Returning to Study: On time out, mental health and support systems

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source: pixabay

Goodness, long time no type. In typical overloaded-student style, existing and new health problems overtook me during the summer of 2015, and ultimately I ended up interrupting my programme for an academic year.

While I’ve been out of the loop for rather a while, I suppose I’m in a good position to talk about the great support I’ve received from University of Exeter, both from the academic programme team, and from the central support services. 

I studied my undergraduate degree at the University of Manchester between 2004 and 2007. When I look back now, I’m astounded that I studied full time, worked part time, and met every single deadline. I graduated with a 2:1 in the summer of 2007 at 26, and I was exceptionally proud of myself. I think the reason for my (perhaps disproportionate) pride was my own knowledge of the mental health problems I’d struggled with since I was around 14 years old. I was lucky during that time; my mental health was pretty stable and I didn’t have to make use of any of the University’s support systems.

When I applied for the MA Anthrozoology programme with Exeter back in 2013, I intended on a September 2013 start, and I felt confident and excited about beginning the course. Unfortunately, in the summer of 2013 my 5-year long relationship broke down suddenly and unexpectedly and after months of logistical and emotional upheaval, I postponed my entry to September 2014. At that time I was settled in my new home and working steadily, so I began the course with much enthusiasm.

I suppose what I wasn’t expecting was to become so unwell during the summer of 2015 that I would need to take a year out from study. I suffered from a host of physical symptoms from July 2015 onwards, and then months of delightful tests and probings began (blood tests, wee tests, sigmoidoscopy, all good fun). Eventually I was diagnosed with a serious B12 deficiency and a course of monthly injections started. My mental health declined during that time and became linked with the tremendous fatigue and ‘brain fog’ I was experiencing when my B12 deficiency was at its worst; it’s hard to untangle these symptoms when you don’t know what their cause is or might be. I improved slowly but steadily as my treatment progressed, but even when it finished, I was stuck with an amount of tiredness I’d never experienced before, even at my lowest points. A two month bout of tonsillitis early this year didn’t help much, and although I’m doing a lot better than I was a year ago, I’m still under the care of my GP for some shaky mental health symptoms and ongoing super-fatigue.

Nevertheless, I was determined to jump back into my studies this year. I knew I’d have to plan carefully to avoid full on burn-out, so that’s been playing a big part for me so far. I’ve also had a couple of really great conversations with the University’s wellbeing team, who’ve been super supportive and helpful. It’s easy to feel far removed from the cohort when distance learning, and even more so after a year out, when your original ‘classmates’ have all moved on to the next stage.

This term I’m studying the Applied Anthrozoology module and I’m going to base my research on some of the innovative practices at the doggy daycare my own dog, Vulpe, attends. Part of the assessment is to maintain a reflective journal or blog about our progress, so I’ll be double posting that both here and over on the formal blog space for the programme.

I’m glad that my years of working in higher education gave me the confidence and the incentive to seek help with my studies; I’ve worked in student support in the past and I know that some students are (rightly) entitled to support with their studies in order to give them the same opportunity as others who may not suffer physical or mental health problems. I’d strongly recommend doing the same at even the slightest hint of any short or long term situation that might affect your studies. If there’s one thing I know from my own professional experience, it’s that there are MANY more support options open to you the earlier you share any problems.

So, I’m still finding studying a tricky balancing act at the moment, but I’m confident I can keep on the straight and narrow and succeed this year (though am still crossing my fingers pretty hard).

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