Tidings of comfort

Michael Stone

Staff Writer

A friend of mine approached me recently to talk about their on-going difficulties with mental health. It was an upsetting revelation, not only because it hurts to see a friend going through a tough time, but also because it brought back memories of my own struggle with mental health.

This time last year, I was in a very different position mentally. A personal crisis, coinciding with the challenge of adapting to life at university, manifested itself in a crippling depression that often reduced my capacity to engage socially and academically.

It’s good to look back at the work done in the past year. I’ve improved my mental state and come to a place where I enjoy and am relatively satisfied with life. Of course, the journey is not over yet and the dark clouds rear their heads from time to time but the progress is encouraging.

However, with my friend’s disclosure, it occurred to me that I’m in a position where I have something to offer people in such a difficult place. This year, I have been heartened by the volume of work done to destigmatise mental health in College – between publications, the SU and online initiatives.

But there is always more to be said. The recent startling statistic that half of Irish youths experience mental health difficulties at some stage suggests that many of you reading this paper are suffering. I feel it’s worth passing on a combination of reflections on my own experience and the best advice offered to me at the time.

When I was struggling with mental health last year, I began to withdraw from the social world and became very selective and conservative about whom I spoke to. This was a mistake, as it only served to increase my feelings of isolation. It’s much more beneficial to treasure time spent with friends, as it will give you a better lift than anything else.

Your true friends are those who accept you for who you are and who offer confirmation of this with every encounter. If you feel better about yourself after spending time with people, then they’re great friends.You have no obligation to people who make life difficult for you, who lower your self-esteem, who do not appreciate you. You owe them nothing, so do yourself a favour and move on, you’ll be far better off.

In contrast to that, revisit old friendships. In university it’s a common thing for people to feel it necessary to detach themselves from relics of their past – secondary school, hometown, sports teams. This excommunication has unfortunately become associated with ‘embracing college’ but in reality, it reflects poorly on the rejecter and raises questions as to how long-lasting their new friendships will be. Instead of rejecting, resolve differences and embrace the company of those from your past who represent true friends and make you feel comfortable in your own skin. Surrounded by such people, new and old, you will feel safer and more secure at the centre of a network of support.

“With the onset of the dreaded winter, it’s easy to stay at home, brooding under the covers, passively browsing Facebook and feeling sorry for yourself.”

Just as important as time spent with friends is time spent alone. In the helter-skelter world of classes, deadlines, countless opportunities and change, it’s easy to forget the person at the centre of the experience: your good self. Take time to yourself where you are not worrying or fretting.

Every Monday at 5pm, the Student Counselling Services (SCS) do an excellent drop-in Mindfulness Meditation. For anyone struggling to find time for themselves, attending even one of these can help you with the wonderful skill of Mindfulness, which can be enacted in a short period of time in the morning, before bed, or even on the bus. Alternatively, spend your free time doing something you enjoy – listening to music, reading, writing, painting, whatever. Your own company should be cherished, not avoided.

Central to this is a love of self. Remember that you have a lot to offer and that although you may have faults, they are negligible in comparison to the positive contribution you make. I have found a by-product of depression to be a lack of care for oneself, which only serves to create a self-propagating cycle. Look after yourself through healthy eating, exercise and positive social interaction. By treating yourself better, you can learn to appreciate yourself more and take more pleasure in your own company.

It is proven that engaging in an activity that you find enjoyable increases your sense of contentment with life. This seems self-evident but it’s easy to just engage in activities with an end goal in mind – a CV, a sense of obligation an ongoing commitment – but without having an inherent interest in the act. The foundation of an optimal experience is that it’s an end in itself.

Enjoying the experience of an activity adds richness to life. Particularly with the onset of the dreaded winter, it’s easy to stay at home, brooding under the covers, passively browsing Facebook and feeling sorry for yourself.

However, this is the time to lift your outlook by getting involved. It could start on a personal level; engage positively with yourself by getting out for a walk or a run. Following this, you’ll find a whole world of opportunity in college life; don’t let this overwhelm you.

Go to a few different club/society events and play to your strengths. Try a drop-in debate with the Phil or Hist, go to a Tech Workshop in Players, téigh go dtí Anraith & Arán i seomra na nGaeilge, volunteer with VDP or VTP, go on a day hike or river trip, I could go on. Committees exist in part to welcome new members and people, in general, are social creatures – they’re not going to shun you. Everyone else is not infinitely more settled and grounded than you are. If you’re finding it hard to make friends then engagement is a solution. If you actively participate in something you enjoy, you’ll find you have countless similarities with others doing the same. You’ll hardly notice how quickly friendships fall into place as a result.

When you go about changing your approach to life you‘re always going to encounter setbacks.  Depression is cruel in how it robs you of your ability to function, making even leaving the house seem like a haunting thought. In order to combat this, you need to congratulate yourself on every little achievement you make in a day and take a positive, adaptive approach to anything that may not have gone your way.

It may sound lame but when I set about trying to engage more with life, I started spending my bike journeys home recounting all of the good things that happened that day and gave myself an internal pat on the back for each one. If things hadn’t gone so well, I would chalk them down to experience or think about how I could avoid the same thing happening again in the future.

Depression can exaggerate the size of a problem but adopting mental tactics can counteract it. An approach such as this will make you feel much more optimistic about how life is going.

Above all else, try to lessen the burden by talking. I would say the first port of call is your friends; you’ll be surprised at how many of your problems they share and how much of a relief this knowledge will be. Your family care about you immensely and sometimes the detachment college brings – both literal and figurative distances – can make you forget this. If you find it difficult to turn to friends or family, you are not lost; there is a wealth of resources at your disposal.

The SCS provide an invaluable service; you will never again have a free counselling service to avail of so no matter what your problem is, take advantage of the workshops and one-on-one sessions that they offer. They are open, confidential and non-discriminatory. In the past I have found both their practical approach to life and the provision of an independent wall to bounce ideas off incredibly beneficial.

As well as this we have the massively under-utilised S2S, Niteline, tutors and Welfare team, as well as non-College bodies such as Samaritans, turn2me, Pieta and more. There is always someone to talk to so do not hesitate to do so.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I am handing out advice from a deep-seated, well-grounded position. I am still trying to follow each of these approaches in my day-to-day life – they’re certainly not gospel, but they help. I do feel that if I had had a clearer vision such as this presented to me this time last year, I would have been able to get myself out of the hole of depression much quicker. The key thing is in starting straight away and not allowing your difficulties to fester and grow. It’s not without difficulty but it’s easier than silent suffering.