I openly discuss my bipolar disorder so it sometimes comes up in tutorials when we are discussing health theory or disability. Recently I was discussing the concept of 'curing' in a K219 tutorial and one of the examples being discussed was mental health so I gave my personal opinion. I enjoy the positive reactions I get from students when I discuss my mental health, students are very encouraging on the need to reduce stigma and often come out with their own experiences. Someone mentioned how mental illness can creep up on you and I acknowledged this, pointing out I often don't realise I'm manic until well into an episode, partly because it is enjoyable, and the need to have a confidant who is able to recognise and discuss it with you. A student then said 'What about the lows?' and I realised that I very seldom discuss the lows.
I don't have lows very often, my bipolar mainly features hypomania and I seldom have deep lows since the first ones I experienced when I was first diagnosed 20 years ago. Manic depressives are often diagnosed during a depressive episode, mania can be enjoyable but depression isn't. McKeon (1995) suggests that the first depressive episode is often triggered by emotional stress switching on a genetic mechanism. Mine was triggered by my father becoming seriously ill and almost dying.
I discussed my mental illness at a church meeting this week and my husband said that he could detect my mood swings and we then worked together on strategies to manage them. Later I challenged him on this; he actually identifies my manic periods but not my depressive ones. Mania is a very public thing, it is outward in its appearance, but depression is quite private and inward. I can't always tell I'm depressed myself until well into a period, it creeps up on you as noted earlier but it is also difficult to tell what normal is if your moods are usually abnormal.
I've had marking over the last few weeks and I've been prevaricating over it. Now, finding displacement activities to avoid marking is quite normal, I'm sure, for most ALs. But it was when I was crying at the thought of it that I realised that I was depressed not just avoiding work. Recognising it meant I could develop strategies to manage it. Firstly, giving myself very small goals, perhaps 2 papers to do, to make it manageable. I often find if I set myself to mark 2 papers I actually mark 4 as starting is often the hardest thing and once I'm into an activity it provides a welcome distraction from my emotions. I also prepare myself mentally, physically and spiritually. I make sure I go for two walks a day and get some fresh air and exercise. I eat healthily and take vitamins. I meditate and say a prayer before working (non-religious people might consider an activity such as writing down some positive things to be thankful for and some short term, achievable goals). I take regular breaks and have a cup of tea.
So, why I am I writing this? Well, in my experience, students with mental health challenges often face similar struggles when writing an assignment; it becomes a big wall that seems impossible to get over. As ALs we need to recognise these hurdles are real issues and work with our students to overcome them. Acknowledgement and empathy is the first priority alongside open channels of communication so that students can voice their fears and anxieties; this does much to reduce the burden. Work with students to come up with achievable goals over a period of time, perhaps just listing key points at first, then developing a plan for an essay, then tackling a paragraph a day so it does not become overwhelming. Plan ahead to the next assignment so that they are prepared in advance. Encourage them to look after their physical health too, to take regular breaks and get some rest. Most of all, let them know that you value them and you are on their side, even if their decision is to take a break from their studies.
Most importantly, listen to their voice so you can empower and support them to achieve their potential in whatever way they can.