Apr 21st, 2018, 01:10 PM

A Student's Guide to Mental Health

By Vera Jonsdottir
Image Credit: pixabay.com/Dyversions
Image Credit: Pixabay/Dyversions
AUP students open up about their mental health struggles.

Mental health is a topic that makes many uncomfortable in our society today. It is a hushed and even ignored problem. If a student broke a leg, teachers would obviously not kick up a lot of fuss if they could not make it to class, but what if a student suffers from something more internal? When the problem is not visible it is obviously harder to detect, but it should not be ignored. Mental health issues can even extend to physical issues such as pain in various areas of your body, headaches, stomach aches, sweating, hyperventilating, or even becoming physically sick. People may also have to deal with irregular sleep pattern, alcohol, smoking or drug issues, excessive mood swings, social isolation, and many more symptoms.

According to statistics, one in four students has a diagnosable illness. Out of those students, 40% do not seek help, 80% feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, and 50% have become so anxious that they struggle with keeping up with school. One study found that the average high school student in 2000 had the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s, and students' anxiety average has only gone up since then.

Like any other university, AUP is no exception to the rule. Students come to Paris from all over the world to study at this university. Most students are far away from their home and far out of their comfort zone, which can contribute to their discomfort. The Peacock Plume brings you the stories of three anonymous students from AUP who opened up about their mental health issues, and their struggles with finding balance with university life and caring for themselves.

Image credit: Pinterest/Dee-dee Ravelo

1. Anxiety
An anonymous student agreed to sit down for coffee and talk about her personal experience. She started suffering from anxiety when she enrolled in a new school with the International Baccalaureate system. An alcohol problem started emerging in her family around the same time, which added to her stress levels. As her family life grew more turbulent, she thought that she needed to make up for those problems in some way. "My surroundings were already too chaotic for me to mess anything up myself. That would be like the tip of the iceberg. I felt like I had to be perfect in order to keep my life together." The student further narrated that she hardly slept and studied on an average of 12 hours a day. Although she was a straight-A student, she could feel the stability of her mental health slipping away. She felt completely lost. "All I ever did was study and try to please everyone. I completely forgot about myself. " She had no free time or hobbies. On the outside, she looked perfectly fine to all. She exceeded in all parts of her life and usually came to class with a smile on her face. She herself, was even unaware of the cause of her anxious and depressive thoughts. In her mind, something must have been terribly wrong with her.

When the student graduated from high school she decided to take a gap year. She wanted to travel and learn a new language. She decided to go to South America to learn Spanish. That's when she experienced her burn out. "Suddenly all of the emotions I had locked away within myself flooded out. I had no way to keep them inside anymore. I overslept for the first time in my life. I even missed my Spanish class on my second day! As bad as it may sound, I could not recall ever being in touch with my emotions as well as I was back then. If I was sad, I would cry, if I was tired, I'd take the day off and sleep. I made good friends and all of a sudden I had someone to take care of me." The student further described how she now had people around her who attended to her on a daily basis. This was completely alien to her. As an example, she mentioned a time when she had an anxiety attack and her friend helped her through it. "I cried the entire time. She hugged me and put up with me. I'd never had anyone care for me like that, I was always the one to care for everyone else." After her gap year, the student decided that she needed a change of environment. She decided to come to AUP for a fresh start.

For students who have a person with an alcohol problem in their family, she had this to say: "You can only help your family member up to a certain extent. Don't forget about yourself and don't listen to them if they try to smear the blame on you." She also stressed that once the realization how the family member has hurt you kicks in, try to not be too angry with them. "They also need help and are not in control of their bad habits. But it's still not your job to be that help. Your job is to take care of yourself! I cannot stress this enough. You are the center of your own world and no one else should come ahead of your own happiness."

Image Credit: Flickr/Luigi Morante

2. Seasonal Affective Disorder
Another anonymous student opened up about her problems which emerged when she moved to Europe in the fall of 2014. Born and raised in a warmer place, the cold weather soon started to affect her mood. "I would go to school when it was dark, and I would come home from school when it was dark- I started to feel a drop in my mood and my grades dropped severely that second semester. I thought that there were so many things wrong with me. I just tried to let it go because I'm not someone who goes to the doctor or wants to talk about my issues." The student continued to describe how her grades started dropping and she had a hard time keeping up with her school work. Since the climate was new to her, she didn't understand what her problem was. "I felt like I was constantly sick. Starting my second year in university, I had so many health issues and I couldn't find out why. I just thought I wasn't taking care of myself." When she started looking up her symptoms online, she quickly realized that she suffered from depression.

"It had never really been something I thought was on my radar, since I was genuinely outgoing throughout high school. I was an extrovert and I didn't think these sorts of things happened to people like that." She started seeing a therapist and taking medication and saw a complete change in her life. "I think the hardest thing with mental illness is that every case is different. Everyone tries to put you into a category depending on your disorder but I believe that since every person is different, every disorder is also different. For me, the best way to kickstart my life and get back into gear was starting taking anti-depressants and being honest with myself about the problem."

As for advice to students who deal with the same problem, the student had this to say: "Get the help you need because you are not going to get better on your own. Also, if you know people that have these symptoms as well, be honest with them."Regarding how to approach university assimilation issues, the student advocates for more education on how serious mental health issues can be. Since almost everyone is away from their home, a lot of students are faced with not having anybody to turn to. The student life can be challenging as many students are working and studying in a foreign country. "I want to see a mental health day, or even a week in our university. I'd also like to see support groups in AUP for students with mental health problems."

"I feel like we neglect this huge problem because the conversation is uncomfortable. But the tough conversations are the best conversations to have- you learn from them."

Image Credit: Defymedia/ Cdn-wpmsa

3. Body Disorders
The third student suffers from a hormonal imbalance. Hormonal imbalances not only trigger fat storage and weight gain, they also cause many other nasty symptoms like PMS, acne, painful breasts, migraines, cellulite, loss of libido, a disrupted monthly cycle, menopausal issues, and burn-outs. This makes the student more prone to gaining weight and as a result, being unhappy with herself in her own physical appearance. "I try to feel more comfortable in the body that I am in but its really hard because of the media and the pressure of beauty culture in society. You are supposed to look a certain way and behave a certain way and for the rest of us who don't fit into the tiny frame are left behind questioning our worth." The student expressed difficulties in establishing self-love and self-care. Because she is unhappy with her appearance, she struggles with feeling worthy of love. 

"Now, since I started my second semester in college, I've been struggling a lot with living alone and keeping my mental health intact. I thought it would help me to live alone far from my family since I would think more of about these issues and why I am sometimes feeling depressed, have such low self-esteem and think that I am not worthy of love. Turns out, it didn't really help me. At the moment, I just try to push it into a corner and not think about it. It just distracts me too much from school and social life. I often feel like I am not worthy of love, whether it's from friends or from boyfriends which makes nurturing those relationships extremely challenging sometimes." Living by yourself in a foreign country is a familiar challenge to most AUP students.  Sometimes, the change of environment can even trigger old memories and result in new problems. Having to make good friends and a stable general background all over again can be difficult. "At the moment I'm really putting off the idea of going to a therapist but then I'm also scared of what they would try to dig up from my past, or if they would just make me feel worse."

As for advice to students who are dealing with similar problems, the student had this to say: "Nurture the friendships that make you feel appreciated and good about yourself. This is especially important in AUP where most students are far away from their homes and families. You need to find people that you trust and understand you. Those friends can be the true lifesavers. Everyone needs someone along the road to help them out.  Some people say that self-love comes from looking in the mirror and deciding that you are going to love yourself, but that does not necessarily apply to every case, especially not to those who have deeply ingrained problems and that's when students should maybe need to seek out some professional help, such as therapy. You should defiantly seek out help and find someone that you're comfortable with and gets what you're going through."

Problems with mental health are never something anybody should be ashamed of. If you have an internal problem, it's just as valid as a physical one. Acknowledging the issue and seeking out help is the starting point of the road to recovery.  Whether it's professional help or help from a trustworthy friend, it all comes down to you feeling comfortable and finding someone who understands and helps you. AUP offers 15 sessions of free therapy per semester to all of the students. It's better to take action sooner rather than later.