My undergrad degree was worth it

Going into my degree, a 3-year bachelor of science, I knew that it wouldn’t result in an instant qualification or easy transition into a high-paying job. Some days I regret that, but most days I don’t. Yes, I could have done a health care undergrad and enjoyed it, but as a 17 year old I was confused and just wanted to learn. I had an idea of what I wanted to do but I wasn’t ready to commit.

Now, coming towards the end of my degree the irony is I’m still tossing up between the same options; nursing, OT and psych, but I’ve also added research.

Was it worth it? Yes. Yes, it was.

I was given the chance to choose electives from history and philosophy, creative writing and linguistics. I studied plant science, Australian flora and fauna, chemistry and biology. All of this, enriched my psychology major and I’m grateful for the diversity of the knowledge I’ve been able to develop.

Psychology is one of those areas that can benefit from studies of history, biology, and philosophy. In the APA major, only limited time is given to each of these and my elected subjects have provided me which a much broader understanding that I wouldn’t have otherwise gained.

Biology has helped me to understand how the brain works in relation to the body. Philosophy has taught me about mind-body dualism and the philosophy of the mind and mental illness. History has taught me about how health was once conceived by Galen as a balance of four bodily fluids, that mental illness was once thought to be caused by witchcraft, that the asylums were not all doom and gloom and moral therapy provided a more humane understanding. I learned that psychiatric medications and the DSM were all formed on unstable and even experimental foundations, that even today ECT is the treatment with the most evidence behind it. I wouldn’t have understood any of this from just my major.

In addition to this, I’ve leaned things that have made me a better person. I gained an understanding of the major schools of philosophy; Buddhism, Descartes, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Kant. Through physiology, I understand many of the processes happening in my body. I know that fat and carbs aren’t bad. That the news can and often does lie. I learn how to think critically and evaluate studies that are often portrayed as true when they are not.

I have developed opinions and the ability to think for myself and not just agree with other people. Through university, I have found my own unique voice and have become a person that I am proud of.

The Melbourne Model worked for me. Yes, it’s taken me longer to get on a path towards my career but it’s also given me so much that is invaluable and will be for the rest of my life. My degree supported my intellectual transition into adulthood and provided me with the foundations to become a critical thinker and a hard-working and compassionate human being. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

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The new antidepressant hypothesis

Being a science student and having studied antidepressants, I thought I knew how they worked or at least why people thought so but after a lecture on the history of their development, now I’m not so sure.

Originally, in the 1950s-60s the thesis was that too many Monoaxamine Oxidase neurotransmitters (MAOs) such as serotonin and norepinephrine, were being oxidised by the brain. This led to a deficiency of them and thus depression. Drugs were developed to maximise the amount of MAOs in the brain, by preventing them from being oxidised. The idea is that high levels= better communication= stronger mood regulating circuit. The results were good! They appeared to work, yet serious side effects were often seen.

In order to reduce side effects, a new hypothesis was developed. The serotonin hypothesis. The idea was too much serotonin was being taken up by presynaptic neurons in the brain leading to a deficiency and ultimately depression. People, therefore, speculated that altering the level of serotonin would alleviate the symptoms of depression. This is where SSRIs were developed. They act by stopping the reuptake of serotonin and increasing the levels of it in the brain. Again, they appear to work. SNRIs do the same thing but for serotonin and norepinephrine.

The basis of these theories was PURELY SPECULATIVE. No one has been able to prove them. Though it could be argued that new research does exactly that, but this would depend on who you talk to.

Irving Kirsch showed that for people who’ve been on SSRIs before and experienced the side effects, if they’re then given a placebo drug with the same side effects, it appears to work. In his study, there was no significant difference between an active placebo (with side effects) and SSRIs. Yet, many people have criticised his work.

Studies have suggested that; changing serotonin levels in a healthy individual doesn’t cause depression, attacking symptoms of depression with SSRIs is no better than with an active placebo, and the placebo effect is critical in treating depression. Furthermore, one popular antidepressant bupropion appears to reduce depression in some people but it has not impact on serotonin at all, but dopamine and norepinephrine.

Obviously, though, I couldn’t just accept all of this to be true because I have seen antidepressants work, hell I’ve even FELT them work at times. In my day to day life I have yet to come across a pill that makes me feel ‘not depressed’ but I know that when I’m at my worst, medication is the only thing that can pull me out of it. So I turned to doctor google.

Apparently, there is this other theory that antidepressants cause neurogenesis (birth of new brain cells). This could explain why ADs take a while to work in the brain (whereas if it were just the amount of neurotransmitters you would expect them to work right away) because they are altering the pathways in the brain. I was drawn to how lots of these studies list physiological and psychological stress as a causal factor because it reflects the idea of early mad doctors, that neuroses were caused by stress. However,  it’s not a foolproof theory because some AD studies show neurogenesis and some don’t + it could be unrelated to what ADs actually do. Yet, it’s still really interesting.

I refuse to believe that antidepressants don’t work, but maybe they don’t work the way we think they do. Or maybe they do and we just happened to stumble upon the MAO idea by accident without having a clear reason for why this is the case.

What is your personal opinion and/or experience on antidepressants?

 

 

Identity and career confusion

I have a confession to make. For so long I’ve been determined to complete my science degree and pursue psychology as a a career. I was certain that this was what I wanted and was going to do. Now… I’m not so sure.

I was forced to take a leave of absence at the end of last year and have tried to go back twice since then but haven’t managed to. I’ve been off for a year and still have a year and a half of a three year degree to go. I want to finish it, I do. I just don’t know if I can handle the pressure or if it’s the right course for me. If I could go back and tell my 17 year old self anything it would be to decide what I wanted to do then. because at least if I didn’t like it I’d know by now.

I chose science because I was indecisive and it left options open but what I didn’t consider was whether a high pressure environment was the right choice for me. It wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I love my university but I wonder whether the pressure contributed to my declining mental health.

Right now I’m still not sure what I want to do. I guess that’s a common thing. It’s hard to plan out the rest of your life when there is so much uncertainty and I think it’s unfair that there is this expectation of young people coming straight out of school to know what they want to do.

This all has left me feeling disheartened and confused.

I’ve been considering doing a course in nursing or teaching, both which can be done as masters after my bachelors or I could choose to start a new bachelors degree. There’s also the option of completing a short course at tafe for 6 months and going back to university study at the beginning of next year.

The honest truth is I still don’t know what I’m going to do. Whatever decision I make, I feel like it’s not going to be the right one. I know I have to make one but at the moment it feels impossible.

My first day studying since being sick

What a day.

Today was my first day back at uni and I had less classes then I usually would, it being the first week, so I thought things would be okay but not so much. Something playing on my mind is that I can’t just choose 2 or 3 subjects I want to do ALL the subjects. Which is hard when you haven’t studied in a while.

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My day started off well. I had my first neuroscience lecture with the lecturer who I have idolised ever since starting uni. He was the one who inspired me to consider neuroscience as a real option and he was the one that motivated me and stopped me from dropping out after that first lonely semester. This guy is just one of those people  that are so passionate about what they do and yet also so funny and real that you can’t help but like them. If I wasn’t interested in this subject I probably still would have chosen it just because his lectures are so much fun and so thought provoking.

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Yeah so I was on a high when I went upstairs to my next lecture (research methods and stats). And here’s where things went downhill.

I tried to pay attention but when I looked up I realised I’d missed about 30 minutes without realising, couldn’t focus on what was being said and everything was just going over the top of my head. Not that the content was hard, just that I wasn’t mentally there. 

I sat in my seat panicking because I was at the end of the row and couldn’t leave, until it got to halfway where there was a break and I escaped out the back to go and break down in the bathroom. It was like all my dreams had been taken away at once.

I assumed going back would be the same difficulty as when I first started but today was so much harder. And what’s worse is that no one seems to understand when I tell them that. They think I’m being dramatic and should be fine but I’m not.

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I guess it’s just going to take time.

In other news, it was hilarious to see that o-week has morphed into a two week festival of everything from water slides to overnight sleepovers and parties on campus. The change makes me feel so old even though it’s only been two years since my o-week. My memories are of painfully lining up in the heat to be told all the free food was gone and then getting lost on campus. How things change.

Anyway, I’m out. This was just a quick update to let you know how today went. Here’s hoping things only get better.

Small steps are sometimes the biggest

Tomorrow I start back at university. It will be the first time in over 7 months that I’ve sat in a classroom and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified. I’ve been hyperventilating and breaking out into tears all week because it just feels like to much and I’m worried I won’t be able to cope. I even considered deferring again or dropping out completely but studying is what makes me happy and hopefully this year is going to be different.

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first time back on campus during o-week wishing this was butterbeer

I’m in the (lengthy) process of registering with the disability department and developing an adjustment plan that will be sent out to all my lecturers. This means that if I need extra time or support the way to get it will be much simpler. Despite uni being the place that first referred me to mental health services, I still have not disclosed to them that I suffer from mental illness. In part this was because I don’t feel like I deserve any extra help and also, because I feared that having my diagnoses listed on my record would have negative consequences for my future. But I’ve realised that this doesn’t mean I have to use the support just that it is there and to my relief I haven’t been asked any specifics about what I’m diagnosed with, just what will help me in my studies.

One thing I am struggling with, is that I’m going back to uni on Monday x kg heavier than I was a year ago. I am embarrassed and uncomfortable in this body but I know deep down that the increase is a good thing. With this weight comes better concentration and mental capacity and hopefully the strength to cope with studying again. Last year I though I was fine and while my bloods reflected that, I was exhausted and looked like death. Every day I had to get out of bed was hell because physically my body was weak and compromised. And while I hate admitting it, so was my cognition. No one really knows how I lasted that semester because I was running on empty and despite what I thought at the time, it did catch up to me just not in the way I would have expected (insert many hospital and crisis admissions).

Now I know I still have weight to gain. I know that things could easily go downhill and I know I still have far to go. But I’m willing to fight this time. I’m willing to look after my health so that I have a chance at making this work. I’m not ashamed of my body or my history. With health comes strength and nothing is taking my studies away from me again. I’m going to make uni work this time.

Aside from the above, some other changes in my life have occurred. My old case manager left which (excuse me being dramatic here) pretty much broke my heart and I don’t think I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never be able to talk to her again.  I was assigned to a new one and we seem to be getting along. I have also begun seeing my gp regularly again and am on the waiting list for an eating disorder program. Small things but with a big impact all the same.

 

On being a mentally ill psych student

It takes a certain type of person to be attracted to helping others.

I don’t believe people can be drawn to the psychology field without at least a small part of them wanting to make a difference. Like teaching or nursing, this isn’t a profession that you go into for the money. If it were purely for financial gain or prestige then there would be more surgeons and lawyers. That’s not to say that people who enter those fields don’t do so because they want to help people, but rather that the wages associated with psychology don’t necessarily equate to the required effort and education.

It is no secret that like attracts like and when questioning the reasoning behind your desire to help people, lines can be blurred. Some people believe that the only reason anyone studies mental illness is so that they can fix themselves but I don’t believe this is true. Yes ,it can be helpful to understand why you are the way you are and how you become the person that you did but it’s also difficult.

It can be discerning to listen to ignorant comments from other students and even some lecturers who don’t understand because they’ve never experienced what you have. It’s hard not to want to stand up in a rage and yell because what they’re saying is wrong. It’s hard having to sit through explanations of your own symptoms and even discover ones you didn’t know you had. But some say that’s the nature of studying psychology. It’s a science that can be immediately applied to every day life and people will relate to certain things whether they are mentally ill or not.

It can also be triggering and confusing. You start to question your own upbringing and wonder whether your illness’ are valid since you don’t fit ‘x’ criteria. But having a good understanding of yourself is crucial to  becoming a good psychologist and can only help you, help others.

The important thing here is to acknowledge that you can’t fix yourself. If you are struggling with your own issues the best thing you can do is seek professional support and the sooner the better. To be a good clinical psychologist  you don’t need to be mental illness free (especially as many illness are lifelong) but it is essential that they are managed. Mental illness is treatable and you would be a hypocrite and highly unprofessional if you were to treat patients without dealing with your own issues.

Please don’t be afraid of your own history impeding your ability to become a good mental health professional. With lived experience comes great empathy and unique insight that not all possess. You know what it is like to be ill and to seek treatment. You’ve been on the other side of the system and have some understanding of what is and isn’t helpful. It is not necessary to have suffered to become a good health professional but it can be used to your advantage and the skills you learn while studying psychology can be applied to many different fields.

Yes, I am mentally ill and studying psychology but no, I will not let that stop me from becoming a great psychologist and you shouldn’t either.

2016; The year that was

,The year. The worst year. The year that was the worst year so far.

January-

My weight has declined rapidly. I am in the depths of my ed but I cannot see it. I feel amazing. Depression is nowhere to be found.

February-

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I started falling all the time

I am forced to have twice weekly physical check ups, weekly therapy and blood tests in order to stay out of hospital. I see a dietician for the first time but don’t stick to the meal plan because ‘I’m not sick’. I struggle with turning 19. I am miserable.

March-

I return to uni against everyone’s advice and do well for a while but it’s difficult and I can’t concentrate. I am isolated from my peers by my illness. Inevitably I  gain most of the weight back, leaving me full of self hatred. I stop my meds. Stop talking to people. Stop going to appointments. Start skipping classes.

April-

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Depression roars it’s ugly head. I throw everything into study.

May-

I start on medication #2 (escitalopram) and sleeping pills again because my head is too loud. I recommit to therapy. Almost exam time and I become incredibly suicidal. I don’t study because I don’t plan on sitting them. I’m failing my classes. My exams are deferred.

June-

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Admitted to an adult psych ward. First time in hospital and I’m terrified. Everyone is so much older and I feel like I’m making everything up. I am kept physically safe but there is no treatment. Out after a week but nothing feels better.
July-

 

I get to vote in an election for the first time. Struggle through exam time. I’m not getting better. A culmination of things lead me to taking a large OD and ending up in hospital. I have a bad reaction to a medication they give me, and hallucinate but then I wake up the next day and I’m fine. Covered in bruises from being restrained, but fine. I’m glad I don’t remember this. Have to have my heart monitored in hospital for a few days. I am angry at being alive. Have to defer uni. The pressure eases.

August-September

I spend these months holed up in my room miserable and wishing I was dead.

October-
I am stopped from making another attempt and am transported to a youth ward. The nurses are lovely and the patients are kind but being locked up without my normal coping mechanisms causes me to stop eating.  I trick everyone into thinking I am fine. But when I’m allowed out after a week I really do feel good. Strong. Maybe I can do this.

November-
I’m starting to feel better and positive about the future. My meds are working and I’m seeing my friends again. Things are great.

December-

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Coasting along. Starting to make plans for next year. Didn’t think I’d still be here. I’ve stopped taking my meds again but I feel happy and stable. For the first time in a long time, I am hopeful that things might get better.

Hello, it’s me

It’s been a while. This is just a quick update to say that I’m okay, I’m alive and still going strong.

I’m now in my second year of university. I had to drop down to three subjects because it was the only way I could avoid having to defer this semester. Long story short, I got quite ill at the start of the year both physically and mentally which led to a million appointments and much concern about whether my body would be able to hold up. It did. I did.

I’ve been feeling a little lost and haven’t had the ability to think about the future or much motivation for anything. I’ve been meaning to update this blog but I haven’t had anything to say. Life is difficult. We try and cope the best we can. What else is there to say? A lot. But the words haven’t been coming.

I’m not sure if I’m going to stick with studying or not. I want to but I have to weigh up whether it’s worth it.

Anyway, I’ll update properly soon and I have a few ideas for future posts so stay tuned!

I’m not okay but that’s okay

 

I’ve spent a lot of this year pushing things aside and telling myself that I was on top of things. But, boy was I wrong about that. Recently I took the difficult step of reaching out to someone and while it hasn’t immediately fixed everything, it’s a start.

Throughout this year my mental health has deteriorated quite a lot and it’s been a struggle for me to come to terms with. Unlike many people, I didn’t make any close friends in my first year of university and I’ve spent a lot of it on my own which I believe has contributed to my issues. Because of this I felt like I didn’t have anyone to turn to and it got to the point where my grades had dropped so much that failure became likely. I turned to a student advisor who was probably the nicest person I’ve met this year and I believe that she probably saved my life through the conversations we had. She reassured me that I wasn’t the only one struggling and helped me take the next step which was a referral to a counselling service, they’ve since referred me to a more specialised service and I’m currently waiting to see if they will accept me. It’s difficult because I don’t currently have any label for what is going on and I’m imagining worst case scenarios. Hopefully things start to look up for me soon and I can get back into living my life the way I want to.

Right now things are going okay(there’s that word again ironically) and I’m awaiting my results to see whether I will need to get a late withdrawal or repeat an exam for any of my subjects.

For anyone reading this, I just wanted to say that you should never feel ashamed for any illness or problem that you are having. It does not make you weak or any less capable than anyone else. Some people that you can turn to when you are finding things difficult may include; a tutor, teacher, counsellor, psychologist, GP, friends, family, a Headspace centre… There are plenty of options.

If anyone wants to chat about anything, I’m always here and I’ll do my best to give advice where I can.

 

Where has the year gone? -things I’ve learnt

It’s an odd feeling, waking up and realising it’s October and that Christmas is just around the corner. I can still remember the nervous excitement I had at the start of the year. A lot has changed since then, and a lot hasn’t changed. I’m still the same person with the same values and the same priorities, I still get incredibly anxious about using public transport and I still spend too much time watching netflix instead of studying. There have been some little changes; my newfound love for veganism and botany, and some things that have been constant; converse I’m looking at you. But what has been great about this year is that I’m enjoying learning, putting myself in new and scary situations and am opening myself up to new opportunities.

It’s okay to not be okay. This is only something that I’m starting to realise now.  I’m also beginning to come to terms with the fact that asking for help is a good thing. I’ve spent many a night wishing that I was ‘normal’ and could manage things on my own but nobody is perfect and asking for help is something we all need to do at times. Whether it be from a friend, family member, stranger, coworker, tutor or doctor.

You can fail your way to success. Each time you fall down, you learn from it and you become a stronger person. I recently received my first truly ‘bad’ mark since starting university and by that I mean throw your laptop across the room and pull out the ice-cream and tissues bad. But it’s okay, I like ice-cream. I didn’t intend to tell you this but hey, I won’t be the first or last to have failed something at uni. I got a mark of 36% on an assignment (worth 5% I don’t even know why I was upset) that I was sure I would get at least a H2A on and it made me doubt whether I deserved to be a student, but I do deserve to be where I am and one bad mark is nothing in the grand scheme of things. I just might have to work a little harder. If Steve Jobs and Bill Gates can drop out and still do amazing things then there is hope for the rest of us.

You are not the person you were yesterday. This year I have kept finding myself stuck in similar situations and it was only once I’d thought about it 2 million times that I realised, that what had changed was my opinion about the whole thing. Sometimes we do stupid things twice but the person we are when we do them isn’t going to be the same and we don’t have to do these things. We can choose not to.

Honestly, 2015 has been a little up and down for me (so far) but I’m proud to say that I’ve come further than where I was a year ago. I’ve changed from the clumsy, naive, western suburbs girl who somehow stumbled into this prestigious uni, to a slightly less naive, clumsy adult who still needs help to make her own medical appointments. One thing at a time (:

I know it’s only October but it’s been a year since I finished high school and it all feels like a dream. I hope you are all well, and feel free to contact me or comment on my posts at any time x 

-S