During my first year of university I became quite ill, I was aware of how my mental health was deteriorating each and everyday, yet speaking about it to anybody seemed impossible. I don’t recall mental health ever being mentioned and I felt completely alone in how I felt and what was happening to me.
I was studying fashion at the time and I remember feeling scared that people would see me as ‘just another girl who wanted to look like a model’, which couldn’t have been further from the truth but still the fear of being labeled, judged and stereotyped, stopped me from speaking to somebody and it stopped me from seeking help. I not only feared the stigma of having a mental illness but also what would happen to my degree, to everything I had worked for.
The fears I had grew, I became sicker, weaker and so quieter, I lost my voice at the time I needed it most.
To cut a long story short, I left university and had to learn to put my health first, I began my recovery, learnt who I was again, grew and changed. I no longer wanted to study fashion but I did want to return to university, something I never thought I would want to do, let alone be healthy enough to do so.
My fears of not getting support and having to hide my mental health came as soon as I began looking for courses. I worried over what my tutors and peers would think and doubted if I would even get in. I debated if I should lie or not, but with my parents constantly reminding me that I had nothing to be ashamed of, I decided to be honest, which came sooner than I thought.
Step one; do not lie on your application. Telling myself I have nothing to be ashamed of as I nervously ticked the box stating I had a mental illness, nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be ashamed of.
Step two; be honest with your tutors. During my university interview I was asked ‘why do you want to study Health and Social Care?’, my reply being ‘I want to be the person that wasn’t there for me’- nervously explaining that I had previously had an eating disorder. I remember how my tutors acted like it was nothing, no problem, no judgment, myself in complete shock. I was expecting a raised eyebrow and a scribbled NO on my application or a sympathetic ‘you poor thing’ but no, I was treated like I imagine every other student was. I had never received such a normal response, I felt like everyone else, a feeling I had longed for.
A week later I got accepted, but I think even if I hadn’t this two minute conversation allowed me to accept myself and my mental health a little more, a conversation that changed my life.
Step three; speak up and seek support. Unlike my first experience at university, support was easy to be aware of and easy to access to. During my first week I was contacted by the universities disability officer, I received an appointment and we worked out ways I could look after my health whilst studying, again no judgement nor sympathy.
Step four; share what you feel comfortable with. As for my fears of what my peers would think, they stayed with me. After the most people in my life knowing about my mental health, I just wanted people to see me as me, Nicole the student. I didn’t want to be treated any differently and so I decided not to share my experiences. Looking back I do not regret this, although after sharing my blog post with Mind via social media, my peers reading, I was treated the same and I am pretty sure this is how I would have been treated in the first place.
Because of open conversations like this and the responses I have had, I am no longer ashamed to talk about my mental health but I know many people still are. This is why I talk, because talking about mental health in such an open and ordinary way is how we will stop people from feeling ashamed and fearful of stigma.
With Time to Talk day coming up, on the 2nd of February, please join in and have a conversation about mental health. A simple conversation can change a persons life.
Read more about my mental health journey: Why are you here? University and mental health. Blog post for Mind.