Friday 6 November 2015

The lessons I learnt by taking medical leave from University

Andrew writes about the experience of deciding to take time out of university, and the valuable lessons he has learnt. 
 - Andrew Read 

Deciding to take time out from your studies due to a mental illness is an incredibly difficult decision. Firstly, you have to admit to yourself that you have a mental illness, which for many of us is something that is incredibly hard to come terms with. Perhaps this is due to the stigma, or perhaps its because mental illness has a funny way of convincing you that it doesn’t actually exist, but too often we are guilty of blaming our struggles on a ‘weak character’, or some ‘innate personality flaw’, as if we are not entitled to the official label of an illness. 

Secondly, and maybe even more challenging is justifying to yourself that your illness is serious enough to warrant time away from study – its far too easy to persuade yourself that you are taking the easy way out, when in reality its an incredibly brave decision to make. The problem with medical leave is that, actually, it’s not something any of us want to take. To walk away from your friends, degree and a university you worked so hard to get in to, can easily feel like a position of failure. But being strong enough to put yourself and your mental health above your studies can only ever be considered a success: your health is with you for the rest of your life, so look after it.

I first considered taking medical leave 10 months ago. I was struggling with a relatively new battle with depression, and my Oxford finals were fast approaching. My senior tutor was a bubbly Scottish lady, the kind who thought that a cup of tea and a biscuit could solve anything; with an uncanny resemblance to Mrs Doubtfire but without the winning charm. She discussed with me the benefits of taking time out, and the freedom to be able to do whatever you want. I remember the immortal phrase: “somebody spent a year doing a baking course” – as if we’d all love to drop out of university to develop our culinary prowess. But whilst her wise words weren't the best advertisement for taking time away, my doctors & I decided it necessary, and I trudged off to rural England with my parents, my dog, and a few cows for company.

At first, all you feel is isolated - incredibly alone. All you think about is what you had, and now what you don’t have. It’s a horrible experience, but in hindsight I can’t imagine it was any worse than struggling through my finals whilst battling depression. One of my close friends constantly reminds me that all I did was moan about how the year was going to drag on, but looking back I cannot believe how quickly its passed, and how many lessons I’ve learnt from it.

Some of these were literal lessons: I learnt to drive. Others were more figurative: I travelled for a few months and learnt to be more reliant on myself; I realised that I didn’t need the support of others to make myself happy. I learnt to accept that I have a mental illness that might never go away, and that there are certain ways you can cope with it in every day life. I used the time to do some work experience and fill in applications for next year after I return. Whilst the year was certainly tough, and indeed horrible at times, you’re blessed with a freedom to put your academic life on hold, which I hadn’t had the opportunity to do since the age of 4. It’s important to see how you can use the time to better yourself in other ways, even if it is learning to bake.

I’m now on the verge of returning to my studies. Most of my friends have left university and I’ve been out of a science related degree for 12 months, having forgotten everything. It’s scary. But more importantly, I feel more able to deal with my depression, and I have the necessary support at university to be able to complete my degree. I’ll have 6 months to make new friends, and live a whole new experience of university life. 

Whilst medical leave is not a decision to be taken lightly, and requires careful consideration, in hindsight I’m incredibly glad that I did, and have certainly benefited from the time off. Putting your mental health first is an incredibly brave decision to make, and can only ever be a success.

If you are in the process of making a decision about whether to take time out of university, talk to student services or your personal/academic tutors. 

If you are feeling low mood at University - The Positive Minds course has been designed to give students the skills they need to keep low mood at bay. If you are interested in learning new ideas to help you keep your university experience a positive one, this course is for you! Find out if the course is right for you: here

You can find more support here

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