I’ve wanted to write this for a while now; a lot of questions we get at Heads Up are How do you tell your friends/family/housemates/college? Mental health not an easy thing to talk about; it could bring up a lot of bad memories. By sharing my own personal story and by writing this blog I hope to help at least one other person, after all I am so pleased I am now fully public about my struggles and it’s definitely been the better option because of who I am as a person. However, I understand this completely varies from person to person and many of you may wish to stay silent, and that is okay too. I know exactly how much I stressed about things and how much better things would have been to personally know or have someone I could ask my questions to who has also been through similar. By doing things like this I’m trying to be the person who I wish existed when I felt so alone, to help others going through similar experiences.
My story doesn’t start off great, because I didn’t exactly tell university or college that I was ill – they told me. Back in first year, my behaviour was erratic and impulsive, my drinking was out of control and my mood swings and dissociative episodes were very unpredictable. Unlike school, I lived with my peers, therefore it was hard to conceal my symptoms all the time. My behaviour got me into a lot of bother in College Office, half the stuff I have no recollection of even doing because I was dissociated (I have dissociative amnesia). I got called into College Office for the all-important confrontation following a suicidal breakdown on a night out, in which the welfare team had to step in for safety reasons. Basically, it was said that I need to get myself sorted out otherwise I couldn’t stay in college or would be banned from communal places like the bar. It was devastating and hard to hear, but the consequential GP visit and medication probably saved my life.
A similar situation arose when it came to telling my then-future housemates – now some of the best friends I could ever possibly have. I had planned to just drop the news one meal time or one movie night, but the moment never felt right and I didn’t want to dull the happiness. Eventually I was given an ultimatum from college: tell them or we will. It was exam period, I was stressed out and in the middle of a mixed episode. We were all partying in my room to celebrate the end of exams, but I quickly turned (passively) suicidal and emotional. I told one person, then he encouraged me to tell the others the secret I had been hiding for so long. I thought they wouldn’t want to live with me, that they wouldn’t want to be my friends anymore and I was so upset. But the opposite happened: we became closer, and knowing that we had each others’ backs throughout second year made it easier to be honest, to trust and to understand each other. I haven’t always treated them best, but I was always looked after and we all (just about) survived second year!
The hardest part came with telling my family. Even though I’ve had symptoms for years, they worsened at university and I no longer had the “hormonal teenager” excuse for my behaviours and mood swings. I spent a lot of time discussing with my friend how to tell mum, knowing that it would break her heart. I decided to write it all in an email because I could barely imagine a face to face conversation or even a phone call. But this was never sent. When the news hit that I was too unwell to do my year abroad, it broke me completely. I’m a linguist, I’ve been looking forward to my year abroad since I was 15 and to be told I couldn’t live my life because of my illness made me so angry. I had to tell my family soon, because back then I believed I’d be spending this year stuck in Cygnet (Harrogate). It was a devastating phone call, but mum took it well. My friend told me that mum has probably already figured it out, and she was completely right! Mum said she could tell something was off, maybe anxiety and depression, but didn’t know how to approach the subject. The much-dreaded “what did you do to your arm?” conversation wasn’t as bad as anticipated either, rather than avoiding the subject I finally just came straight out with the truth and it felt like such a burden had been lifted. Mum told the rest of my family, including my 16 year old brothers, but they are old enough to understand now, and it’s so important that they know because I was already so ill by their age and I don’t want them suffering in silence for so long like I did.
With my home friends, to be honest I don’t really know. I just was kind of dropping hints, helping others with their struggles and finding support at their universities. It came to a head when I made a Facebook post on World Mental Health Day in October, and started to share the blogs I write for Student Minds.
Overall, I am so proud to be fully public about my struggles; it wasn’t easy getting to this point, but now I’m here things are so much simpler. Here is some of the benefits I have personally enjoyed:
- Private healthcare: telling my parents helped them to understand and support my treatment financially – meaning less waiting times and access to psychiatric care if needed. I also changed doctors’ surgeries, so I could be within walking distance and have a fresh start – I didn’t like getting medication from a GP that’s seen me since birth.
- Not having to lie. Seriously, it sounds silly, but I felt like I was living two different lives with all this sneaking around. I was worried people would judge me, but they’ll judge your erratic behaviour more than your bi-weekly counselling sessions. I found most people really don’t care that much about what you’re doing, or they shut up quickly if you tell them the truth because they don’t want to ask questions. I don’t go into any detail about what goes on in meetings.
- Stopping stigma and helping others: with so much experience of support services and mental health in general, why not share it with others? By allowing people to open up to me and ask questions, I have changed the understanding and the stereotype of mental illness in our community, and helped so many others access the support they need.
Not all of it has been positive, but the benefits are far worth it. The main negative for me was ruining the good times: sometimes the conversation comes up when I don’t want to talk about it, like when I’m with friends. I’m there to have fun, to distract myself from my illness for a couple of hours and sometimes questions can dampen that enjoyment. I just tell people directly: “I don’t really want to talk about my poorly brain right now”, “I don’t feel comfortable…” etc. I am completely open to questions, but I’ve made it clear several times that I prefer to message about this subject, rather than talk face to face as it can be quite triggering. Everyone is super respectful of this.
Also, I’ve met some of my best friends though becoming public and joining the Student Minds community, I couldn’t recommend it enough. Its really nice to meet people across the university who also experience similar challenges alongside their degrees and to help each other through it, and working for such a big charitable organisation means I can really see the changes coming about in the communities around me. I never thought I could come to any good because of my illness, but joining these communities has done wonders for my confidence and overall enjoyment of university life.
If you have any questions or queries please don’t hesitate to get in touch! Message the Heads Up team via our Facebook page or email email@example.com and we will try our best to help! Also contact us if you are interested in blogging for us. As always, further support links are below. Keep your heads up! Carys.
- College Welfare Support: This depends on your college, but each college has a student welfare team and college pastoral staff on hand to help you.
- Nightline: Their number can be found on the back of your campus card or on duo. They also offer an online chat. All night, all term, all ears.
- Durham University Counselling Service: https://www.dur.ac.uk/counselling.service/
- Durham University Disability Service: https://www.dur.ac.uk/disability.support/
- Durham University People of Colour Association: https://www.facebook.com/durhampoca/
- Durham University LGBT+ Association: https://www.facebook.com/durhamlgbta/
- Students With Disabilities Association: https://www.facebook.com/durhamswda/
- Talking Changes (NHS CBT in Durham): http://www.talkingchanges.org.uk