and bulimia, but is thought most likely to occur between the ages of 30 and 40.
February 2012 aches and pains. Psychological symptoms can include continuous low mood or sadness, tearfulness, lack of enjoyment, lack of motivation, difficulty making decisions, feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness and guilt. Causes of depression in individuals can be difficult to pinpoint. For some people, upsetting or stressful life events can be the cause. This is often known as ‘reactive depression’. In other cases, depression does not have an obvious cause and as such is sometimes divided into three broad groups- psychological (reactive), physical/ chemical (caused by changes in levels of chemicals in the brain) and social (doing fewer activities, having fewer interests, although this may be as a direct consequence of depression). Other noted causes which may be of importance to students are drinking alcohol in excess, using recreational drugs such as cannabis and cocaine and even some types of prescription medication can lead to depression as a side effect.
“I think it goes without saying that suffering from a mental health issue isn’t exactly fun. I’ve had nearly six years’ experience with it and I still haven’t quite found that balance between sitting and staring at walls for three hours and wading into the December sea at 3am wearing nothing more than pyjamas and wellies.” “I used to hallucinate (the ceiling collapsing, statues moving, seeing people who weren’t there), have panic attacks and simply lose my mind. Any rational thought went straight out the window and the only way to make it stop and recompose was through inflicting physical pain, such as through strangulation, suffocation or intense pressure on part of my body (although not cutting). The intention wasn’t to cause long-lasting harm, create physical
scars or to take my life but for a long time this was the only control I had over my mind to stop it spinning out of control. Converting mental pain to physical pain, if you like... Anti-depressants are sometimes referred to as ‘happy pills’ but that name certainly does not accurately describe their effects. The side effects can be horrible; I was nauseous, could barely get out of bed for a week and was unable to eat for days and so quickly lost a huge amount in weight...”
Anorexia: “Eating disorders aren’t just Bulimia: “Your about what’s going on inside your head” heart is racing, it “I am 20 years old, and between the age years I never told anybody what I was hurts to breathe” of 16 and 18 I was severely anorexic. It's going through or doing to myself, and a year and a half since I started eating again, but I still live with anorexia every day and will do for the rest of my life. The most common question I get asked is 'weren't you hungry?' I never stopped getting hungry; I just turned it into something good. The hunger pains meant I needed sustenance, which meant my body would eat into more of my fat reserves for energy, which meant I was getting closer to my goal... so after a while the pains stopped being painful altogether and started feeling good. I don't have one friendship that wasn't nearly destroyed by my illness. For two
all the secrets and lying made me feel distant from everyone around me - but eating disorders aren't just about what's going on inside your head. I had to go to extreme lengths to avoid anybody noticing that I never ate anything. I could never remain in the same company for too long, especially around mealtimes. Most social gatherings involved food. Eventually everyone just gave up. The idea of starting to eat again, and the inevitable weight gain - while I was feeling like that - was terrifying. I always say it was both the easiest and hardest thing I've ever done, but it was worth it.”
“Bulimia keeps you awake 'till 6am bingeing all night. Purging all night. Your heart is racing, it hurts to breathe, and you get that now familiar chest pain somewhere behind your ribcage when you are to reach something on the top shelf. To shove it down your throat not chewing, not tasting, just stuffing yourself as though you're hollow. You feel hollow all the while, but then you start to sweat, your heart is beating way too fast but you're not even afraid, you keep swallowing, keep your jaw and hands busy. Then it starts. The disgust, the realisation of what you've done, you're hands trembling and it's already 6am and you're tired, you can't even cry you're so exhausted. You purge, of course. Because if you do not, you will probably go mad. This is what it feels like... What is important to understand, is that eating disorders do not have one cause, they are a collage of insecurities, poor body image, low self-esteem, external stress, childhood trauma and even genetics. Often it's not even about wanting to be thin. You miss lectures because you need to purge. So you stay in a public bathroom, not giving a flying fuck whether people can hear you. You go out, your face is swollen, your eyes are blood-shot, you’re shaking. You smoke, calm down a little. But you can’t study, you can’t go out with your friends later, you can’t let your boyfriend touch you because you are a grotesque pile of worthlessness. And you’re fucking fat. Then, after two years, you’ve got arrhythmia, suspected infertility, you have trouble sleeping, no sex drive, you’ve started medication, you cope just barely with your academic work. And though you know that you can do it better, a lot better in fact, you don’t, because bulimia is what takes most of your energy. It drains you. Both physically and mentally.”
Anxiety Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. Feeling anxious is sometimes perfectly normal. However, people with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) find it hard to control their worries. Their feelings of anxiety are more constant and often affect their daily life. GAD can significantly affect your daily life, making it difficult to perform everyday tasks. GAD affects approximately 1 in 20 adults in Britain. Slightly more women are affected than men, and the disorder is common in people in their 20s. Psychological symptoms can include restlessness, a sense of dread, feeling constantly ‘on edge’, difficulty concentrating and irritability. Physical symptoms may include dizziness, drowsiness, palpitations, pins and needles, dry mouth, excessive sweating, nausea and headaches.
O b s e s s ive Compulsive Disorder An obsession is an unwanted, unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters a person’s mind and results in anxiety. A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act that a person feels compelled to perform to try to avert or undo the effect of the obsession. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a chronic (long-term) mental health condition that is usually associated with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour. The obsession in OCD is unpleasant and frightening. The person feels the need to carry out their compulsion in order to prevent their obsession becoming true. OCD is one of the most common mental health conditions. It is estimated that up to 3 in 100 adults and up to 5 in 100 children and teenagers have OCD. OCD usually starts in early adult life, with men tending to report earlier symptoms than women. The symptoms of OCD can range from mild to severe. For example, some people with OCD will spend about an hour a day engaged in obsessive compulsive thinking and behaviour. For others, the condition can completely take over their life. Left untreated, the symptoms of OCD may not improve. In some cases they will get worse. Without treatment, nearly half of people with OCD still have symptoms 30 years later. With treatment, the outlook for OCD is good. Some people will achieve a complete cure. Even if a complete cure is not achievable, treatment can reduce the severity of your symptoms and help you to achieve a good quality of life.
Anxiety can persist as a result of a phobia, however the exact cause of GAD is not fully understood. Some people develop the condition for no apparent reason whereas others may develop GAD as a result of a major stressful incident. Just as with depression, a chemical link has been found. Two neurotransmitters- chemicals within the brain- thought to affect anxiety are serotonin and noradrenaline. If the level of these chemicals in your brain becomes unbalanced, it can significantly affect your mood and increase your likelihood of developing anxiety-related conditions such as GAD. However, GAD is most likely to have a complex combination of causes, rather than being triggered by just an imbalance of brain chemicals, such as genetics, environment and life experiences.
“I struggled with large amounts of stress in the last semester due to work loads, friend and family problems. The stress in turn made me feel very depressed, but I felt that there was no one I could speak to about it. I looked in to visiting the campus counselling centre, but to be told that the waiting list is months long I didn't see the point. It would be better if there was some sort of counsellor we could book to see for less serious issues maybe a day to week in advance, even if it’s only for half an hour.”
“Take my advice, GET HELP. Do not try and cope with it like I have, because three years on there are still things that I cannot shake free. My hands sometimes split and bleed because I wash them so much. “Trust me, if I could find a way in which to stop this, I would take it, so as someone who struggled, is struggling some days even today,
“Whenever I did anything, anything at all, I had to think of a certain person it was acceptable to think of. For some bizarre reason, my mind had created this link between people and actions. It got hard to eat and drink, because it affected everything. I can’t elaborate on explaining this fully purely because of personal reasons.
I am asking you, if you recognise these symptoms or if they relate to you, please, please get help. No one should have to live like that.
Sometimes I’d twitch or click my fingers, or hit the air to stop myself. I would punch things to vent out my anger... I didn’t get help because I didn’t want the label, or stigma, of having OCD. I didn’t want it to define me and affect the way in which my friends and family interacted with me.”
“…people don't always realise exactly how debilitating a mental health condition can be. There is an assumption that as a second year undergraduate you will have settled into university by now (which I have) and there you ought to be able to do certain things. However certain things and situations act as a trigger for me and I find them difficult to deal with. Some of these are things which most people might take for granted e.g. using public transport in a crowded situation (and we all know what the buses and trains are like in Aber at peak times!) or certain periods of high stress and anxiety such as examinations.”
“I can’t remember exactly what set it off. Various things, most probably. I’ve always had a huge problem with obscenities, for example, if I were to see or hear something that disgusted me, then I would shift uncomfortably, placing both feet on the ground (later what I called ‘grounding’). What some people find hilarious, I laughed at through gritted teeth, longing for the day I could leave home and all of this behind. This later expanded to full grounding, where I’d place both feet on the floor, flat, hands beside me, flat, nails pressing inward, depending on what the atrocity was, and maybe blowing out, as if exhaling what I was seeing. Then I saw the film ‘The Number 23’, which, being number orientated, was an immediate second OCD breakdown. That reiterated my bad number habits, getting worse, so that I could only look at the clock and avoid certain numbers, for example, 14, 41 (1 + 4 = 5, and 2 + 3 = 5, ta da, 23), 5, 23, 32, 59 (because 5 + 9 = 14), etc. It was torture. That lasted for about a year.” “When I told my mum all of these things, I could tell that beneath the calm, caring, sympathetic exterior, she thought I was crazy. Which is fair enough; to be perfectly honest, had it been happening to anyone else, I’d have agreed with her.”
Services There are a variety of options open to those diagnosed with a mental health problem. On campus you can find the Student Advice and Counselling Centre. The SACC, run by the Guild and independent from the University itself, offers support and advice in a safe and confidential space. The reception is located at the back of the Guild, which is at the back of the Students’ Union building, and is open for dropping in to book appointments and answering enquiries from 9am until 4pm on weekdays. Whereas this has proven to be a useful service for many, it only has limited resources and is in high demand with the students here at Aber, so it is important to be aware of the peak times, particularly towards the end of term. The student-
run Nightline service is also available for those wishing to talk but remain anonymous, the number of which is 01970 621717. The line is open Tuesday to Saturdays, 8pm until 8am. The first area of treatment many people will consider exploring is a consultation with their GP. There are three general practices in Aberystwyth, one of which you should have registered with during your first week here as a Fresher. A meeting with your GP may help to alleviate some of your concerns, or perhaps produce a form of diagnosis and maybe have you put in contact with some more specialist treatment such as a counsellor. If you don’t wish to take the medical route, or have already done so and want to find other ways to help work through your diagnosis, other options
Summary We hope that this feature has helped publicise some of the key mental health issues affecting students in Aberystwyth as well as providing the details of services, so that if you need to, you can find out more. From talking with Guild staff and looking at the comments from students, it’s clear that there are potential improvements that could be made. In a report compiled by the Royal College of Psychiatrists on the Mental Health of Students in Higher Education, there are several recommendations which could be beneficial for the university in particular. Mental Health Advisors often have degrees in areas such as psychiatric nursing and can play a valuable role in co-ordinating between NHS and University services. They can also help students with existing problems transition to university, as well as providing advice with the aim of avoiding disruption to learning. At the moment, the university doesn’t have a Mental Health Advisor. The Guild currently employs one full time and three part time counsellors and though waiting times are lower than NHS services, it has been suggest-
ed that additional counsellors could be hired, especially for coping at peak times, such as after exams. An interesting suggestion came from a comment left on our website, with the idea that a casual drop in service would be more appropriate for some students, so that issues like exam stress aren’t ignored and left to perhaps become bigger problems. In general, university can be a brilliant experience and is often talked about as the ‘best time of your life’, though there are still many pressures and stresses on students which can be overlooked. It’s a huge change to move to a new place, make new friends and keep up with studies, especially with the complications of suffering with mental health issues. Although we didn’t have enough space to include all of the comments which we have been sent, we have put the full comments on our website under features, so that you can read through individual’s stories and experiences. For anyone interested, there is also an informal conference from 1-4pm run by B-eat, taking place above TaMed Da on Friday 24th February.
are open in town. The national mental health charity, Mind, runs a drop-in centre on Mill Street. Here, on certain days of the week, different activities are provided as a form of holistic therapy. New members are always welcome and sessions only cost £1. If you’re looking for someone to talk to about problems you’re experiencing, then you can drop in between 11am and 3pm on Wednesdays and Fridays - you don’t have to be involved in any activities. You can find out more about the organisation at www.mind. org.uk It is important too, if you are part of a support network to a friend or family member with mental health problems, that you ensure that you are happy and healthy. SACC services and Mind are open to those such
individuals, as is Contact, on North Parade, who run a family and friends programme for people who have been affected by someone close to them with a drug or alcohol problem, whether it be related to mental health difficulties or not. Alternatively, there is always the Internet which has proven to be a useful outlet for some. There are many websites available for those looking for more information, advice, or even just someone to discuss these issues with. These can be general mental health forums or sites with a more specific focus, such as b-eat.co.uk which deals with eating disorders and depressionalliance.org which is a site concentrated on depression and depression related issues.