Sunday, 5 March 2017

Speaking out

In a week where we’ve had the national days of strawberries, the tooth fairy and tartar sauce (big days for us all, I know), I want to focus on two slightly more notable events: Mental Health at University Day and National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. For some, the two will be inherently related – and many of us will be able to relate to either one, be it through personal experience, or supporting a friends/family/colleagues/housemates. I’ve spoken about generalised anxiety and PTSD on my blog before, but perhaps not about how it can manifest itself, how it can be connected to other disorders – and I think that’s something that’s very individual.

My anxiety came after an accident, during a time of loneliness, total lack of direction and stress of impending university exams. It crept up on me when I wasn’t expecting it – having always been confident, independent, and never having had any problems with anxiety in my childhood or teenage years. I had a handful of panic attacks, and constant nausea. I felt on edge all the time, and I found it difficult to switch off, be by myself, or everyday tasks I’d never given much thought to. Whilst I would never claim to have had an eating disorder, my anxiety gradually became associated with control over food. I felt like I had to eat at certain times (i.e. at least an hour before I needed to leave the house), eat the same things, and became quite obsessive about the meals I felt were ‘safe’ to eat. In more recent times, I’ve been diagnosed with a dairy intolerance (and a slightly gluten intolerance), which I’m sure was tied up with it all – but the symptoms were hugely exacerbated by worry. If I had a big commitment the next day, I felt like I needed to eat something small and plain the night before; I hated eating outside the house; and going to a restaurant for a meal, where other people would notice if I didn’t eat much, and unsure how I would react to the foods, was my worst nightmare. I didn’t fear eating because I wanted to lose weight, or because I was unhappy with how I looked; I feared it for how it made me feel (or how I thought it did), and for how it had become a mechanism for control at a time when I felt entirely powerless over almost everything else.

This was during my second year of university: my dissertation proposal was due, I had two essays to finish (and both hands in huge bandages) and 6 exams to prepare for. And so I applied for some support from university: an extension on my essays, and some support from the psychological services. My extension was denied, and the psychological services replied to me a month later (in April) to tell me there would not be any availability for support until at least December. Luckily I was fortunate enough position, supported by friends and family, to find and finance support elsewhere (because my NHS 10 month waiting list was not sufficient either) – but not everyone is in that position, and there are plenty of people out there more desperate than I have ever been. I appreciate that the demand on university mental health services is greater than ever, but the absolute inability to provide services for people who actively seek them is, frankly, unacceptable. Where students are unable to get any support from their department, a place on an 8 month waiting list might just come too late. The only support I did receive (after 3 doctors letters, 2 visits to a university doctor and numerous emails to the UCL Student Disability services) was an allowance in my exams to ‘take a break’, have the timer stopped, if I needed to stand up and move from the damage my accident had caused to my back. Whilst better than nothing, I became acutely aware that physical symptoms were taken much more seriously than mental ones. Some students had permission to sit their exams away from their course mates, with me, in the ‘disabled unit’ – but this involved creating a group of students who suffered from panic attacks, and putting them all in a room together, creating the most uncomfortable and disruptive environment of tension, fear and absolute lack of understanding. The ‘support’ was SO tokenistic, and so inconsiderate, fundamentally failing to really deal with the individuals’ difficulties. And everyone put up with it, because there were no other options.

If no one ever talks about it, and if no one ever complains and campaigns for things to be better, they never will be. Some people are in a position to be the change – they’re ashamed, they’re embarrassed, they’re hiding – and we owe it to all those people, whose struggles we can identify, or at least empathise, with to drive the change they need. So whether you’ve ever called in sick with a migraine because you couldn’t admit to your boss that you were riddled with anxiety; repeatedly skipped your lectures because being in a busy room, unable to escape without drawing attention to yourself; or starved yourself, or binged, or used food as an unhealthy mechanism to deal with something owe it to yourself, your future self, to talk to someone about it – and to be supported in that journey. Today I can eat lunch at work without thinking about it, look forward to a meal out with friends, and experiment with new things without being petrified for days in advance. Mental health, psychological disorders...they don't come in boxes. It doesn't always matter what you 'have', but how you feel. Because changing how you feel will change your life. 

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