Studying with a Mental Illness

mental illness

Do you suffer from a mental illness?  Despite the challenges that come with this, we are here to remind you that ‘mental illness’ doesn’t spell ‘game over’.

Mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, affect one in every six individuals in South Africa – this does not include bipolar or schizophrenia, which are diagnosed as more serious conditions.

Mental Illness: the Reality

Cassey Chambers, Operations Director at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) says that with individuals being too scared to open up about their mental health or seek help, the stats are not a true reflection of what is going on in our country.

As a student, the pressure of having to complete tasks and study for exams is an added strain on an already stressful time. Leading Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) psychologist, Bradley Drake, says that the two biggest stressors are career/studies and relationships. The good news is that he, and many others, are determined to help sufferers live a normal life by changing their perspective. Individuals with mental illness can have a normal life.

The Types of Mental Illness

Some of the main groups of mental disorders are:

  • Mood disorders such as depression and bipolar
  • Anxiety
  • Personality disorders
  • Psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia
  • Eating disorders
  • Trauma-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Substance abuse disorders

Mental Health Awareness: know the Signs

Depending on the disorder, the signs and symptoms of mental illness may vary. The symptoms affect one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviour.

Examples of signs and symptoms include:

  • Feeling sad or down
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate
  • Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt
  • Extreme mood changes of highs and lows
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping
  • Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia or hallucinations
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Trouble understanding and relating to situations and to people
  • Problems with alcohol or drug use
  • Major changes in eating habits
  • Sex drive changes
  • Excessive anger, hostility or violence
  • Suicidal thinking

Sometimes symptoms of a mental health disorder appear as physical problems, such as stomach pain, back pain, headaches, or other unexplained aches and pains.

If you show any signs or symptoms of a mental illness, see your primary care provider or a mental health professional. Most mental illnesses don’t improve on their own, and if untreated, a mental illness may get worse over time and cause serious problems. There is no shame in getting help.

What Causes Mental Illness?

Mental illnesses are thought to be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors:

  • Inherited traits:
    Mental illness is more common in people whose blood relatives also have a mental illness. Certain genes may increase your risk of developing a mental illness, but it may only surface when triggered by a traumatic occurrence in your life.
  • Environmental exposures before birth:
    Exposure to environmental stressors, inflammatory conditions, toxins, alcohol or drugs while in the womb can sometimes be linked to mental illness.
  • Brain chemistry:
    Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of your brain and body. When the neural networks involving these chemicals are impaired, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems change, leading to depression and other emotional disorders.

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How to Study with a Mental Illness

Studying with a mental illness can have its challenges. The first line of defence is to seek the professional help of a psychologist or psychiatrist. In most cases, medication will be prescribed. These include:

  • Antidepressants:
    Antidepressants are used to treat depression, anxiety and sometimes other conditions. They can help improve symptoms such as sadness, hopelessness, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating and lack of interest in activities. Antidepressants are not addictive and do not cause dependency.
  • Anti-anxiety medications:
    These drugs are used to treat anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder. They may also help reduce agitation and insomnia. Long-term anti-anxiety drugs typically are antidepressants that also work for anxiety. Fast-acting anti-anxiety drugs help with short-term relief, but they also have the potential to cause dependency, so ideally they’d be used short term. The most common anti-anxiety treatment these days is the use of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), which block the reabsorption (reuptake) of serotonin into neurons. This makes more serotonin available to improve transmission of messages between neurons.
     Doctors are positive that the use of SSRIs reprogrammes a patient’s brain’s function and the patient may try to wean themselves off of the medication after a couple of years.
  • Mood-stabilizing medications:
    Mood stabilizers are most commonly used to treat bipolar disorders, which involves alternating episodes of mania and depression. Sometimes mood stabilizers are used with antidepressants to treat depression.
  • Antipsychotic medications:
    Antipsychotic drugs are typically used to treat psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia. Antipsychotic medications may also be used to treat bipolar disorders or used with antidepressants to treat depression.

As a student struggling with mental illness, you may find it difficult to:

  • Concentrate
  • Work in groups
  • Talk to or work with other people, such as students, tutors or lecturers
  • Get around to everything you need to do, such as coursework and being on time for appointments
  • Be around large groups of people, such as lectures, libraries and exams
  • Meet assignment deadlines
  • Live in shared student accommodation

It is important that you tap into your support system while you’re studying. Continue seeing your psychologist/psychiatrist, speak to the university counsellor or your personal tutor and allow friends to support you. 

EduConnect 2Cents

Ashley Williams, from The Mighty, says:

“Yes, living with mental illness is difficult, but I have survived 100 percent of my worst days and that’s a great track record. I have had many days where I thought I wouldn’t survive, but I did. That is so beautiful.”

Go get ‘em.

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