From education to employment

How joining the gym gave me hope for the future

Charlotte experienced mental health difficulties after a series of personal issues combined with the pressure of her final year at the University of Bristol, where she was studying Neuroscience.

The 23-year-old is sharing her story on World Mental Health Day [10 October] to give hope to others who are going through a tough period.

Charlotte, who now works at the University as a Teaching Technician, had experienced low-level mental ill health before coming to university in 2014 but was coping well until her final year when her brother fell ill, a family member passed away and her relationship broke down.

These life events coincided with her dissertation project and the looming prospect of her final exams. The cruel irony of learning how the brain works in situations of stress and overwhelm, and living the experience first-hand, was not lost on her.

Charlotte said: “Everything got on top of me. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and was prescribed medication aimed at helping this about eight weeks into my final year. I was feeling really overwhelmed and behind.

“I ended up writing my dissertation in four days and then realised I had no time left to revise for my final year exams. By March, I decided to defer my finals so that I could have longer to focus on them.”

Although she had a whole year to focus on her exams, Charlotte knew she needed to get better first and reached out to the University’s Counselling Service.

It was at one of the appointments that she spotted a leaflet for Healthy Minds – a programme run by the University’s Sport Exercise and Health Department (SEH) that provides mentored physical activity opportunities to improve student mental health including use of; the gym, the pool, social sport and class-based activity.

Key components of the scheme include a professional fitness mentorto help and support participants to be active in a way that feels right for them; free access to facilities during their engagement in the initiative; a bespoke user-led plan that aims to foster new skills and interests, to promote recovery, and better enable people to stay well in the future.

Despite never having set foot in a gym before, Charlotte enrolled in the summer of 2017 and has never looked back.

She said: “I really didn’t think I would get along with it. I have asthma and had never been sporty in my life, let alone entered a gym. I had to be shown how to use all the equipment.

“Despite my reservations, I soon came to love it and it gave me something to focus on. I literally went from zero to 100 in terms of loving exercise.

“Having regular catch-ups alongside the physical goals was invaluable. I started coming off my medication eight weeks into the programme. I cannot imagine not going to the gym now and feel much more positive about the future.”

Charlotte completed the 12-week programme and saw significant improvements in her mental health.

Having ignited a passion for this kind of work, she applied for and was successfully accepted into a paid role with SEH a Student Sport Development Coordinator with a specific remit for developing Healthy Minds.

She was also able to pass her exams confidently and graduated in July 2018 with a high 2.1.

Charlotte’s advice for students in a similar situation:

  • As everyone says, do not be afraid to seek support and try new things if one thing isn’t helping. For example, medication can help many people but wasn’t the solution for me.
  • Try and get into a routine. I found the lack of routine associated with university in general to catalyse my depression, and only set on the road to recovery when the gym helped establish a regular routine. Try and spend nine to five in University, even if it’s just the library – sometimes it’s better to treat it as a full-time job.
  • Be honest with your doctors and counsellors and the University so they can accommodate you with things like extenuating circumstances to give you extensions etc.
  • Be careful with alcohol and caffeine consumption.
  • Always, always talk to someone – whether it’s your department, counsellor, a family member or housemate.

About Healthy Minds

The Healthy Minds programme was introduced by the University of Bristol in 2016 and has seen increased funding and support, now having helped over 400 students.

Participants report that their wellbeing improves by an average of around 30 per cent over the 12-week programme, and this is measured using same criteria the NHS employ to measure effectiveness of mental health treatments.

Peter Burrows, Physical Activity and Health Development Officer, leads the programme in the Centre for Sport, Exercise and Health.

He said: “We’re really proud of what students are able to achieve working with us on Healthy Minds. Physical activity is a powerful tool to improve mental health outcomes and one that has whole host of associated benefits when compared to existing treatment options.

“We’ve created and environment that reduces the barriers that mental ill health creates in the context of activity and sport, enabling students with these concerns to reap the benefits and go on to thrive in other areas of their lives.

“The best thing for me about the scheme is seeing amazingly talented young people who, given a small amount of guidance and support, are able to take charge of their own recovery in a self-directed sustainable way.

“Charlotte is a standout example of everything that is good about the scheme. I feel really privileged to be a small part of her journey and would assert that all her successes have come directly from her own hard work, bravery and commitment and that for me is what’s really powerful about Healthy Minds.”

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