While we all take care to look after our physical health, few of us give our mental health a second though. Yet ¼ students will suffer from a mental health problem whilst at university, these include everything from depression, anxiety and paranoia to obsessions, phobias or addictions. In fact it’s more than likely that someone you know is suffering from a mental health problem right now. Everyone experiences changes in mood, but it is when these become especially pronounced or long-lasting that it is advisable to seek help.
There are many places that you can turn to for help and advice about your mental health, or if you are worried about someone else; at the bottom of this page is a list of just a few (in the ‘where to get help’ section). But first, some information about the most common mental health problems… (these factfiles are taken from the CUSU website, this also has more information about many of the issues on these pages.)
A depressive disorder is an illness that involves the body, mood and thoughts. It can affect the way a person eats, sleeps, thinks and feels. A depressive disorder is not the same as ‘feeling blue’ or being ‘a bit down’, it is more severe and will last for longer (usually more than a few weeks). It is not a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be wished away. People with depressive illness cannot merely ‘pull themselves together’ and get better. Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months or years. Appropriate treatment, however, can help most people who suffer from depression.
The symptoms of depression can include:
• Constant feelings of sadness, distress or tension
• Decreased interest in social activities, hobbies or sport
• Loss of energy, feeling tired
• Change of appetite and significant weight loss or gain
• A change in sleeping patterns, such as difficulty sleeping or getting up in the morning
• Decreased ability to concentrate, even for short periods
• Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or guilt
• Thoughts of suicide or death
It’s important to note that people may feel some of the above symptoms for reasons other than depression, or even several together for a brief while, without this being of major concern. Someone who is depressed will experience a number of these changes for quite some while.
Depression is very common – it affects people of all ages and backgrounds and is one of the most common reasons for people seeking help from counsellors or GPs. If you are experiencing negative thoughts, you may find it helpful to talk with someone. A trained counsellor can help you understand the depression and find the most effective ways of dealing with what you are experiencing.
Anxiety and Panic
Everyone experiences anxiety at some point (for example, just before exams or when leaving home). At a reasonable level, short bursts of anxiety can motivate us and enhance our performance. However, if anxiety becomes too severe or chronic it can become debilitating. The essential characteristic of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (or GAD) is excessive, uncontrollable worry about everyday things. This constant worry can affect how someone functions each day and can cause physical symptoms. GAD is, however, sometimes difficult to diagnose because it lacks some of the clearer symptoms, such as unprovoked panic attacks, that are symptomatic of other anxiety disorders. For a diagnosis to be made, worry must be present more days than not for at least 6 months.
Worries can focus on issues like finances, health, relationships or studies; but it can also include more mundane issues such as washing up or being late for appointments. The intensity, duration and frequency of worry can interfere with a sufferer’s ability to concentrate or perform simple tasks.
Physical symptoms include:
• Muscle tension
• Cold, clammy hands
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Individuals with OCD are subject to persistent, recurring thoughts (or obsessions) that reflect exaggerated anxiety or fears. Typical obsessions include worry about being ill or of behaving inappropriately. The obsessions may lead an individual to perform a ritual or routine (compulsions) such as washing hands or repeating phrases to relieve the anxiety caused by the obsession.
People with panic disorder suffer severe attacks of panic which may make them feel like they’re having a heart attack or becoming uncontrollable for no reason. Symptoms include heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, feelings of choking, fear of losing control or fear of dying. Although these symptoms can be frightening, they are not actually dangerous.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can follow an exposure to a traumatic event such as sexual or physical assault, witnessing a death or natural disaster. There are three main symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress: reliving of the traumatic events (such as flashbacks and nightmares), avoidance behaviours (such as avoiding places related to the trauma) and emotional numbing. Sufferers may also experience difficulty sleeping and reduced concentration.
People with specific phobias suffer from an intense fear reaction to a specific object or situation (such as spiders, dogs, or heights); the level of fear is usually inappropriate to the situation, and is often recognised by the sufferer as being irrational. This inordinate fear can lead to the avoidance of common, everyday situations.
Self-harm is medically defined as deliberate harm to one’s body without the aid of another person. Self-harm is also known as self-injury, SI or self-mutilation, and it’s estimated that 1 in 100 people self-harm. Every person is different and people self-harm for many different reasons. Self- injurious behaviour can take varying forms, which can include:
• Interference with healing of wounds
• Hair pulling
• Bone breaking
It is frequently assumed that suicide and self-harm are carried out for similar reasons. However, people who self-injure are not suicidal. Whereas suicide is an attempt to end all feelings, a person who self-injures seeks to feel better. Those who injure themselves are fully aware of what they are doing and do not define the act as a suicide attempt
Making the decision to stop self-injuring is a very personal experience. Some people encounter a ‘defining moment’ from which they never look back, others battle with self-injury over time and stop gradually. Even if you are not ready to stop self-harming completely, taking responsibility by setting limits on when and how much you self-injure is a truly positive step.
A CUSU booklet called ‘Self Injury: information for self-injurers and those who care for them’ is available for free from the CUSU Offices or from me (just email me at hvu20 and I’ll order a copy for you), or can be viewed online on the CUSU website.
Problems with food and eating
‘Disordered eating’ is an umbrella term which covers a wide range of behaviours that all relate into an underlying problem with food. Many people live with these problems throughout their lives and avoid serious medical issues without seeking help, as problems differ in scale and impact. Both men and women can suffer from disordered eating.
The most common form of disordered eating is routine ‘comfort eating’, but different problems ranges from binge-eating and compulsive eating, to anorexia and bulimia. Disordered eating is a symptom to an underlying problem, and can often begin or progress as a common mechanism due to extended periods of stress or worry.
Disordered eating can have a number of medical consequences, from malnutrition, obesity, kidney problems and disturbance of other bodily functions. Common effects include depression and sleeping problems, which cause more worry, and often lead to further progression of problems, and development of other disordered behaviours. Like skin cutting or hair pulling, disordered eating is a self-harming behaviour used as a coping mechanism to deal with other problems that may or may not be completely unrelated to food and body-image.
For many, eating may provoke feelings of anxiety, guilt, fear or self-hatred so that sufferers may be unable to eat with others and become socially isolated. While sufferers of disordered eating can often feel they are alone, it is important to realise that this is not the case. If you would like to talk to someone about disordered eating you can contact CUSU Eating Disorders Support (EDS), or the National Eating Disorder Association (EDA).
Anorexia is the most outwardly recognisable form of disordered eating. Sufferers of anorexia starve themselves and the longer the condition continues, the more difficult it can be to tackle. In severe cases it can necessitate hospitalisation and can prove fatal.
• secretive and isolated eating;
• vigorous exercise regimes;
• cessation of periods in women;
• ‘purging’ via vomiting or laxative/diuretic use (sometimes);
• distorted perceptions of one’s weight, size and shape (thinking they are fat however thin they actually are)
Individuals with bulimia may be any size or weight and not look ill, so the condition often goes unnoticed. Outwardly sufferers may appear to be in control of their lives, despite severe physical and mental consequences.
• bouts of excessive eating, followed by periods of restriction and purging;
• compensatory behaviour such as self-induced vomiting; misuse of laxatives, diuretics or other medication; fasting; or excessive exercise;
• a powerful urge to overeat, leading to binge eating and a resultant feeling of being out of control;
• distorted perception of own weight, size and shape.
Compulsive eaters may feel unable to regulate or make decisions regarding their dietary intake, constantly trying to gain control yet unable to. Compulsive eating or ‘binge-eating’ usually occurs when the individual is feeling distressed, anxious or angry, regardless of appetite.
• Uncontrollable episodes of binge eating;
• marked distress about binge eating and the attempts to control it;
• during a binge may eat more quickly than normal and eat until uncomfortably over-full;
• eating meals alone in secret, feeling disgusted and guilty with themselves;
• between binges may restrict food intake severely.
For more info see here.
During certain periods, especially the first few weeks of term and close to exams, most people feel under abnormal amounts of stress and, for a small minority, it can all get a bit too much. Try and take time out to look at yourself. If you’re stressed, try and think why, and plan your life to avoid placing yourself under too much stress.
Anxiety is the natural response of the body to feeling threatened or under pressure. Feelings of anxiety, therefore, are not uncommon, and may be brought on by a variety of events or situations; they may derive from general circumstances (such as leaving home, coping with work and exams, or dealing with relationship/sexuality issues), or may focus around specific situations (health worries, preparing for and facing an exam, or apprehension in new social situations).
The experience of anxiety can range from mild uneasiness to severe worry and panic. As with many other conditions, the duration and degree of the experience are indicators of the level of support that might be appropriate. At reasonable levels, stress and anxiety in response to a personal challenge can motivate us to improved performance and are unlikely to be perceived as a problem. More severe feelings can affect normal life, and in such cases it may be appropriate to seek the support of others, be they friends or healthcare professionals.
Our individual responses to circumstances will differ according to our past experiences, and the beliefs or attitudes we hold about the situation. Anxiety typically involves an emotional, a physical and a cognitive component. Before and during an exam, for instance, it is not uncommon to feel some level of fear or nervousness (emotional), a raised heart rate or “butterflies” (physical) or to experience unsettling thoughts such as “I can’t remember any of my revision” (cognitive).
Life at Cambridge is undoubtedly stressful. Short terms add to the pressure on everyone to compete and succeed, both socially and academically. Before you come up it is easy to believe that Cambridge is a kind of wonderland where no-one could possibly be bored or unhappy or lonely. Finding out the mundane reality can be a shock to the system.
The following approaches, based around these aspects of anxiety, can be useful in combating stress:
1) Review the stressful circumstances in your life.
• saying no to things that you don’t want to do;
• giving up unnecessary, time consuming activities and responsibilities;
• confronting work problems by talking to your supervisor, DoS, or Tutor;
• discussing a relationship problem;
• drawing up a realistic work schedule
Ability to cope with stress can be improved by keeping healthy, eating well (make sure that you get a balanced diet – don’t miss meals because you’re working too hard, or because you don’t think you can afford to), and exercising regularly (helping to release tension and enable you to relax).
2) Have a rational approach to challenging negative thoughts.
Stress and worry can often distort our thoughts and judgements, causing us to exaggerate the threat posed by a situation. Standing back and objectively assessing the situation can help to reduce the emotional aspect of the anxiety. It may be useful to think back to similar situations in the past, which you have overcome. For instance:
Irrational thought: “I’ll make a fool of myself in front of all these people, and they won’t like me.”
Rational thought: “Many of them are probably anxious too. If I try to be friendly and pleasant, people have responded well to me in the past, and will probably do so again.”
3) Face the situation.
Confronting a stressful situation in a controlled way can help to reduce the level of anxiety it causes. In some cases, anxiety can be a learned response, in which case the aim is to teach the body an alternative, relaxed response to that same situation. It may help to draw up a hierarchy of feared situations, and confront them in turn, with the least stressful first, moving on to the next only once comfortable with each situation.
For instance, for fear of spiders, an appropriate hierarchy might be: i) reading about spiders, ii) looking at/touching a photo of a spider, iii) looking at/touching a plastic model spider, iv) looking at/touching a jar containing a spider, v) picking the spider out of the jar, vi) picking up a large spider.
N.B. It is important to remain in the stressful situation until the anxiety has receded. To escape when the anxiety is high will only serve to reinforce the anxious response.
4) Distract yourself
It can be helpful whilst experiencing anxiety to avoid stress-inducing thoughts by distracting yourself. This can be done by performing mental arithmetic, or reciting jokes, poems, or a calming phrase. Alternatively, you can distract yourself by focusing on external stimuli, e.g. listening to music, watching TV or concentrating on what’s going on around you. Get away from college occasionally. Cambridge can be a very intimidating place, and it’s rewarding to forget about it entirely now and again.
Self distraction is not the same as avoidance. The aim is not to escape the stressful situation, but to tolerate it. By attempting to displace frightening thoughts, they will not fuel the anxiety, thereby making it easier to remain calm.
5) Learn to relax
The physical symptoms of stress (sweaty palms, quickening heart rate, “butterflies” etc.) are caused by the release of the hormone adrenaline triggered by the brain. Relaxation techniques and breathing exercises can help to control these symptoms. It may be helpful to join a relaxation class. Try relaxation exercises. Yoga, floatation tanks, meditation or tapes may seem gimmicky but they work. Regular yoga classes normally take place in Queens’ and around cambridge. The cambridge meditation centre also offers free classes, or you can ask me to borrow a CD of simple one minute meditations (just send me an email). Begin by trying the exercises whilst already calm. Put aside a certain amount of time each day for relaxation, even during intense periods of study.With practice, it will become easier to relax in stressful situations. Above all, try to keep breathing slowly and regularly so that you do not hyperventilate.
Drugs and Alcohol
Lots of people consider using drugs or alcohol, to relax, get high or forget about difficult feelings or situations. Because drugs and alcohol affect your mind as well as your body they can have a strong effect on your thoughts and may make you feel angry, vulnerable or confused. These feelings are usually short-term and wear off when the drugs leave your body. However, for some people, alcohol and certain drugs (especially cannabis and LSD) can increase the risk of experiencing anxiety or depression. Think about whether alcohol and drugs make you feel better or worse. If they make you feel worse, think twice before you use them.
Addiction to drugs or alcohol is often seen as a mental health problem. Addiction happens on two levels: physical and psychological and can be hard to overcome. Not sure how much is too much? Everyone is different, so it may help to think about:
• Do drugs or alcohol play a definite part in your life?
• Do you miss then when they’re not readily available?
• Are you worried about it?
If so, now’s the time to seek help. See the list of contacts below to find out how.
Where to get help
Some of the organisations listed below are specifically for students at Cambridge University, others provide support and information to people the wider community – but all of them will be happy to assist you.
Very comprehensive website offering advice, information and background briefings on a wide range of mental health issues and specific mental health problems.
t: 0845 456 455 (9am-5pm weekdays)
Major UK charity dedicated to assisting people affected by severe mental illness (such as schizophrenia, depression and manic depression). Rethink runs a National Advice Service, staffed by experienced advisors.
BBC Online: mental health
Accessible, comprehensive information on a wide range of mental health conditions, as well as resources for getting help and treatment.
t: 01223 521521 (Lifeline), 01223 566957 (information centre)
Lifecraft is a local self-help organisation which is run by users and ex-users of mental health services. Provides a social club, counselling and information centre based in the Bath House, which is on the intersection between Mill Road and Gwydir Street Lifeline operates every night from 7pm-11pm.
Listening and Counselling
t: 0845 767 8000 (charged at local rates)
One of the UK’s leading charities concerned with improving the lives of people affected by mental health. The website gives practical advice of issues, including treatments. SANELINE is a confidential helpline offering practical information and emotional support, open from 12 noon until 2am each day.
University Counselling Service
t: 01223 332 865
The Counselling Service offer free, professional and confidential counselling to all students and staff. A number of groups also exist for students, and more information on a range of issues can be found on the website.
t: 08457 90 90 90
Confidential listening service, available 24 hours a day throughout the UK. Run by volunteers to offer non-judgemental, non-directional support.
t: 01223 744 444
a: 17 St. Edwards Passage, Cambridge
Student-run confidential listening service available from 7pm-7am every night of full term. Students can also drop in to the Linkline office for a chat during these hours.
t: 0207 702 2300
Offers counselling and information for people with drug, alcohol and mental health problems.
Young people and self-harm resource.
Eating Disorders Website
Drugs and Alcohol
Cambridge Drug and Alcohol Service
t: 01223 723020 (Monday – Thursday 9am-5pm, Friday 9am-4pm)
The Mill House, Brookfields Hospital,
351 Mill Road
Counselling and treatment for people suffering from drug, alcohol or tranquilliser dependency. Appointment system only.
t: 0845 769 7555 (24hrs)
Can provide support if you or someone you know has a drink problem. Regular group meetings and helpline. Calls are charged at a local rate and lines are open 24hours a day, every day.
The Bridge Project (Drug Advice Centre)
t: 01223 214614 (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm)
152-4 Mill Road,
Confidential advice, information and counselling for illegal drug users and their families. Drop-in service is available each weekday afternoon. Needle exchange Monday-Friday, 2-4pm.
Talk To Frank
t: 0800 77 66 00 (24hrs)
Textphone: 0800 917 8765
Offers advice and information about drugs. You can call 24 hrs a day, every day – calls from landlines are free and will not show up on your phone bill.