Monday, 17 February 2020

Overcoming Isolation Whilst Distance Learning

Having recently started studying at The Open University, Newby shares three tips for coping with isolation while studying online. 
- Newby 

Distance learning can be amazing if you lead a busy life: it's flexible around work commitments, childcare, and all the other responsibilities that make studying full-time at a 'brick' university impossible. As a young OU student though, sometimes I can't help but feel like I'm missing out on the traditional uni experience. Studying at a distance can be lonely. You get caught in a constant cycle of study, write, submit, repeat. Sometimes, it can feel like the only human contact you ever have is that panicked e-mail you send your tutor begging for an extension an hour before your assignment is due. There aren't many opportunities to make friends or exchange experiences.

These are some of the ways I combat loneliness whilst studying online.

1. Social Media is your Friend
Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter are just a few platforms that allow you to connect with your fellow students and socialise. Just recently, I discovered a Facebook group dedicated to one of my more difficult modules. It is a great place to post funny memes, ask how everyone is getting on with their essay, or just to have a rant. I've gotten to know a lot of my peers very quickly thanks to our dedicated WhatsApp chat: nothing like a deadline to bring everyone together!

2. Find the Right Balance 
A lot of people seem to think that studying from the comfort of your own home is a breeze. Wrong! Staring at the same four walls all day, every day gets old fast-no matter if you do it with your cat on your lap or a cuppa in your hand. When you work from home, it's that much harder to get out of 'study mode'. I like to take a lot of little breaks from studying throughout the day, especially ones that get me up out of my office chair and walking about. Go outside for some much-needed fresh air. Take a walk to the shops to grab lunch. Exercise. Read a book.

3. Join a Student Group
It may come as a surprise to most people, but distance learning presents a lot of the same opportunities to take part in clubs and societies as a traditional university. The OU, for example, has a very active Student Association with heaps of cool societies and activities to attend, either online or in person. There is also a lot of support available for students with mental health issues and those who want to volunteer.

I felt really positive starting my distance learning journey last October but, as usual, life got in the way. Some great things happened (I came off my meds, I started bringing my therapy sessions to an end), and some not so great things happened (I had a health scare, I lost my motivation). It's been lonely and a bit demoralising at times, but these tips have helped me bounce back recently. I'm socialising with course buddies, I'm joining in groups, and I'm finally striking the right balance between work and downtime.

For further information on looking after your mental health as a student, please see here

I am currently in my final year at The Open University, studying BA (Hons) Arts and Humanities. I am open about my struggle with Depression and Anxiety, and have always wanted to help people who are experiencing mental health difficulties. I volunteer for a youth mental health charity, and will hopefully put this experience to use in the non-profit sector. 

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Mental Health as a BAME Student

This person remembers the day they told their mother that they struggle with their mental health, and shares their experience of dealing with the stigma around mental health problem.

Disclosing to my mum

It is a snap decision. Today is the day. I shiver as I pick up my mug and coffee splashes everywhere. I wipe the split coffee with a tissue and stutter an apology to my therapy group. Time drags by slowly and with every second, the anxiety stewing inside of me grows. During the break, shaking, I pick up my phone and dart outside. I wobble as I dial my mum’s phone number and wait for her to pick up. No response… I breathe a sigh of relieve—the universe has spoken, and this isn’t the right time at all. I start to head back inside… my phone rings. Mum. Crap!

—“Um, I need to tell you something mum,” I mutter.
—“What is it?” she asks.
—“Mum, I have an eating disorder. And – and – and, I am on antidepressants and I started therapy two months ago...” I blurt.

My mum asks me what an eating disorder is, and I explain. I tell her about all my secret behaviours; the compulsive exercising and restriction. She listens and tells me that antidepressants are not good; “they make people crazy”. Then she prays that I get better soon. I thank her and cut off.

…One and a half years later...

We haven’t talked about it since. However, she points out my weight gain; apparently, I should exercise more when I am at university and eat fewer fatty foods. It hurts. It almost destabilised my recovery.

I sometimes get angry at my situation. Since the age of ten, something has felt “wrong.” I spent my childhood lost in a dark place. It should have been picked up. I should have felt able to open up about my emotions. I should have had therapy. I was let down.

However, I do not blame my mother. She was born in West Africa. She was raised in abject poverty and famine. Her childhood was walking several miles to school in battered shoes; selling food at the local market and looking after her many siblings. She starved and had to make many sacrifices. Her life was hard, but she survived. On the other hand, growing up, I had food, water and shelter. I was British and “spoilt.” What did I have to complain about in comparison? What did I have to be sad about?

Fighting mental health stigma

To my mum, my struggle with mental health problems was not a “real” issue, but rather an exaggeration and attention-seeking. My parents hold stigmatising views of mental illness. They use the category “hysterical women” and describe mental illness as “possession by evil spirits and devils”. They label misbehaving children, people with learning disabilities and quite frankly, anyone who deviates from societal norms as “crazy”.

Recently, the perception of mental health is shifting among my parents’ communities. There has been more acknowledgement that mental health conditions are “real.” Research into mental health and people’s perceptions of mental health is also growing in their countries of birth. In fact, following the traumatic kidnapping of the schoolgirls by Boku Haram, some girls who escaped were given therapy. However, society as a whole is still fighting stigma related to mental health problems. Amongst some of the older generation, people with mental health problems are still labelled as “attention-seeking” and “crazy”. Such stigma creates additional barriers for me and many other young people to receive much-needed supports from their close family.

It is so difficult pretending that I am “good”, when actually, I am having panic attacks every day. It is hard being torn between the need to gain understanding from my parents and the reality of hiding my anti-depressants from my parents. I get frustrated when my parents make comments about how I am getting anxious or crying over very small things. Regardless, I try to educate my parents about mental health. I explain the pressures that young people face and that my anti-depressants actually stabilise me. I insist that struggling with my mental health does not mean I am weak. And I think, little by little, the message is sinking in.

You can learn more about the individual and societal challenges facing members of BAME communities and find further resources here (credit to Mental Health Foundation). 

For more information on what support is available at your university and further, click here