Lockdown and a chronic illness: Looking after your mental health as a chronically ill student during a pandemic

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After some bumpy teenage years including an ongoing anxiety battle, starting university in 2016 was the chance for a fresh start. Indeed, my first and second year were incredibly enjoyable. Learning new things, discovering new places, meeting new people. The next chapter of life felt like it was getting started. Career dreams were beginning to form, and I would think about where I’d want to live and work in the upcoming years. Even when I decided to take a gap year in 2018 as result of switching from joint honours French and Linguistics to single honours Linguistics before starting final year in 2019 – a third year abroad in France being a step too far with my anxiety – I still felt positive.

Then spring 2019 arrived and after suddenly falling ill, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an autoimmune chronic condition causing inflammation in the gut.

Despite a couple of flare ups and hospital stays, I remained relatively well, which enabled me to return to university in September 2019 for my final year. For the first semester, I was able to attend most classes as normal and enjoy my time thanks to great support from my university and family, which allowed me to make any necessary adjustments with my condition.

Come December 2019 and it was a different story. I experienced a bowel obstruction, was admitted to hospital at home and I was really ill.

Up until this point, my mental health was surprisingly good. I had been on my gap year at home, so even if my Crohn’s did cause a problem, it wasn’t as stressful because I didn’t have uni work or deadlines.

After December though, the reality of my condition hit me, and my anxiety levels heightened. I couldn’t go back up to uni and was granted permission to continue my final year from home in January. Then, just as I was feeling more confident about being more independent and my condition was more stables thanks to medication, Covid-19 decided to join us and the option of returning to university for the last few months of my degree was out the window.

Going into lockdown and suddenly adapting to studying from home and the isolation involved is enough to take a toll on anyone’s mental health.

Living with a chronic health condition or disability, being high risk, and shielding, while trying to do a degree and take care of your mental health is a whole other ball game. Chronic illnesses can impact your ability to study and socialise, pandemic or not, and for chronic illness sufferers, life in lockdown was something experienced even before corona hit.

Nowadays, the number of disabled students and students with a chronic illness attending university is increasing, an incredibly thing to witness. Yet, despite the academic support options there such as the DSA, university disability services, and faculty tutor support, the mental health support is trailing behind. University counselling services are fully booked, and there is even less mental health help available specifically tailored to students with long term health issues.

Knowing that juggling my condition, writing my dissertation, and being in lockdown were all scenarios I found anxiety-inducing I decided to take things into my own hands and take steps that I could from home to improve my mental wellbeing. These are some techniques I took up during lockdown which I benefitted from, and could be techniques that other students out there with chronic health issues can take up and adapt accordingly:

Yoga – YouTube tutorials by the likes of Yoga with Adriene help both physically and mentally. There are so many free tutorials online to suit all levels and abilities.

Journaling – Journaling is a powerful mental health tool because of its versatility. If you want to use a journal to plan out your day because that makes your feel calmer, you can. If you want to have a brain dump, and scribble out anything on your mind, you can. If you want to have an art journal for some creative art therapy, you can. Journaling is something you can adapt to suit your personality.

Fresh Air – During lockdown, my daily walk was something I cherished, and it is something I do when I can. It is amazing how much some fresh air can clear your head.

Mindfulness – Being mindful and staying in the present has benefitted me. I used to be someone who plans things out far into the future, but I now live day by day as we have no way of telling what will happen with the pandemic and indeed, our chronic illnesses. Meditation is a great way to improve mindfulness.

Video calls with family and friends – Technology in many ways has been a blessing during the pandemic. It helps you to maintain that social contact with the outside world. Try organising your own virtual games or quiz night as a fun social activity with friends.

Charity support lines for your health condition – It’s worth researching if there is a dedicated charity for your health condition, as they may have a support number you could ring or advice for students on their website. Crohn’s and Colitis UK is an amazing charity for those dealing with IBD.

The trick with any of these techniques is to sustain them. One session may not have a significant impact but incorporating them into daily or weekly routines can have a hugely positive effect.

I graduated in the summer, despite Crohn’s Disease and the pandemic. While there are amazing things you can do for your mental health from home with a chronic illness, the support from universities still needs improvement. As the current situation continues, there will be many students across the UK, and the world, dealing not only with pandemic life, but long term health conditions. Let’s hope that it won’t always be a case of having to take things into your own hands, but that universities provide the mental health – and not just the academic – support tailored to student life with chronic illness.

Megan Harrison
Author: Megan Harrison

Hi, I’m Megan, a recent Linguistics graduate from the University of Leeds. I’m passionate about all things wellbeing and sustainability, and can often be found creating content on my blog or as a freelance copywriter.

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