Booze, pills and mental health

Last year, for the first time, we dedicated an entire month to raising awareness about mental health and wellbeing.

This became known as #mymentalhealthmatters month and fell between the key dates of 10 September (World Suicide Prevention Day) and 10 October (World Mental Health Day).

The purpose was to engage staff and students in conversations about their own and others’ mental health, and this year we are doing the same.

Cara Durnie is the Alcohol and Drug Officer for Ayrshire College, and as mental health issues are something she regularly comes across in this role, she has written the following post for #mymentalhealthmatters month.


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When I support people who have problems with alcohol or drug use, I would say more often than not mental health problems pop up too. Some have conditions diagnosed by their GP such as depression, anxiety or bipolar. But many haven’t. Everyone has mental health, and depending what our personal circumstances are, it can at times suffer as a result. Things like relationship breakdowns, money troubles or dealing with sexuality can trigger low mood and/or anxiety problems.

As I was once a student myself, I know how stressful college life can be never mind everything else. You’re thrown in with lots of new people, there is the pressure of studying and passing your course, and if you’re anything like I was – you’re always skint! Therefore it’s important that we have good coping strategies in place to help deal with any life pressures and keep ourselves mentally well.

For some, it can be tempting to use alcohol or drugs as a quick fix for their mood or to escape reality for a while.  It can be an especially vicious cycle for those with a history of mental health problems as any type of psychoactive substance – basically all illegal drugs and alcohol – will change the balance of your mood. How much you’re affected depends on how much and how often you are using. Drugs often make people feel good when using them, but the after effects can result in low mood and anxiety. And there might be other negative feelings linked with this like paranoia or agitation. These feelings are what we have come to know as ‘come downs’ and even those with ‘good’ mental health will experience them.

Have you ever had ‘the fear’ after a night of heavy drinking? OK, it could be that you’ve done something really embarrassing, but these feelings are probably exacerbated because of how your alcohol use has disturbed the balance of the feel-good chemicals in your brain.

Upper drugs such as cocaine (coke, charlie) and ecstasy/MDMA (eccies, mandy) work by releasing LOADS of these feel-good chemicals (a.k.a. serotonin and dopamine) in your brain while using. They make people happy and give them energy. If you’re using drugs that bring your mood up that much though, it WILL come back down again. You’ve used up days’ worth of your feel-good chemicals and a result, your brain is low on these for a few days making your mood crash.

Cannabis (green, skunk, weed, hash) is probably the most common substance students approach me about in the College. It’s received a lot of positive attention in the media recently since it has found to have useful properties that we can use in medicines. Well heroin is also very useful in medicine. Properties from this drug are used in the most effective painkillers we have. Now I am not comparing cannabis effects with heroin, but it makes a good point that it doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe to use it just because it’s used medicinally.

Cannabis is often not classed as a ‘drug’ and people dismiss it. But I can tell you first hand the impact that it has in some people’s lives. Using every now and then is one thing, but building a tolerance resulting in the use of it daily is quite something else. With such differing types and strains available these days – often much stronger and hallucinogenic – it is feared this is linked to an increase in the number of young people experiencing drug-related mental health problems.

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But there are other ways in which alcohol or drug use affect users’ mental health as commonly reported to me by those I have worked with.  The world of drugs can be one of mistrust. Having to encounter dealers and owing money can be uneasy for some people. There might be paranoia and worry over being caught by the police too, and what if your career depends on a clean criminal record? Often it also affects people’s relationships – people aren’t as reliable as they once were or maybe there are other changes in their personality. Perhaps they are trying to cover up how much and how often they are using alcohol or drugs to those who care about them.

Taking all this into account, you can understand why there is such a strong link between mental health and substance use. Therefore, it’s a good idea that we all have healthy ways to cope with whatever is going on in our lives.

The NHS recommend 5 steps you can take to ensure your mental wellbeing:

  • Connect – connect with the people around you: your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Spend time developing these relationships.
  • Be active – you don’t have to go to the gym. Take a walk, go cycling or play a game of football. Find an activity that you enjoy and make it a part of your life.
  • Keep learning – learning new skills can give you a sense of achievement and a new confidence. So why not sign up for that cooking course, start learning to play a musical instrument, or figure out how to fix your bike?
  • Give to others – even the smallest act can count, whether it’s a smile, a thank you or a kind word. Larger acts, such as volunteering at your local community centre, can improve your mental wellbeing and help you build new social networks.
  • Be mindful – be more aware of the present moment, including your thoughts and feelings, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness “mindfulness”. It can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges.

There are services available to help with substance misuse and/or mental health problems. If you feel you need some extra support you can contact me at student services or by email: Cara.Durnie@ayrshire.ac.uk.

What more could I possibly want?

Last year, for the first time, we dedicated an entire month to raising awareness about mental health and wellbeing.

This became known as #mymentalhealthmatters month and fell between the key dates of 10 September (World Suicide Prevention Day) and 10 October (World Mental Health Day).

The purpose was to engage staff and students in conversations about their own and others’ mental health, and this year we are doing the same.

Olivia Khan, a Business student on our Ayr Campus, tells the story of a children’s panel she attended just a couple of months after going into foster care.

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My mother developed a mental illness and my four siblings and I were taken out of her care for our own safety.

Often, when families experience difficulty and are involved with social work, they have to attend panels to discuss their future.

I looked around the room at all the awkward and nervous faces, unsure where to look. My older sister, my foster dad and three social workers – one I had only met once before for a brief moment; one a stranger to me, albeit a stranger that knew every ugly detail of my family’s life; the third was my social worker, Clare.

I remember when I met her, I thought she was just another social worker trying to split up a family. I hated her and the rest. That was until my first foster parents threw me out, quite literally. I was only given three days’ notice. Dumbfounded is the only word.

Mum had left me, I didn’t know where my brothers or sisters were, and now this. I had no one. That was one of the lowest points of my little life. I felt like that was the first time I really saw Clare. She looked so mad at my carers, she had this concerned look in her eyes that Mum lacked, and most of all she fought for me. She cared and I had her.

I was so grateful for her. She knew more than what was in the files and documents, she knew the family, she went the extra mile, and she was there for us. I’ll never forget the feeling of having someone speak for me when others spoke over me. She was always on my side and had my back when it came to the terminology and jargon. If anyone tried to take advantage of this ‘little girl’ she wouldn’t let it slide.

Anyway, back to the panel, where I was told: “You’ll get contact with your mum three times a week – if she shows up.”

The words echoed through my head as I sat in the undersized, overlit waiting room. Three times a week! That was more than I saw her at home.

My foster Dad sat beside me. He was nervous too, understandably as I was his first foster child and this was his first panel. Poor guy, he wasn’t getting eased in gently that was for sure.

He looked exactly like a dad to me, a big, strong, don’t-mess-with-me sort of guy. The sort of dad that would have come in handy in the past.

I tested him when I first met him. Not a lot of men had positively contributed to my life and my little self wasn’t going to fall for another one. Mum’s boyfriends were the worst, they used to talk to me like I was a child. I despised that. Danny was different and, when I eventually realised that, I had a healthy father-daughter relationship. I guess I have him too.

My big sister squeezed my hand. She looked terrified, I wasn’t sure who was comforting who. I felt like a grown, tired woman trapped in a twelve year old’s body. I always felt like the big sister to her even though she was older by 3 years.

I remember coming home after Primary 5 and seeing her about to retrieve her stuck toast from a toaster with a metal knife. I think I saved her life a few times!

Because she was older she remembered more from the past, I may recall the bright lights of a police car and the nice policewoman taking me to play with the toys while the officer spoke to Mummy, but she remembers it differently. I always felt horrible for that. She’s always there in my memories, distracting my attention, making me laugh, singing really loudly so that I couldn’t hear what was going on around me.

So for that I guess she saved my life a few times too.

My mother’s poor mental health makes me question my own frequently. I worry that when I have children I will not be able to cope and will end up going down a similar, destructive path. I continue to work through these insecurities with the help of my foster and blood-related family.

I knew was going to have to sit in a room with my Mum shortly. I ignored her. I felt a slight pain in my chest after seeing her face again. It made me miss what I had lost. I looked around the room once more. I looked at my strong, protective father figure, my playful, smiling sister and loving Clare. I may have lost a mother but in a way I have gained so much more. What more could I possibly want?

Real men don’t talk, do they?

Last year, for the first time, we dedicated an entire month to raising awareness about mental health and wellbeing.

The month became known as #mymentalhealthmatters month and fell between the key dates of 10 September (World Suicide Prevention Day) and 10 October (World Mental Health Day).

The purpose was to engage staff and students in conversations about their and others’ mental health, and this year we are doing the same.

Steven Fegan, Employability and Engagement Officer at the College, tells his story.

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When I was asked to write a blog for #mymentalhealthmatters month I said “yeah, no problem”.

However, I soon realised that it was much more difficult than I had first anticipated. What did I want to say?

I think it’s important to focus on something that could help people have a better understanding of mental health, and offer a little hope.

First, everyone has a mental health. Like our physical health sometimes we have poor mental health; in fact 1 in 4 people every year will be diagnosed with a mental health condition.

I have been that 1 in 4, and not a million years ago. At one time, I had been an inpatient within the mental health wards of Crosshouse Hospital.

I was admitted there after being treated in the community with the help of a Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN), a GP and medication for about 4 months.

The problem was – the GP and CPN were doing all the work and I was adamant that I could be better than I was, and therefore I didn’t see the point in even speaking to them. I realise now that if I had, well, it might not have got to the point where I was admitted. The benefits of hindsight.

So how did it get to that point? Well apart from the fact I wouldn’t entertain the very people that were trying to help me, it was probably the lack of my general coping strategies.

Lots of things happen in life and have an impact; some have positive impacts but, life being the way it is, throws unexpected things at us like a death of someone close, a fall out with a family member or a period of sustained and high level stress at work.

Well that was what it was for me. With all of this going on, I realised that I had no coping strategies whatsoever. I turned to self-harm to deal with all of this emotional strain I had found myself in.

Self-harm is the umbrella term for a behaviour that intentionally harms yourself as a response to emotional strain and comes in a variety of methods, cutting, burning, and pulling hair out for example. I chose cutting, hitting walls and starving myself.

This made it difficult to keep things secret from my family and obviously caused them to become upset which broke my heart all the more. All I have ever done was try to make people, especially those closest to me, happy, and here I was making them cry. It then became a vicious circle; I felt bad so I would self-harm, I would self-harm and then feel bad.

Things all came to a head when I made an attempt on my life.

Everyone, maybe even myself, realised then that things were very serious. All I did more though was push people away. I wanted to end my life. My second suicide attempt led to me being admitted to hospital for my own safety.

After a while I thought that maybe the treatment plan would be worth a shot. I started to talk to the doctors and nurses then began to accept the treatments being offered. You will never guess what happened next – I started to feel better. Strange that.

I started to take part in the interest groups on the ward one of which was an arts and crafts workshop led by Gary McIntyre. Gary is a Creative Industries lecturer at the College. It was down to his help, support, empathy and understanding, that I made my transition from being in hospital to being a college student.

I now have a sense of belonging, a job I enjoy and a mass of tools in my coping tool box. I know that speaking to those I hold closest about the small niggles stops them from growing to annoyances. I now know being honest about my feelings and taking that ‘real man’ mask off isn’t a sign of weakness but instead a sign of a strength greater than any.

However, I would never have got well if it hadn’t been for the amazing support and love shown to me by my wife, her family, my sister and the excellent staff in the Community Mental Health team and in the hospital. There are also a number of people over and above that help keep me well. They are special people to me and hopefully they know that.

My story is not unique, I realised whilst being in hospital that many people with many stories from across Ayrshire are affected by poor mental health. What I also realised and what I want to emphasis to you, is: RECOVERY CAN AND OFTEN DOES HAPPEN!

What helps is having people around you that are willing to just be with you in the moment, not judge you and not fix you. Knowing that you can talk about it openly is a great anxiety relieved and that is why #mymentalhealthmatters is a great initiative.