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Our Journal

Looking after your mental health

Alumni and staff writer Naomi Girdler talks about her own experiences with mental health and the tips and techniques that helped her

I can’t imagine what it must be like going to university today. In the last 18 months, students have faced challenges that would have been unimaginable only two years ago. From a pandemic forcing unprecedented national lockdowns to a new routine of home testing for COVID-19, students are an amazingly resilient bunch who have been asked to cope with so much. Although it can seem like everyone expects our lives to return to normal now, the challenges that we’ve faced can impact our mental health and making the decision about where and what to study was daunting enough before the pandemic.

I graduated from BA (Hons) Graphic Communication in 2013, before I’d even heard of social distancing. During my time at Plymouth College of Art, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, followed with a diagnosis of PTSD some years later. I’ve dealt with these conditions for over 10 years and have tried many different techniques to help alleviate the symptoms. Now, working on press and communications for the college, I want to share some of the tips that have helped me and which can hopefully help you as you enter the exciting next stage of your education.

So many people deal with mental health problems, which affect one in four people in their lifetimes. To give you some hope, mental health issues can and are successfully alleviated over time with habitual and lifestyle changes, medication and/or treatments. Speaking as someone who has dealt with mental health issues basically my whole adult life, I promise you, I get it.

It can be a very lonely place and your brain may start to tell you that no-one cares or no-one would want to help but I’m telling you now, your brain’s a liar! Reaching out to friends, family, your cohort or staff will help, a problem shared is a problem halved after all. No-one’s got it all figured out, we’re all just winging it, so it’s okay to be vulnerable with the right people, they’ll help break your fall as you deal with some tough stuff. It’s okay to not be okay. Tell someone.

I know, I know, I can hear the collective groan from here, everyone suggests exercise as a combatant to mental health issues, but in my experience, it’s bang on. Since I started sea swimming (Plymouth is literally COVERED in great wild swimming spots), walking regularly and hitting the gym at least once a week, I’ve noticed such a change to my energy levels and mood.

I’m not saying you should start chugging back the protein shakes and start listening to Joe Rogan’s podcast, but a little movement goes a really long way. Baby steps to start, have a walk around the block, do a 10 minute workout from a YouTube video or brave a dip in the sea for 5 minutes; your body will thank you. Make it manageable and make sure you reward yourself afterwards, you’ll definitely want to do it again!

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Plymouth is home to so many incredible wild swimming spots, including Firestone Bay.

Again, it feels silly to talk about breathing when it can feel like you’re drowning under the weight of your mental health issues, but breathwork really can help in the here and now. For example, if you deal with anxiety or panic, gaining control over your breathing can be the difference between a full blown attack and a close call. The best advice I ever got for slowing down and stopping a panic attack was engaging my senses and controlling my breath. It’s this simple: If you feel the beginnings of panic, focus on your breathing. Fill your belly with breath, breathing in for four seconds, then hold on that in breath for two seconds, followed by exhaling slowly for six seconds.

I find that this method forces me to focus on my breathing and takes my attention away from what’s panicking me, slowing down the attack. Mindfulness, CBT and lots of other therapies for mental health incorporates breathing to challenge the fight or flight response your body goes through when it feels threatened or scared. If you’d like to know more about breathwork, you can find lots of helpful guided meditation and breathwork resources on YouTube.

Self acceptance is key. This old saying changed my life; change what you can change, accept what you can’t, and have the wisdom to know the difference. Creatives all suffer from imposter syndrome in one way or another, so it’s important to acknowledge and accept that!
Ethan Pennell, Student Wellbeing Advisor at Plymouth College of Art

I know it can be daunting at first, the thought of socialising when you’re feeling low, but meeting new people and connecting with others is a great way to get out of your own head. The Students’ Union (PCA:SU) at the college is a great place to start with chilled out socials to get you socialising again.

Turn up with a sketchbook and pens to a Drink & Draw, check out the list of clubs and societies to see if there’s anything you’re into, or take the plunge and try something new like surfing or rock climbing to break the ice. PCA:SU President and Manager Harriet and Paige are also certified mental health first aiders, so don’t be afraid to approach them if you’re having an emergency.

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The Students' Union is a great place to meet like-minded people.

The Student Support team at the college are an excellent bunch, with a whole lot of resources for you to make use of. Unlike a lot of universities, there are no 12-week waiting lists for one-to-one counselling at Plymouth College of Art. If you book an appointment, you can expect to see someone in a reasonable amount of time. The team also offers holistic mental health practices, from acupressure and ear acupuncture, wellbeing walks, talks and workshops on everything from stress and anxiety management to boosting low confidence and self esteem. Book through the Student Support homepage or keep up to date with what’s on offer on their Instagram page.

I hope you were able to get something out of the above tips, it can be a lonely place dealing with mental health, but I promise that there is hope. Please don’t feel alone, there are also many phone lines, charities and listening services available, which I’ve listed below, that can help you through any crisis, so don’t be afraid to get in touch with them too. Be safe, make good choices and know that you got this!

They’re open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, simply call 116 123 (free from any phone) to speak to a volunteer. Alternatively, you can email jo@samaritans.org or visit the Plymouth branch in person.

Offering a supportive listening service to anyone with thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Helpine UK on 0800 689 5652 (open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

You can call CALM on 0800 58 58 58 (open 5pm - midnight everyday), if you are struggling and need to talk. Or if you prefer not to speak on the phone, you can try the CALM webchat service.

If you’re under 25, you can call The Mix on 0808 808 4994 (open 3pm - midnight everyday), request support by email using the form on their website or use their crisis text messenger service.

If you identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, you can call Switchboard on 0300 330 0630 (open 10am - 10pm everyday), email chris@switchboard.lgbt or use their webchat service. All phone operators identify as LGBT+.

Shout is a free 24/7 mental health text messaging service. Text the word ‘SHOUT’ to 85258 to speak to trained volunteers who can help you get to a calmer and safer place. This confidential, anonymous service for anyone in the UK won’t appear on your phone bill.

A free, digital mental health and wellbeing service, offering safe, anonymous online support available 24/7. Sign up for free with your college email address on their website.