The recent Mental Health Awareness Week made me reflect on my experience of mental health problems and how studying is helping me – hopefully – recover.
Recovery from a mental health problem is rarely easy and, in my opinion, highly subjective. Medication may form part of a person’s recovery but those little green and white capsules aren’t the magic “happy pills” you may have envisaged and sometimes the first step is simply trying to access the right help and support to manage your symptoms.
While I’m dubious as to whether I’ll ever fully recover in the medical sense – complete absence of symptoms – by understanding myself and my condition better and am slowly learning what may help alleviate the impact depression and anxiety has on my life.
Last year I began studying with the Open University (OU), a short science course on particle physics which did not require me to leave the house or interact with anybody face to face; my idea of heaven. One of my issues is severe anxiety triggered by social situations, when I’m at my worst I am unable to leave the house for fear of seeing another human being and becoming paranoid, agitated and having to run away.
I’m 23 now and left school with five GCSEs at the age of 16, since then I’ve been in and out of college and university, believing if I was strong enough I could “get over” my mental health problems and fit in with my peers. Unfortunately being in a classroom inevitably triggered my anxiety due in part to bullying in high school which I’ve struggled to recover from.
I was always reluctant to study with the Open University despite encouragement from my mum, a fellow OU student. Part of me felt I was somehow “giving up” by not facing my issues head on and forcing myself to be around people in an educational setting. But, fed up of being a drop-out and realising I’d always preferred the autodidact way of learning I signed up and haven’t looked back since. Studying with the OU allows me to continue my education despite my problems and has helped me fall back in love with learning again, something I doubted would ever happen and believing the opportunity to gain a degree and have a career was something other people had, not some anxious wreck terrified of the world.
Following the completion of some short science courses to ease me back in to studying again I’m now aiming for a degree in physics. It’s not always being easy, concentrating on differential equations for hours on end when you’re depressed and crying your eyes out can be horrific but the university has services on offer for students with disabilities which include the Disabled Students Allowance (to pay for any additional costs relating to your disability), flexibility with assignment deadlines and individual support during examinations. I have asked for extensions for a couple of assignments due to struggling to motivate myself because of my depression.
The study is also part-time which makes things less stressful and means I can study alongside receiving treatment for my mental health. The number of hours I study a day or week varies quite a bit, but on average, around two hours a day are dedicated purely to study. I’ve found when my assignments are due I become a bit obsessive with the studying and can spend days or nights on end studying.
Some people find distance learning isolating and admittedly, sometimes it’d be great to sit down and have a chat with fellow students; there are plenty of opportunities to chat online via the forums, Facebook and Twitter, which suits me.
I have used the forums available on the OU website which is part of it “virtual campus”. I have also used one set up by students on Facebook where I just chatted about the course rather than anything mental health related; it helped remind me I wasn’t on my own.
For some courses there are face-to-face or online tutorials every few months where you get to communicate with your tutor, who is always available by email and telephone. I’ve been too anxious to go to face-to-face tutorials which is why I’m so glad online ones were provided.
Studying as a way of managing a mental health problem may not be for everyone but it has managed to keep me focused and helped me realise my life doesn’t have to be defined by being unwell and a mental health service user. Recovery may be long and arduous but I’m convinced studying – and I hope to finish the degree in another four years – will be an integral part of keeping me mentally healthy.
* Carrie is involved in the charity Young Minds’ VIK (Very Important Kids) project which campaigns on youth mental health. You can follow Carrie and Vik on Twitter @vikproject