In Their Own Words: The Mental Health Struggles of UCD StudentsIllustration credit: Meadhbh SheridanFour UCD students speak out about their very different experiences with mental health difficulties.[br]“Amy”, Arts UndergraduateI do not have a diagnosed mental health condition. For all intents and purposes, I am your standard third-level student; persistently a little broke, a bit behind on assignments and readings, but ticking along, smiling away. The problem with mental health sometimes is that, unless you have a diagnosed and medicated condition, it can feel quite difficult to get people to take you seriously. Your stress; your anxiety; your panic, is lesser.In my experience, no one has ever said this, nor even alluded to it, but when you feel that you have no right to feel so bad, it becomes difficult to talk about it. The result being I ignore it as much as possible, which is impossible in the day-to-day, so I swap crippling self-judgement and occasional self-loathing for mountains of work and tight deadlines. The sheer quantity and the stress leaves me busy and frustrated over something different which is not me. While it is exhausting, it means that there is less time for relaxation, less time for self-reflection, which doesn’t often end well.
“Unless you have a diagnosed and medicated condition, it can feel quite difficult to get people to take you seriously.”I don’t help myself either. My friends say to talk to them and if there’s ever a problem, they’re there. That’s what friends do. Sometimes I try. I say “hey can we talk? I don’t feel great”, but it comes down to it and I say, “Oh yeah just a bit stressed, you know?”, we exchange humorous anecdotes and go back to work. And I do feel better for a while, but it doesn’t last long and soon I return to my state of masked happiness, which I have gotten so good at by now that I am often described as smiley and cheery: the term “a sunny disposition” comes up a lot.It feels very childish to say “nobody understands me; I’m going to sit here and write bad poetry while musing over non-existent inadequacies.” So I mostly don’t say anything. I don’t know what it is that’s bothering me, other than me, my being myself. How do you explain that to someone? I can’t explain it, and I don’t want to waste others’ valuable time – we’re all very busy.But it feels like there’s part of me not there, as if I’m in a perpetual state of la petite mort, persistent slight melancholia. And that just sounds too dramatic or too rehearsed to be taken seriously.[br]“Matthew”, Law UndergraduateI have been battling with anxiety ever since I started at UCD. While in the past three years, it has always been in the background, it has reached an unfortunate highpoint since January of this year. Before that I had already tried telling my parents, going to counselling, and taking medication. While there have been many points in my journey where I felt I was making progress, it would only be short term.I felt that “talking it out”, and all the other methods that people encourage, never had a lasting effect on me. I began to think that nothing would work, and that I would be stuck struggling with this for the rest of my life.That is when the depression began. I became suicidal, and remained that way for most of this year. A common misconception most people have is that people who are suicidal are very close to taking their own lives. I learned the hard way that most people who are suicidal often spend a long time existing in a horrendous limbo where their determination to exist for the sake of those they love still outweighs their resolve to take the ultimate step. I have experienced nothing in this world more terrifying than losing the will to live, nor do I think I ever will.
“I have experienced nothing in this world more terrifying than losing the will to live."I began swinging violently between episodes of irrational fear and deep depression. I was no longer able to get out of bed in the morning. I avoided contact with my friends, and people in general. I stopped eating and lost weight. The smallest things became the triggers for debilitating panic attacks. I felt like I couldn’t control my mind anymore, that I was going mad.Thankfully I started going to a different therapist this year, and tried taking different medication. The meds help to take the worst of the effects away while you work on the root cause of your illness with a therapist or someone you know.What I would say to anyone who has tried to help themselves and feels that they have hit a brick wall: I have been where you are many times. There have been many moments this year where I was getting all the help in the world, yet I was still convinced that I would never live past 25. Unfortunately, finding the right way to manage your mental illness just takes longer for some people. If you aren’t seeing results, try changing your therapist, or your self-help technique, or your medication type.There is an approach out there for everybody. Whatever you do, don’t give up. In this state, your thoughts are not healthy, and you are not your thoughts.[br]Shane Conneely, PhD Student (Cognitive Science) @shane_conneelyI’m Shane, and I’m a drunk who doesn’t drink. I’ve become comfortable with this (the only time it’s ever awkward is on first dates) but even though drinking shattered my life, my health, and my psyche, I can still feel the grá for pints arise within me.My drinking got bad when I was 16 and I had my first blackout. Thereafter, my experience of alcoholism was miserable. I’d do things in blackouts that I’d have to face when sober. My friends would tell me stories of what I’d gotten up to while drunk, I’d have the shame but not the memories.For a long, long time, I thought that my drinking problem was a consequence of my other problems: I had a set of tough life experiences. I disliked my college course. But mostly, I disliked myself.
“I thought that my drinking problem was a consequence of my other problems… But mostly, I disliked myself.”From my current perspective, I think that my reasoning was skewed, so long as I wanted to drink, there was an excuse to drink. If there was something to celebrate - I’d drink, if I was unhappy - I’d drink, if it was Tuesday - I’d drink.There’s a saying among the recovery community that addiction “is the only disease that tells you that you don’t have it” which was my experience too. I genuinely thought I had a blackout problem, not an alcohol one.I changed my drinking to try to manage blackouts: I stopped drinking shots. Drank more water. Started drinking later. Drank with drugs. Drugged without drink. I changed my life to change how I felt about me. I dropped out of college. I changed jobs. I changed cities. I changed friends. I went back to college. I changed girlfriends. I got treated for depression.Eventually, I ran out of ideas.It took until I’d finally made it to final year before I gave up trying to fight alcohol. Alcohol proved to be bigger and stronger than me, it was easier to accept that and learn to live without drink than it was to keep drinking. I was tired of fighting; drink had kicked the shite out of me.Fortunately, things have only improved since. I’ve had eleven years without drinking. I’ve worked in an interesting professional field and am now skilling up further on a PhD programme. I’m broke, haven’t found god, but live an exciting, fun, and way more enjoyable life than I had before, even despite the odd awkward date.[br]“Aoife”, Law UndergraduateI have always struggled with anxiety. A very uplifting introduction I know, but bear with me, it gets more optimistic. I’m from a small village in rural Ireland. My class had 11 pupils including me, and my school had about 130 pupils in total. While the other kids in my class played football, did dance classes and socialised together, I was far more content reading or drawing on my own. I wasn’t good at sport, I had two left feet and I lived in a different area. I was outspoken, and was never able to suppress an opinion.Children can pick up on small differences. It was very obvious that I didn’t fit in, and the kids in my class capitalised on this. I was teased, left out and felt so alone. However, with time, things changed. I went on to a bigger school and met amazing friends. The loneliness faded away.Anxiety is harder to shake. When you grow up being shunned by your peers, and told on daily basis how useless you are, it gets inside your head. It doesn’t matter how strong you may think you are. For me, the academic aspect of school always came easy. The kids in my class couldn’t touch that.
“Surrounding yourself with people who love you, just as you are and telling them how you feel."No one ever called me stupid. So I fixated on that – my only talent was school. So when the Leaving Cert didn’t go my way it crushed me. All those things the kids in my class said were true. I was useless, I would amount to nothing.Staying behind while my friends went to college was devastating. I struggled to get out of bed in the morning. But I persevered. I got the results that I wanted and I went to UCD.I met an amazing, supportive group of people who, without knowing, help me every day. I’m by no means cured of my anxiety. I’ve had panic attacks mid-exam, and have availed of counselling services while here (something I highly recommend). But it can be managed.For me, that means surrounding yourself with people who love you, just as you are and telling them how you feel. It means recognising what makes you unique and celebrating it. I don’t care what other people think of me anymore. I don’t let other people’s perception of me cloud what I know about myself. It’s the most liberating decision I’ve ever made.If you are suffering from mental health difficulties, contact the Samaritans on 116 123 or the UCD Counselling Service on 01 7163133.