Mental Wealth for Students

I’ve recently come across an organisation called Mental Wealth UK who are doing some great work up and down the country. Launched by the Student Mental Wealth Committee; a group of student mental health and wellbeing ambassadors they, in their own words:

“provides inspiration and support to a growing community of young leaders and student-led initiatives; each of whom are working to open minds, create understanding, and connect people with the resources they need to thrive”.

They work with students but also university and college staff and encourage people to set up their own “mental wealth” groups which i think is a fantastic idea! They started small and now have groups across the country, a whole network of young people talking about mental health and emotional wellbeing.

It is a very important project especially given how many young people experience mental health problems either for the first time or ongoing during university and i think that anything that can be done to open up discussions around mental health and provide support is an excellent step in the right direction.

You can find their website here: http://www.mentalwealthuk.com/

And they’re also on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/mentalwealth?ref=ts

And Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/smwproject

First published 16th April 2011:

http://www.vik.org.uk/2011/04/16/mental-wealth-for-students/

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Continuing on the schools theme (tw)

Beat’s “PSHE: Managing challenging conditions” conference.
City University, London.

On the 31st of March after a ridiculously busy month of training, conferences and consultations i attended the last conference for the near future with Roger Catchpole, our training and development manager at YoungMinds.

The conference was organised by Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, and titled “PSHE: Managing challenging conditions”. It set out to look at mental health issues faced by young people in education and how to manage these conditions and help pupils and was open to educators and clinicians.

Unfortunately neither me or Roger could attend the morning or early afternoon part of the session but looking over the print outs for some of the other speaker’s presentations it looks like some amazing ground was covered on a diverse range of mental health problems in relation to young people.

Roger spoke about what role schools play and what their boundaries are as it’s often difficult for schools to know what to do when they have an unwell pupil..a lot of the time they tend to panic and this is not helped by very little mental health training and education in schools both for the teachers and the other pupils.

I also spoke about my experiences of school and i thought i would post up what i said as i think it’s very relevant to a lot of recent posts about school experiences.

So here it goes!

PLEASE NOTE: Some of this may be potentially triggering so please take care of yourself while reading.

My schooldays are quite a way behind me now (i turn 22 soon and left at 18), but what do i remember about being a mentally ill pupil?

Well i remember what it was like before and the stark contrast between that time and after i got “sick”. I was a good student, rarely late, always conscientious. I cared so much about what my teachers and parents thought about me and felt absolutely crushed when i did something wrong. I was definitely verging on a perfectionist and was always prone to anxiety but i had a good group of friends, i managed and life was good.

And then the depression and anorexia got their grip on me around the age of 13-14 and exacerbated issues i had always had; OCD, Anxiety and insomnia; it became overwhelming and things began to spiral downwards at a rate of knots.

I remember sleeping through lessons and turning up to others looking and feeling like a zombie. I remember not eating, self harming in the school toilets and pulling my hair out in class and wearing long sleeves all year around.. Going home at lunch to avoid people and becoming more withdrawn by the day.

And feeling alone.

I remember that the most. The isolation of it all, feeling like everyone else was going about their normal lives whilst i fell apart in the corner.

My school, when they found out, did what they could but what they did was not always helpful. I don’t blame them though. They had no support to support me and i imagine having such a good and supposedly “normal” student going so far off the rails was bewildering for them.

I’ll start with what didn’t work so we can end on a more positive note.

What didn’t help was their panicking. At points they felt they couldn’t cope with me so i wasn’t allowed to come to school. This felt like a punishment and was damaging at a time when i needed to retain some semblance of normality; some kind of structure to my day and a chance to interact with other people and see my friends.

When i was allowed in school having an SEN assistant follow me around from class to class (not subtly either) to make sure i didn’t abscond or do something to myself-and forcing me to spend all of my break and lunchtimes in the tiny SEN office made me feel like a freak. I couldn’t pretend i was normal anymore, everyone, pupils and teachers alike, knew that something wasn’t right. All this did was make me even more painfully aware that i was “different”.

We also never learnt anything about mental health or illness in school, it just wasn’t a subject that was ever broached. It, of course, came up when i did A level Psychology but that was to be expected and it felt like too little too late and in the wrong context. We focused on specific mental illnesses and it would have been so helpful to have something much earlier in my school career about mental health and emotional wellbeing and something, anything, to reduce the stigma of mental ill health.

The only time mental health was raised was by classmates making jokes about “nutters” and “the men in white coats coming”-not exactly things that are going to produce an environment where it is seen as OK to talk or to turn around and say “actually i have mental health problems”. As a result i only told a couple of people what i was going through and the rest was hidden away and bottled up. I told people i missed a lot of school because of physical health problems because it seemed more socially acceptable and said i had physio for some mysterious issues 1-3 a week for two years instead of admitting i went to a CAMHS clinic for therapy.

In fact, with my local trust i recently went into a school to talk about my experiences and to dispel some myths about mental illness. I came out of it wishing there had been something similar at my school to make it feel a bit less wrong and bad to be ill and to make me feel a bit less alone in it all.

But it wasn’t all bad. I was lucky in that my form tutor was an amazing man. He was seen as quite intimidating by a lot of people, ex-army turned PE and Maths teacher and i wouldn’t have liked to get on the wrong side of him. But we clicked and when he found out about what i was going through he told me he had a long history of depression. And although he didn’t have any kind of mental health training he understood and he took me under his wing and looked out for me. I am eternally grateful for the care and compassion he showed me. He didn’t treat me differently or draw attention to what was going on but he was there and a friendly face in the crowd.

I think the most important thing for schools is not to panic-it doesn’t help you and it certainly doesn’t help us as young people, especially as we are often confused, scared and overwhelmed enough. Mental illness at school is common. I wasn’t alone in what i was going through (hell the statistics say that 3 pupils in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health problem) but i was made to feel like i was. Since leaving school and becoming more open about what i’ve been through i’ve found that a lot of ex-schoolmates had similar issues and i just wish we had known and been able to talk about it and support each other at the time, i think it could have helped.

First published 4th April 2011:

http://www.vik.org.uk/2011/04/06/continuing-on-the-schools-theme-tw/

Using online communities as a therapeutic tool

I was invited by Katie Bacon of Online Youth Outreach to write a blog about my experiences of using social media and the online world as part of Youth Work Online’s Month Of Action. At first this seemed like a daunting prospect, after all the online world is very much a part of my life and the distinction between online and offline is often blurred for me, with many of my friends residing in both and a lot of my work being based online. For me the online world is as big, complex and “real” as the real world in many ways and so it was hard for me to pick just one element of this to comment on.

I have used the online world to not only learn about mental health and illness (after all knowledge is power) but also as a therapeutic tool in itself. I have written extensively online but never blogged about the use of the internet itself. I feel that this shows just what a large part of my life it is and something i most likely take for granted. Occasionally I wonder that question that many of my generation have asked; “What did people do before the internet?”. However I do remember what it was like before the boom of the internet as something that everyday people used, in the days of painfully slow dial-up which I first remember using at about the age of 8. I do have a certain amount of nostalgia for those days, before Facebook, Twitter and the internet’s overwhelming presence in just about all aspects of our lives.

However i do feel that the internet came along for me at a crucial time. I first started using it on a regular basis, probably at about the age of 13, coincidentally when a lot of my mental health problems really began to kick off and become a real problem. Looking back it has had an absolutely invaluable impact on my life and emotional wellbeing and provided me with a safe, for the most part anonymous space to explore and try to understand the things that were going on in my head. These were huge things, pervasive and destructive things that I couldn’t seem to physically voice but could type and share with strangers who I didn’t feel would judge me or change in their attitude to me if i disclosed some of the darker things inside going on inside.

I know i’m not alone in this. Every day tens of thousands, in fact millions of people turn on their computers and log onto to countless blogs, support groups and forums to discuss their mental health and seek support. But why? Personally I believe that talking online to someone can be just as therapeutic as talking to someone face to face and in fact can be a lot easier and less traumatic. The online world provides a certain amount of anonymity that is just not possible in the real, tactile world. People can be whoever they choose to be online and the media is often very quick to pick up on the most negative and extreme examples of this but in my experience a lot of people use this in a positive way and i feel it is unfair to judge the majority of people who choose to remain anonymous against a minority of people who use it for less honourable purposes.

Copyright Kari

We must also take into account that a lot of people feel unable to reveal their identities. A lot of them simply cannot take the risk and this is often true for those with mental health problems. People fear that loved ones, friends and co-workers will uncover their mental health problems and this is often not an option because of stigma and discrimination which are still very real issues for a lot of people like me. The same can be said for meeting people from the online world. Obviously caution and common sense are necessary and you should do as much as you possibly can to stay safe and I would in no way recommend giving out personal details to people you meet online but I would say that many of my best friends are people I originally met online on support groups. In fact some of the people I met in the early days of using support groups, some seven, almost eight years ago are to this day firm friends and people who I cannot imagine not being a part of my life.

It was these people and others like them that first suggested and encouraged that I get help for the mental health problems I was struggling with. If I hadn’t had them coaxing me and sharing their own experiences of getting help (I quite frankly wouldn’t have known where to start) I don’t think I would have been able to speak to my parents and say I needed help in the first place and would have continued to keep everything bottled up and shrouded in shame and secrecy.

The internet is also a wonderful place for finding resources. There is a wealth of information out there that is literally right at your fingertips and does not require you leaving the house or even getting out of your pyjamas (a serious issue when you have depression, agoraphobia or other issues). It is also available 24/7 and both the wealth of information and support groups can be an essential lifeline during times of crisis, especially crises which occur out of office hours which is the only time that most mental health services can provide support. If you are stuck on a waiting list for services this can also essential as a stop gap measure and research is continually showing the benefit of online CBT and Mindfulness courses that often aren’t readily available for people who are struggling.

Personally I do not know what I would have done without the resources and the people I have met during my online journey. I know the internet is not perfect but it’s young, we are all learning as we go along and it is alright to make mistakes. And overall I think the internet serves an undeniably useful service. And as a last point I would like to mention a website that I am very involved in both as a contributor and editor, the YoungMinds VIK site which aims to open up discussion around young people’s mental health and is very close to my heart: Young Minds VIK: http://www.vik.org.uk

Katie Bacon would like to thank Kat for her courage, honesty and open attitude to share her personal online journey and experiences. Kat will be hopefully joining the Online Youth Outreach team to co-deliver on the social media training courses over the upcoming months. Also like to thank Kari Brooks for generously sharing her stunning art work for this blog. Kari is an art student in America. Her art collection recently came 2nd place in Rolling Stone magazine. to check out more of her images – http://www.flickr.com/photos/era_halloway

 

First published 1st April 2011:

http://www.katiebacon.co.uk/young-womens-experience-of-using-the-online-community-as-a-therapeutic-tool/