How volunteering can help you

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– Grace Anderson

Graduating from university fills many students with dread. The prospect of being outside the university bubble and having to “grow up” and get a “real job” in the “real world” is a daunting experience for many. This is why getting the experience before you leave could help you out in the long run.

Yes, I understand you may have a lot of work on at university, but this could reduce your future stress! Personally, I know that you can get a degree whilst volunteering at the same time, providing you don’t put too much on yourself. Trust me – it’s possible (remember how many hours there are in a day!).

Going out and doing something outside of university may be just what you need, giving you the chance to forget about all your academic worries and focus instead on something else. Do you want to put a spring in your step? This can happen through volunteering. Simply by giving up a few hours of your time, you can help others and make a difference, and you’ll feel happier as a result.

Research conducted by Citizens Advice Bureau indicated that volunteering boosts self-esteem, employability and health, especially mental health. So not only does volunteering benefit the people you help, but it can, most importantly, help you! It can provide you with the ability to cope and come to terms with your own illness, take your mind off your own problems, meet new people, and develop a sense of purpose.

I can guarantee (even if you don’t personally believe it) that you have a skillset that you can provide to services and causes near your university. It might be excellent communication, team work, or having a passion for working with children or people with special needs. You could be an asset to a company or organisation, and all you have to do is offer your services to them. Not only do they gain your help but you also grow and develop as a person and learn more skills to better equip you for life after university.

Do something today and make a difference not only to your personal health but to your community – and your future.

Student Volunteering Week is an annual campaign with the aim to raise awareness of the value of student volunteering, celebrate the impact of existing work in the community and inspire more students to get involved and make a difference in society.

If you’ve been inspired by this post to consider volunteering for Student Minds, check out our Get Involved page to find out all the ways you can join the work we do, whether that’s online or offline, on campus or elsewhere!

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Anorexia is just about wanting to be skinny…right? Myth Busting

– Ruth Beacon

Eating Disorders Awareness Week is a time to make people aware of the seriousness of Eating Disorders (ED’s) and to give a voice to those who are suffering. To give perspective, this time last year I made the decision to admit myself into an inpatient ward for anorexia. A year on, my life has completely changed (for the better). I am back at university (I nearly gave it up so to go back is a mighty achievement), have a job and am a proud owner of my very own car!

Now that I have had personal experience of anorexia, I decided to combat some of the myths that people may believe or think about ED’s.

To clarify, the conditions under the umbrella of eating disorders are:

  1. Anorexia Nervosa
  2. Bulimia Nervosa
  3. Binge Eating Disorder
  4. Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (ENDOS)

The majority of this post will be from an anorexia view point, but it is applicable to bulimia, binge eating disorder and ENDOS.

EATING DISORDER MYTH: Isn’t anorexia just about wanting to be skinny?

MYTH BUSTER: No… is binge eating disorder just about “eating a bit too much?” or is depression just about “being sad?”… the answers to all these questions is no.

Here’s why: An Eating Disorder is a complex mental illness. Anorexia along with bulimia, binge eating disorder and EDNOS, is a result of many social, psychological and emotional factors in an individual’s life. It does not boil down to “just wanting to be skinny”.

Eating disorders can be:

  • a coping mechanism
  • a way of taking control
  • a way of making yourself feel more positive about your appearance
  • a distraction from everyday life or a negative life event

Anorexia can start off as a “simple diet” but quickly snowballs into a radical obsession with weight and shape. Bulimia and binge eating disorder centre around eating large amounts of food (thousands of calories worth) and with bulimia either: purging, taking laxatives or starving after, because the guilt is too strong. Someone who struggles with bulimia or binge eating disorder can be of a normal weight, and not all individuals with ED’s have lost large amounts of weight.

The feeling of taking control is something that is at the crux of eating disorders. By controlling, often limiting food, it gives the person a sense of control, especially if they feel like nothing is going right or everything is spiralling out of their control. Taking control in this way is coupled with intense thoughts and feelings around food.

Eating disorders are about anything but food, instead they are linked to social, emotional and psychological issues that are deeply ingrained within an individual.

EATING DISORDER MYTH: When you become weight restored (after being diagnosed asanorexic), you are better and fully recovered.

MYTH BUSTER: No, this is not the case. When you have treatment for anorexia, it is two fold:

  1. Physical recovery – this means getting the person’s weight and BMI back in the normal range (which is considered to be 18.5- 25). When a person reaches the correct weight for them, normal bodily functions begin (periods etc). Cognitively, the brain starts to work again and a person thinks more clearly, making it easier to have psychological treatment.
  2. Mental recovery – this is a much longer process and does not happen as quickly as people believe; mental recovery takes time, this could be years. If you think how long someone could have been stuck in their eating disorder ways for, think how long reversing those thoughts can take. It is complex and involves psychological treatment, support, hard work and determination.

If someone is diagnosed with an ED that means body weight is not necessarily affected e.g. binge eating disorder, the “mental recovery” phase is targeted. It various from person to person but psychological treatment for an eating disorder is the route that is taken.

The team involved in treatment of ED’s is multi disciplinary and includes: GP’s, nurses, psychologists, dieticians, healthcare assistants, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, medical consultants, physiotherapists and the invaluable help from family and friends.

The above myths take many forms but the answers remain the same. If you are struggling with an eating disorder and cannot explain answers to questions, maybe you could link this post to a friend or family member. If you are supporting a friend with an ED, I hope this sheds light on the complicating and confusing world of eating disorders.

People may look physically recovered but fighting the eating disorder thoughts is a difficult daily task. I see recovery as being able to live a normal life- working, studying, going out with friends, being independent and not letting an eating disorder dominate your every moment. Of course, the definition for recovery is different for everyone but being able to live a ‘normal’ life is something

In my personal experience and from watching others, as I now get on with my life, the person who is living with an ED has to want to get better and work with the team treating them. It is a tough journey, as are recovery from all illnesses, but the outcome is so worth it.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week takes place 23rd February – 1st March. To find out more about eating disorders, check out our resources. If you’re looking to run awareness-raising events or campaigns during the week, you might be interested in holding a “Love Your Body” campaign, which aims to inspire body confidence in everyone. Campaign materials for Love Your Body can be found here.

Tips on what to do in the Mid-Term slump

Student Minds Cambridge

This blog comes from Student Minds in Cambridge where, controversially, there is no reading week in the middle of term. Whether you have a reading week or not, if you’re ever experiencing a slump in energy and mood in the middle of term, here’s some things you can do to help:

  1. Get out of your room/ get out of the library and go for a walk – There are lots of lovely green spaces in Cambridge, and during the week it’s rather peaceful! So get some fresh air for half an hour, and go and leave the confines of college to give your head some space.
  2. Do something you enjoy for a little while – Do you play an instrument? Do you like drawing? Is cooking your thing? Kicking a football around make you happy? Stop what you’re doing once a day and let yourself do something enjoyable. The work can wait – really, it can. You’ll be more productive if you come back with a clearer head from even as little as a quarter of an hour of de-stressing.
  3. Call home or call your friends outside of Cambridge – We tend to lose perspective when we’re here; we forget that there’s a world beyond CB1-4. A chat with someone back home or at another uni will refresh your ideas a bit and help you escape the bubble.
  4. Change your usual study spot, even if it’s just once a week – Instead of that corner in the library or sitting at the desk in your room, go to a café in town and set up camp there for a couple of hours instead. The repetitiveness of always working in the same place can make studying feel even more monotonous and difficult and changing your spot might increase your productivity.
  5. Ask for an extension – Go on, we dare you! You’re entitled to ask for extra time to do an essay or hand in a piece of work if you want or need to. Supervisors are humans too, they understand that you’re under a lot of pressure. We’re not in secondary school anymore; you’re allowed to hand something in late without getting yourself a detention.
  6. As Sainsbury’s once put it, try something new today! Cambridge is full of opportunities and we forget that because we’re too busy diving our noses into books. Go to a yoga class, try your hand at salsa, have a drink in a pub you’ve never been to, go to a talk that your faculty is hosting, have a walk around a different college, go for a swim at the sports centre, watch a film at the Picturehouse… Basically, find something you’ve never done here, and do it. Take a friend with you too, if that helps. University is about trying new things after all.
  7. Reach out to someone if you’re feeling down – Whether that’s a college nurse or counsellor, a friend down your hallway, a porter, Linkline, or even SMC. If you need someone to talk to when you’re feeling rough, don’t keep it bottled up.

Help! My friend is suffering with their mental health

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 – Hannah V

With University Mental Health Day coming up on Wednesday 18th February, Student Minds are trying to encourage everyone to open up to their friends about their mental health difficulties, and for their friends to support them in any way they can.

Mental health problems can be such a lonely place. Depression can cause people to withdraw from their normal social circles; anxiety can prevent others from leaving their rooms; and schizophrenia can make people paranoid about the relationships in their life. Although it can seem impossible when you are suffering with your mental health, sometimes the best thing you can do is open up to a close friend and let them support you.

It can be really heartbreaking to hear how much a friend is suffering. To hear them say that they have no enjoyment in life, or that they don’t want to be here anymore, can be a really difficult concept to deal with. People with mental health problems will need support from their friends and family, although they may not realise it themselves. These are my tips for supporting a loved one that is suffering with their mental health:

  • Be there for them. Be there for the person as much as possible and make time to ask them how they are doing. Let them know that they can contact you whenever they need to chat or vent their feelings. You can make someone feel so much better if they just know that someone is there for them whenever they need that extra help.
  • Show that you care. Sometimes just telling someone that is suffering with their mental health that you care doesn’t work due to all of their negative thoughts – you have to show them. Send them a random text telling them how much they mean to you, or even just asking them how they are. Arrange lots of things to do with them and give them something to look forward to. Just let them know that someone cares enough to spend time with them.
  • Never judge them. Remember that people with mental health difficulties aren’t always in a rational mind set, and they may say things that you don’t agree with. Try to be as non-judgemental as possible and listen to their worries, never telling them that they are being silly or should cheer up.
  • Reassurance. People suffering with their mental health often need a lot of reassurance. You may need to continuously let them know that you care, and that you will never leave them. They may need to know that they will never be on their own. Don’t get frustrated when you have to repeat yourself, as mental health difficulties can stop the sufferer believing what others are saying – but when it is repeated over and over it makes it less difficult to believe.
  • Patience. Mental health difficulties can take a long time to overcome, and there may be a few setbacks along the way. This can become really frustrating for the person and everyone around them, but always keep hope that they will get better, encouraging them throughout.
  • Know what not to say. Although you may feel like it, never say “you shouldn’t be feeling like this because you have everything going for you and you’re beautiful/intelligent/amazing/etc” – this will probably just make the sufferer feel guilty. Never tell them to “pull themselves together” or “cheer up” as this won’t help either. Don’t say that you know how they feel, as you most likely don’t – mental health is individual for everyone. Instead listen to what they are saying and respond with empathy; let them know that you are there for them, and maybe create a plan with them of how to make them feel better in the future.
  • Don’t blame yourself. This is probably one of the most important points. Never blame yourself for their suffering as it isn’t your fault. They may hurt you with what they say but don’t analyse their words much, as they don’t mean to upset you.

It can be really hard to have a friend that is suffering with their mental health. Sometimes they will just need a hug, other times they will need to have some alone time – you have to be flexible and adapt to their needs at a particular point. If you are worried about a friend and think they may be experiencing a mental health difficulty, there is lots of support out there: your university’s pastoral care is a good first point-of-call, or the charities Mind and Rethink have people you can contact at any time.

As Stephen Fry rightfully said about depression, which applies to all kinds of mental health difficulties, “If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”

At 4:30, Student Minds is hosting a #studentchats on opening up to a friend with mental health difficulties for University Mental Health Day. If you’d like to know more about how you can support a friend, check out our Look After Your Mate guide, which is full of useful tips and suggestions.

Reaching Out: Opening up to a friend at Uni

-Emmy Gilmour, The Recover Clinic

It’s probably fair to say we’ve all experienced stress on a variety of different levels from deciding what to wear, to panicking about deadlines.  While coming to university can be exciting and fun for some, for others it may be lonely, isolating and highly stressful.

You may feel like you’re juggling a lot: moving away from home, meeting new people, receiving that new timetable packed with an overload of information, having to look after yourself and of course finding time to fit in work with all that socialising. “The only way to make sense of change, is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts

The first term at university can be overwhelming and chaotic and the chances are you haven’t experienced this level of stress and anxiety.  Many people start to feel that they are unable to cope.

Being in charge of choosing, buying and cooking your own food combined with this new found freedom and responsibility can easily result in developing eating disordered behaviours as a way of attempting to control the chaos.  What may start off a seemingly harmless coping strategy can soon develop into a full-blown eating disorder that takes control of your whole life.

You are not alone

Every university will have support services available to those who need it, if not a specialised eating disorders service then a counselling service that will be able to help. They may also have a free helpline that can give you guidance and advice.

If you can feel yourself slipping into unhealthy patterns or you notice a housemate or friend is presenting with eating disorder behaviours then please do make use of these services.  Please do get help, keeping it to yourself and dealing with it alone will only make it worse.

Reaching out

It takes an immense amount of courage to ask for help. It may be too scary, too overwhelming or we don’t want to be seen as vulnerable or dependent on anyone. Remind yourself that reaching out for help can act as a life anchor and marks the first step of your journey to recovery

If the prospect of reaching out to professionals is too daunting for you, confiding in a friend can provide you with much needed support and encouragement as well.

Start by identifying at least 1 person that you can go to for support, whether it is your partner, friend, family member or mentor. Make sure you can trust this person and also ensure they are readily available to help you.

When you approach this person, make sure you communicate exactly what you need from them. This is very important, as they may know that they want to help you but are unsure how to go about this. Communicate that you are ready to seek support and cannot do this alone.

Be prepared for any reaction. Your friend or loved one may feel anything from compassion to helplessness to guilt. Bear in mind their first reaction is not indicative of how supportive they will be in the future.

Taking this initial step and sharing your struggles can be terrifying, but the rewards will amaze you. Just one leap of faith will give you a chance to live the life you deserve.  Reaching out is not a sign of weakness, but one of courage.

This University Mental Health Day, Student Minds is backing the #IChoseToDisclose campaign, which gives students the resources and guidance to make an informed decision about disclosing mental health difficulties to their universities. Since 3 out of 4 students say that friends had been supportive following disclosure, we’re encouraging students to open up to their friends, and giving friends tips on how to look after their mate. Join the all-day conversation about student mental health by following #unimentalhealthday or tweeting @StudentMindsOrg and @UMHANUK.

So, I want to tell my friends…

– Ruth Beacon

Uni Mental Health Day is upon us and this year Student Minds is focusing on opening up to friends about Mental Health issues. First off, I want to say a huge well done for making the choice to tell your friends that you have a mental health problem. The recent “Time to Talk” campaign aimed to tackle the awkwardness and stigma that surrounds conversations about mental health. It is somewhat reassuring that the difficulty and reluctancy in talking to friends/colleagues/family is not just suffered by you – everyone finds this difficult.

There is a way out, we must actively do something to change this and together as a network of people we can help each other talk more about mental health. University can be an incredibly lonely place, especially if you suffer with a mental health problem; anything could spark off feelings of anxiety, compulsiveness or sadness. This is why it vital that you tell someone you can trust, in order that they can keep you accountable and safe. So you may be thinking … “I am scared”, “what if people judge me?” or “how do I even tell my friends?!” . Well, here are a few tips on opening up…

  1. Write down your feelings: when you write how you feel it is easier to comprehend your thoughts and emotions. Writing them down enables you to think deeper into what and why you feel a certain way, perhaps you could then read this aloud to a friend.
  2. Rehearse what you will say: after writing something down you may want to practice what you will say. This may take the edge off or reduce anxiety. Remember – it’s ok to be scared and nervous. You are doing something very courageous which you will most likely thank yourself for
  3. Go to a familiar place to have the conversation: you and your friend may have a favourite spot to hang out – by going there to open up, it may relax you because it brings back good memories. This could be your Student Union centre, coffee shop or local park.

In the spirit of the campaign to disclose to friends at university, I am going to tell you how I told my friends in the hope that this will inspire you.

When I decided to tell my friends at university that I had been diagnosed with anorexia and depression and decided to take the year off studying to focus on my mental health, I had no idea how to do it! I knew that a big group of my church friends would be meeting up for the weekly student group and I felt this was the right time to do it as I was then, in the middle of treatment. I wrote down everything I wanted to say and emailed it to a close friend to read on my behalf as I wasn’t able to be there in person. I explained my diagnosis, where I was and how I felt. I was scared, very emotional and confused.

After, I am happy to say that I got a lot of wonderful, loving comments giving me hope and inspiration that I was doing the right thing. My friends reassured me that they would be there to support and encourage me to carry on, even when it felt rough and too hard to handle.

So, to everyone reading this, thank you. To those who are going to open up to their friend(s), it is such a relief once you tell someone, you don’t feel alone anymore and someone is there – to listen, to give you a hug or a pat on the back, telling you to carry on because it gets easier and life gets brighter.

University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day is an annual event to promote the mental health of those who live and work in higher education settings. To find out how to get involved in the day, and to find out more about the #IChoseToDisclose campaign, visit www.studentminds.org.uk/uni-mental-health-day.

Finding someone who shares the same pain

– Grace Anderson

Do you get those times when you are struggling and feeling completely hopeless? Getting better seems like it’s getting further and further away? Do you just want someone to tell you that everything is going to be okay? That they have experienced what you are going through and have survived it?

I am very lucky to have been supported during my experiences with mental health difficulties; there has always been someone to pick me up when I can’t find the strength to keep going. Having those around you means you don’t only want to recover for yourself, but for those amazing people who love and care about you.

However, I am aware that not everyone is lucky enough to have the support of friends and family. On the other hand, regardless of your support network, 9 out of 10 people with mental health difficulties have experienced stigma and discrimination (Time To Change). Not everyone will understand what you’re going through and some people might even be hurtful.

Despite this don’t let those people get to you – they might not understand what you’re going through and the only way they can deal with this is by blocking you out, removing themselves from being friends and even being rude and nasty. Not everyone can be as understanding as you are, and this is no reflection on you. In life some people will understand your complexities whereas others won’t. It doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person; it may just be a lack of understanding of what you’re going through.

Nevertheless, don’t let these people make you turn your illness into a secret either. Why? Because this won’t help in the long run. Burying your head in the sand might work for a while, but facing your mental health problems face on and learning to live is the best way to cope. In life, there are some people who will just never understand you, no matter how much you tell them, and there are others who understand everything without you even speaking a word. You just have to find that person or people, who understand you with all your complexities, quirks, problems and personality.

However, despite this support and understanding, helping someone with a mental illness can be hard; it can be draining and your needs may become challenging for them. This doesn’t mean that they like you any less. Sometimes they may just have to take a step back when it gets overwhelming. Not only do you struggle, they will feel your struggles and like you find it hard to cope. My solution to this would be to find someone who feels your pain and suffers from the same mental health difficulties that you yourself suffer from. Why? They can understand that chaos in your mind, as they have also experienced it. You may argue that finding this person would be a hard task, but it’s not. Mental illness isn’t something that just happens to the minority – it affects 1 in 4 people. It’s easier thank you think to find someone.

I have personal experience of this. My best friend, who also suffers from mental health difficulties, gave me the strength when I didn’t think I could go on. She told me that yes, there would be bad days, but things do get better and there is light at the end of the tunnel. Unlike the other people who have supported me – friends, family and doctors – she actually had the experience to give me the confidence to believe her that this in fact was true, and I could get out of this dark place. Comedian, writer and mental health campaigner Ruby Wax advises those suffering to “go and locate a ‘f****d up buddy’; someone you can call day or night, when you can’t take it anymore”. Finding someone who shares your pain is invaluable.

Seriously, nothing can compare with the encouragement you get from someone who has already walked in your shoes. As well as being encouraging, it gives you that safety net that you often need at your worst. Any friend, family member or doctor can tell you what helps, but unless you can see for yourself that it works, it can be hard to trust their opinions. Personal experience brings wisdom that is one of a kind, and if this can be shared with others it can be extremely powerful.

You can endlessly discuss things that may be deemed taboo with other people, your bad experiences, drugs you’ve taken, therapies you’ve received: the list is endless. Sharing yourself with someone who understands and has had similar experiences will mean you will never get bored of listening to each other’s never ending stories.

Also, not only do you have the support from that person, they also have the support from you. It’s a two way process in which you can speak and listen, give and take, be the encourager and be encouraged. Take it in turns to pick each other up when you’re struggling or celebrate when things are going well. It means you will both have someone to hold your hand when it’s needed and guide you in the right direction.

Simply talking can change your life and help you get on the road to recovery. The feeling of isolation and being alone could go away if you just utter those few words “I have a mental illness”. Everyone is different and complicated in their own way: embrace this, share your life experiences with others and you too could make a difference to someone’s life.

Ultimately, remember that you are not alone, there is someone out there who is just like you, with the same struggles, similar experiences and who understands what you are going through.

This is dedicated to my best friend who knows me a little more than I know myself and fellow student minds blogger Becky McCerery.​