The conversation: Coping with a mental health condition as a law student…
This is a conversation between Kenza, a second-year LLB student, and Aqsa, an LPC graduate, on their struggle with mental health during their time at City.
How long have you been living with your condition?
Kenza: I’ve had depression for 15 years now and an eating disorder for about 7 years.
Aqsa: I’ve had anxiety and OCD in the form of intrusive thoughts for almost 9 years now.
What are the physical symptoms of your condition and how do they affect your daily life?
Kenza: During more difficult episodes, I am incredibly lethargic. I do not have the energy to get out of bed or eat anything – all I am capable of is sleeping. I find myself sleeping for 15 to 18 hours a day and yet still waking up exhausted and unable to do anything. I stop responding to messages and emails, and keeping up with my studies is incredibly difficult.
Aqsa: I have panic attacks, which can cause blurred vision, crying and difficulty breathing. Like Kenza, I too decrease my levels of communication with people by not answering phone calls here and there or replying to texts/emails. I also tend to sleep in late and still be tired most of the day.
During high study periods I am particularly anxious and find it almost impossible to calm down until the exam period is over. I tend to be quiet and visibly distressed. You can definitely tell I am going through an anxious period, but I think it’s important to recognise that there are a lot of people who do not visibly display symptoms. They could act as normal as possible but behind closed doors, can be quite distressed and upset.
How do you look after yourself during these episodes, especially during term time?
Kenza: I manage these periods by forcing myself out of bed early in the morning, usually before 10 AM, and into the shower. I have found that taking a shower helps to metaphorically ‘wash the sad away’ and allows me to have more energy to tackle my day.
During a depressive episode, my hunger disappears and I end up going days or weeks without food. One of the ways I manage this now is by meal prepping for the week and setting alarms to remind myself to eat.
As far as managing uni work goes, I have found that having something to focus on will distract me from my intrusive thoughts. For me in particular, the most difficult aspect is starting the work but once I have, I can usually manage to get through it. I use the pomodoro technique, where I set a timer for 25 minutes and force myself to do some work. Once my work has been completed, I instantly notice an improvement in my mood!
Aqsa: I try to look after myself by sticking to a routine the best I can and taking regular breaks to check in with myself. The LPC is very content heavy and so can be overwhelming. Taking a break even if it’s just to walk around for a few minutes really does help. During term time, scheduling meetings with my subject tutors gave me reassurance and I was given a load of resources to help me cope. My particular favourites were a “worry tree” that I was given that I stuck on my wall which helped me work through intrusive thoughts and I was given a fact sheet about how to study during Ramadan during the lockdown period by one of my tutors who knew I was fasting. I felt very grateful to be given that particular kind of support during that time. I also think spending time with friends/family outside of university work is also important and it was something I really tried to do, especially during anxious periods.
Kenza: That’s amazing! I may have to ask for that fact sheet during the upcoming month of Ramadan. I think it is incredible that City took account of your religious beliefs and catered to them.
What do you want people to understand about your condition?
Kenza: Think of an old oak tree that has been nearly smothered by a large vine. This vine has twisted itself so entirely around the tree that from a distance, the leaves of the vine look to be the leaves of the tree. It is only up close that you can see how few living oak branches are left. (Analogy by Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon: an Atlas for Depression)
Depression is the vine, and it has sucked all the life out of me. I have moods that I know are not my own, but I feel them nonetheless. In severe episodes, the colours of the world become dull and everyday actions are impossible by virtue of the effort they require.
If people understood the sheer torment of this illness, they would not believe that the sufferer is doing it for attention or is weak or lazy. Even with the changing attitudes on mental illness, there is still the aspect of having to justify yourself.
For me, personally, I despise being called ‘strong’ or being reminded that I am a warrior. Yes, I understand that I am fighting to stay alive and in some ways that does make me strong, but my struggles should not be romanticised.
There is no beauty or poetry in mental illness, and it is as real as brain cancer or diabetes. Medications, although not perfect, should not be discouraged and most importantly, the concept of telling someone with this disease that ‘it could be worse’ is something that should never happen.
Aqsa: I think during my especially anxious periods I tend to be quiet and resigned, and sometimes fail to communicate the way I would like with people. This has definitely affected my relationships, so a level of awareness of the symptoms of anxiety in your friend/peer is a great way to make them feel comfortable. Understanding that they are going through a rough patch and just need time to adjust is super important. I like your comment, Kenza, about the fact that mental illness can sometimes be romanticised to a certain extent and the true struggle of it can sometimes be overlooked. I think it’s so important to be aware that it is real and that a lot of people are living through it and I definitely think that there is still the aspect of having to prove you have a mental illness. I think a common misconception is that you’re always unhappy and if you’re not unhappy, you don’t have a mental illness but that just isn’t true. I can be really really happy most days!
Kenza: That was an excellent point, Aqsa! It is incredibly stressful to have to worry about how your friends are upset with you for pulling away or not responding. They need to understand that it isn’t personal and just allow us to have some room to breathe. And yes, people are often surprised to find that I struggle with severe depression and that I have an eating disorder, simply because I do not ‘look’ the part. It is important to know that there is no ‘perfect image’ for how someone with a mental illness should look like.
How has City been accommodating to your needs?
Kenza: City has been incredibly understanding of my struggle. Both Su Cassidy, the student welfare officer, and my personal tutor have gone above and beyond to make sure I am comfortable and able to do my work by offering deadline extensions and placing an extenuating circumstances claim on my behalf. The mental health services at City were incredible at helping me come up with a study plan that was perfectly catered to my situation.
I was initially very afraid of coming forward and asking for help because I was afraid of the reaction I would get, but everyone I interacted with at City treated me with kindness and compassion without belittling my experience or making me feel weak, which was incredibly refreshing.
Aqsa: City has been so helpful during my time with them. I agree, I was sceptical to come forward because of the stigma around mental health, especially in the legal field. I didn’t want people questioning my ability to work as a lawyer. But then Su delivered a talk at one of my lectures about dealing with mental health during the academic year and how normal it was, and so I went and spoke with her. We sat down together and went through my requirements for what could be done to make my time easier while studying, and I was even given the opportunity to attend some sessions on campus to help me speak with other students who were also dealing with anxiety/depression. I definitely felt more calmer and at ease after talking to her.
My tutors were also very understanding of my condition and I was always checked up on even when I was doing okay. I had one-to-one meetings with my tutor and was even given some resources to help me cope during the lockdown period. I really felt that I was looked after.
Ed’s note: you can contact Su, the student welfare officer for the Law School at: email@example.com
What tips can you give students to help them cope if they are going through the same/similar experiences?
1. Accept that asking for help does not make you weak. Mental illness is as real as any other disease, and you deserve to be helped the way anyone else would. You deserve to be happy and you deserve to have good things, never forget that. Everyone needs help from time to time and that is 100% okay.
2. Remind yourself that you are not alone. In the midst of my episodes, my disease somehow manages to convince me that no one could possibly care for me or understand what I am going through. It took my friends a long time (many, many years) to convince me otherwise, but even now I find myself doubting them. I have to keep reminding myself that I am not alone and ignore the intrusive thoughts. It is difficult, but you must do it too.
3. Manage your expectations. Do not expect to be able to do the same amount of work you are normally capable of doing. Remember that if all you did was write an introduction to your essay or watch 15 minutes of a 3-hour lecture, it is enough. If you couldn’t do anything today, it’s okay – there is always tomorrow.
4. Take time to do something creative everyday. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t good at painting or singing or writing or dancing, if it makes you happy then do it. It will help to remind you that life is about more than just work.
5. Go for a walk outdoors. The fresh air will brighten your mood and the exercise will boost your happy chemicals, need I say more?
6. Try having a self-care day! I usually get my nails done, dress up in fancy clothes and take pictures or I get a massage and a facial. Whatever self-care means for you, do it. Schedule at least one day during the week where you do not focus on work or responsibilities and simply live, rather than just survive.
7. Stop following those depressing instagram pages or listening to those depressing songs or watching depressing movies or reading depressing books. Literally, stop doing anything that is connected to depression because you are adding fuel to the fire. Immerse yourself in things that would normally bring you joy.
8. Celebrate the small victories. If all you managed to do was get out of bed to brush your teeth, only to go back into bed, congratulate yourself. It is so difficult to live with a mental illness, but please know that I am incredibly proud of you for doing the best you can.
9. Recovery can be messy. It isn’t always bubble baths and champagne, sometimes you have to force yourself out of bed when it feels like your muscles are made of stone or cleaning your room when it is the last thing you want to do. I know how terrible it feels, but I also know that there is no getting around it and you have to put in the work.
10. Be kind to yourself. I know how frustrating it can be to have recurring episodes and I know how helpless everything can seem. You are doing your best, you are not alone, you will get through this.
1. Take time for yourself during busy periods. It may not feel like it, but taking pockets of time out just for yourself is a part of working well. I used to think I was wasting time taking active breaks but in the last few years have found that the breaks make me more productive.
Just taking a pause to do some breathing exercises or leaving the library for some air for a few minutes can make a world of difference. One action I incorporated into my day was ensuring I stopped all studying by 7pm during term time. This allowed me the time to travel home and spend the rest of the evening with my family.
2. I agree with celebrating small wins! If you wake up even 5 minutes earlier than you usually do, or found a way to get through your panic attack with new techniques you have learned then that great! And I also believe it is important to acknowledge that relapses don’t necessarily mean you’ve gone back to square one. We are human and you may pick up some new lessons about yourself and the way you cope with each episode.
3. Pick an activity you enjoy doing and make sure you block out some time to engage in that activity. Even if it’s watching Netflix for an hour! If it makes you calm and happy, then go for it. I really enjoy bullet journaling and have found it particularly therapeutic especially because you don’t need to be an artist to do it. I also really enjoy meditative podcasts. Taking time off from studying reminds me there is a life outside of academia and it has definitely helped my work/life balance.
4. Please visit your Student Welfare Officer to discuss the way you’re feeling . You are not alone and will get so much support and help from them. Su was always there when I needed a chat and even during my exam period called in to check on me- that personal reassurance that I was supported made me feel a lot calmer going into my exams.
Thanks so much to both Kenza and Aqsa for sharing both their challenges and strategies in relation to their conditions. It’s been incredible to read….
Kenza is one of the members of the Lawbore student journalist team for 2020-21. She is an aspiring commercial solicitor with an eagerness to challenge the status quo.
Aqsa is a recent LPC graduate and aspiring solicitor. She is about to start her new job as a paralegal.