I was late for a meeting. I'd forgotten my pass. Someone at the door was trying to speak to me. My phone was vibrating from a call I couldn't take and besides, my hands were full of all the things I had to bring with me that day.
The stress was mounting. My legs were shaking. My stomach was tight like I was about to be sick. Smile. Don't let them see you panic. Run to the toilet, lock the door and slide to the floor.
Suddenly I burst into tears and was struggling to breathe.
That was the first time I had a panic attack.
I figured I probably needed more sleep or was just 'letting things get to me'. After all, the triggers were trivial. And when I kept experiencing it, I became increasingly frustrated with myself for my lack of focus and ability to get on with my job. I also became an expert at returning from the toilet looking perfectly calm, collected and ready to address the next meeting. Most people who know me had, and still have, very little idea of what was going on.
A sleep disorder, a stone in weight and countless panic attacks later: I am writing this blog. It hasn't been straightforward, and even though I know how important it is to talk about mental health, it isn't always as easy to practise what we preach.
Today is Time to Talk Day, run by Time to Change to get the nation talking about mental health and ending the misconceptions around it. Being an elected officer has accentuated my mental ill health, but it has also given me the confidence to speak about and deal with it, and to notice when others need support. I know this is an issue experienced by so many student officers, activists and others in positions where the distinction between work and life can be far from clear. Stories about mental health often go unheard, and it is time we spoke honestly and openly about it.
It is time we spoke about the times when you feel like if you spent every waking hour working it would still not be enough. When you feel like what is going on inside your own head is unworthy compared to the big issues affecting students and society you trying to tackle. When you feel like making time for yourself ahead of 'the cause' would be selfish and neglectful, even a 'bourgeois distraction'. When you feel like the pressure is so great and it is impossible to cope with the requests coming in from all angles. Or that the only way to cope is to overwork, be ultra-productive and ignore everything else.
I still feel like that almost every day.
I wanted to share my experience so that others know it is not unusual, nor untreatable. You are not a weak officer or activist for feeling the way you do. And I wanted to share some of my coping mechanisms I have acquired over these last few years:
Talk to someone
If you can, speak to a professional. Your students' union will likely have access to counselling services either through staff support budgets or your institution. You probably think your problems are not worth listening to and certainly aren't worth paying for - forget it. They are. If it's not available, book an appointment with your GP and get a referral. Speaking to a colleague, friend or family member can also really help. If people around you know what is going on, it makes it much easier for them to accommodate your needs.
Try it out
The best way to manage your mental health is different for different people. There are all sorts of tips and tricks out there to manage stress, from counselling and creative therapy to mindfulness and music. There are apps that help you measure your sleep patterns and group exercise classes designed to overcome low moods.
Rather than dismissing the issue, we must consider making mental health a focus of our activism. As services remain woefully under-funded and contribute towards the growing issue of access to education, we can combine both our experiences of mental ill health as well as our competency as campaigners to tackle the issue at its core. In Brighton students have used creative therapy methods to draw attention to the impact of austerity on mental health. At Goldsmiths, students occupied their college to demand (and win!) investment in counselling services, and in Cambridge campaigners refused to hand in work to raise awareness of mid-term stress levels.
We are tasked with fighting with and on behalf of others. The number of students seeking mental health support services is up by 132 per cent - services that are in many places undergoing cuts. Dismantling the grip of marketisation on education and its impact on our services and ourselves is necessary, but we cannot fulfil our aims if we continue to deny the very real effect it has on us, too.
Ultimately, if we cannot look after ourselves, we are unable to look after others. This is not me saying 'don't be an officer' or 'give me a break'. It is an appeal to everyone to take up the issue of mental health as a political priority. To talk, as well as act. The student movement will be stronger if we all put our minds to it.