Friday 13 March 2020

Don't Bury Your Head in the Sand!

Laura talks about her experiences with mental health throughout medical school and the importance of asking for help early.
- Laura Owler

I never thought it would happen to me. Anxiety happens to people who worry. To people who get stressed about every detail. I thought it was more of a personality trait than an illness. I’m not an anxious person, I thought. I always thought people who have depression are negative, lazy and didn’t do enough to help themselves. I didn’t understand. 

I was exposed to suicide at a young age. It blew my mind that people at my school felt that hopeless that they could do that. I saw its effect on a whole community. I thought I would never consider it. But then I got that low. It’s not a selfish decision, in fact it feels selfless, and like you’re a massive burden and it’ll be a relief to everyone. It’s a dark place that is incomprehensible until you’ve been there. I also thought people with mental health difficulties wouldn’t make good doctors. They would never cope in a stressful environment. I went through years of naivety and blissful ignorance. It then crept up on me. 

The first few times when I felt hopeless and hated myself and my life, I used avoidance tactics such as watching endless episodes of comedy, pushing my body to its limits in triathlon training and getting blackout drunk. For a brief period of time it did work. I recovered and it cemented my belief that I wasn’t ill, that I could help myself. Friends encouraged me to talk to someone, but I never did. 

By 4th year, I was very much in denial of my own mental health. I used avoidance tactics all year and it almost worked. Almost. I made excuses: I was just stressed,  everyone was in the same boat. The year was 42 weeks long with lots of emotionally taxing placements and an unrealistic workload. This, alongside a 20% fail rate, made for a real battle with any pre-existing demons, as well as bringing in new demons. I wasn’t coping. I ended the year underweight, exhausted and seriously unwell. I failed my exams,  and I cried all day. I was on holiday, and again buried my feelings and continued like nothing had happened.

When I got back, things were bad. I couldn’t concentrate. I had no self-belief. With resits coming just 1.5 weeks after results, I had no hope. There simply wasn’t time to get the right help. My friends were there for me and eventually I told my parents how awful I was feeling, and my mum came to stay. 

I had to start the next year before knowing results and if I’d be staying. That was hard. I refused to go to the year group photo as I knew I wouldn’t be there for long. I saw the GP for extenuating circumstances, they gave me some medication and waved me away. I agonised over the decision whether or not to take them. In the end I did –  I was desperate, I’d try anything. A good friend recommended a different GP, I saw her and felt super supported. I was referred for CBT on the NHS. I recovered. A mix of settling into a new year, being surrounded by supportive friends and family, therapy and medication helped. But that wasn’t the end. I had a good year. I spent more time with friends, got into a relationship, started to excel on academically and I signed up for an ironman. Because I felt well, I felt like I had to make the most of it. 

Ironman training was hard. Starting 5th year was hard, I went from knowing all the answers to once again feeling overwhelmed. I had also accidentally come off my medication, I kept forgetting to take them and felt I didn’t need them anymore. I moved house, with housemates who weren’t around as much and didn’t know me as well. The ironman didn’t go to plan due to flooding. Multiple things contributed to poor mental health once again.

One night I went to bed early as I was shattered, and I couldn’t sleep. My heart was pounding, and my thoughts were spiralling anxiously. I booked a GP appointment and restarted the medication. The problem with antidepressants is that they can take weeks-months to work and a possible side-effect is worsening  anxiety and/or suicidal thoughts. Great. The next few months were a real battle. I got lower than I’d ever been. I would go to bed at night hoping not to wake up with the awful physical anxiety symptoms and having to go through it all again. 

I started another medication, which helps anxiety and sleep. Eventually, 3 months later I recovered. I had a total of 7 days off placement. For me, being busy distracted the anxiety and was an outlet for the nervous energy. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it worked for me. My medical school tried to push a year out, but wow am I glad I didn’t. I’m proud and grateful to say that I passed my final exams and will start working as a doctor in August. I am pleased I have insight into my condition and know what helps me. I truly believe I now have a lot more empathy and maturity and that it will help and not hinder me in my career.

For information on how to look after your mental health, visit the Student Minds website here

My name's Laura, I’m a final year medical student, hoping to eventually become a children’s psychiatrist. Outside of med school I’m very keen on sports - triathlon, cycling and climbing mainly. I am really excited to be a Student Minds press ambassador this year to help share my story and raise awareness of the struggles students are facing.

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