When Heather first started thinking about university applications for her medical studies, the most pressing issues were the choice of module options and grade requirements, not possible mental health support services and how good the campus medical centre may be. However, by the start of Heather’s second year, the latter would become a priority and essential for her long-term health and wellbeing.
From a young age, she thinks it was around 11, Heather had experienced mental health issues. “A lot of young girls I knew were experiencing similar things, it was kind of ‘normal’, and no one really spoke about it. If they did, perhaps only in small trusted groups.” explains Heather, who is now 20.
At first Heather sought help from her local GP who prescribed medication to manage her symptoms, but the effects of these can vary from person to person and for Heather they brought their own complications, further impacting her health. It also drove Heather to search online for solutions but with so much contradictory information available, it was often more confusing. Heather immediately highlights two of the challenges facing young people, that young people often know what works best for them and embedding young people as champions of change is essential if we are to transform our mental health systems to meet the needs of young people.
That none of this ultimately affected Heather’s ability to apply to University is testament to the remarkable resilience and attributes of a young person who has tackled significant mental health challenges front on.
However, it was in the second year of studies when things started to change again “I found myself living in a flat that wasn’t ideal, I was going out more trying to be more social, I had a challenging relationship, coupled with the academic side I was drowned with worries. I wasn’t getting the balance right, and it soon became a downward spiral. My anxiety and panic attacks became worse, and I knew pretty quickly that I was in trouble. Stress became over-powering and it’s really natural for you to turn to unhealthy methods of dealing with it.”
Heather reached out again for help and this time her mental health issues were properly diagnosed. For the following nine months she continued to struggle with severe anxiety and depression, multiple medications, several referrals to mental health professionals, many of which never materialised and most serious of all, a suicide attempt.
Just when Heather had reached breaking point she reached out to the University and was surprised by the support she immediately received.
‘Everyone was really supportive, there was genuine empathy and understanding. The Dean of Pastoral Care was incredible and together we decided I should take a semester out. If needed, it could be longer. Importantly, I was told that my place at Uni was safe and they shared stories of others who’d had similar health issues but gone on to brilliant medical careers, that gave me confidence and I recognised that people seldom take a direct path to where they want to be.’
‘Throughout my time away the University kept in touch, academic performance was put to one side, the priority at all times was my health and wellbeing. It’s enabled me to be back here today.’
Heather acknowledges the different skills her experiences have taught her, ‘I have greater empathy for myself and others. I realise that if someone is having a bad day, quite often there are reasons behind this, and I understand just how common this all is.’
‘Realising I have control over me, has made the difference. I’m looking after myself better, exercising more, and I’ve taken up mindfulness which enables me to challenge myself when issues arise.’
The advice Heather offers others embarking on their studies away from home, is the importance of looking into how Universities handle mental health, how tutors have responded, and the quality of professional support that is available on and off campus.
There’s a growing awareness and recognition across campuses of the pressures that can impact our mental health and wellbeing, and the requirement for services that meet these needs. This is why Heather is a passionate advocate for the need to normalise the conversation about mental health, improve education so we know how to talk about it, and the importance of making services visible for those who need them.
‘By talking more we will create more understanding communities.’ Heather says, but above all ‘Have faith in yourself that you can get through the bad times. It’s okay to say that you’re struggling and need help.’