Marina’s Story: Making Mental Health Matter

A few weeks ago, we chatted to Marina, a health and social care university student, Mental Health Ambassador, and strong advocate for Ulster University’s Mind Your Mood campaign which aims to raise more awareness around mental health. Marina is also the founder of the Mindfulness Society at Ulster University in which she supports other students experiencing mental health issues. 

Hi Marina, tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do? 

My name is Marina Clarke and I’m a mature student from Newtownabbey studying Health and Social Care Policy part-time at Ulster University. I’m also a Mental Health Ambassador for Ulster University. I’m involved in supporting their ‘Mind Your Mood’ campaign to raise awareness on mental health and I have also launched my Mindfulness Society which supports, provides resources, and organises events for students struggling with their mental health. I decided to switch to my current degree from Law as it has relieved some stress caused by deadlines. My two dogs Elsa and Ruby keep me company when I’m struggling with my own mental health.

How did you find out about GLOW? 

I found out about GLOW NI through Lee (@mentalhealthbylee) who is another student studying at Ulster University. We are both part of the Mental Health Ambassadors programme and both on the same mission, trying to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health. Lee had suggested I contact GLOW NI as they are a good representative to raise awareness for females struggling with their mental health and thought the work that they do is incredible. I wanted to share my personal experience to help others struggling with similar issues to myself. I hope that through my continued involvement in raising awareness surrounding mental health, I’ll help at least one person who is struggling to get the help and support they need. 

What made you want to raise awareness about mental health, in particular ill mental health?

I’ve suffered with my own mental health issues since 2010. People assume it’s an easy road to go down to get help, but it took me 16 years with various doctors to get the right support for me in trying both medication and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). I found that the mental health issue is not the only problem, it’s the stigma that is attached to mental health that is difficult to overcome. Running a Mindfulness Society is where I get my insight from and I have found that lots of students suffer from mental health problems but due to the stigma, they are afraid to disclose information or seek help as others will label them as ‘crazy’. 

To take a more active approach, I discussed this issue with Student Wellbeing at the university as I want to tackle it head-on. People shouldn’t be embarrassed if they have a mental health problem and should not be embarrassed to get help from their GP. If I can help break that barrier down in any way, then I’m willing to do whatever it takes – just because you’ve got a mental health problem doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It could be short-term or long-term and you shouldn’t be afraid to tell your family, friends or discuss it at university or schools as they can offer you resources that are very helpful in supporting you through your mental health journey.  

Regarding your own mental health, how did you reach out for help?

Setting up the Mindfulness Society, I found different coping strategies such as making mood boards helps. Since starting the society, other students started messaging me to let me know that they are suffering with their mental health. One student, I was able to get involved with and help her see the light at the end of the tunnel. The friends that she had made in her first year started to label her as ‘mental’. I referred her to Student Wellbeing to help her deal with her mental health and supported her by informing her of resources for students such as extensions on assignments. Soon after, she thanked me and had gained so much confidence. She is doing very well at university. As a mental health advocate, it was reassuring for me to receive praise for helping someone along their mental health journey.  Since November 2020, I have helped lots of other students in dealing with mental health difficulties, showing them they are not alone. 

How has Covid-19 and lockdown impacted your student life?

Since last September, all my university classes are online, and having to learn a new way of engaging with lectures has been difficult to adjust to. Some classes are pre-recorded so I couldn’t ask my lecturer questions and as a result, I became frustrated alongside other students. I decided to re-evaluate my options because of the stress of the course in Law. I thought there was no point getting ill so I started looking for a new course. As I was already so actively involved in mental health and had so many ideas to change perspectives, I decided to switch to studying Health and Social Care Policy. I’d love to get into Stormont to make the positive changes that I want to on mental health. Group assignments were challenging during my studies as it was difficult to engage with new classmates virtually. In my role on the Student Council and as a Student Rep, the feedback I received from other students has made this year particularly hard as we are not going to university and seeing our friends face-to-face. I had already implemented a change in policy at Ulster University on classes, stating that all schools in the university must do a live lecture at least once a month to give students the opportunity to engage with their lecturer and ask questions.

How has Covid-19 and lockdown impacted your family life? 

I found lockdown difficult because I had to shield which had a massive impact on my family life. After having Covid-19, being admitted twice to hospital, and losing my nanny in a short period of time, I feel angry as it impacted my mental health to the point where I was too scared to go out. At the same time, you feel as if you’re going mad because you are stuck inside. There was a significant decline in my mental health; I was constantly down and couldn’t concentrate on my university work. 

I started to feel ill at the beginning of January and had symptoms of Covid-19. After being admitted to the hospital, I was told that if I didn’t do anything sooner, I could have died within the following 24 hours. I also didn’t know at the time, that my nanny was admitted to the hospital a few hours before me because she couldn’t breathe either. Unfortunately, when I was A&E at 2am I got a phone call telling me that my nanny’s condition worsened and was told she wasn’t going to make it through the night. My nanny was 90 years old and it broke my heart having to say goodbye to her. 

I also had to deal with my mental health and felt I was not being taken seriously. I was then admitted at the end of January a second time and worried I would get treated poorly again. I was very weak, could not breathe properly, and struggled to do an everyday task such as feed my dogs. 

Although lockdown has had a massive impact on my mental health, I made many positive changes to overcome my struggles. Everyone knows a friend or family member that has been affected by Covid-19 and I am continuing to campaign for policy change by giving feedback regarding the Track and Trace app. Other positive changes that have helped me are coping strategies such as colouring in, cross-stitching, journaling, and reading. My Mindfulness Society also helps me stay mentally well, meeting every Monday for 2 hours for time outside of exams and assignments. Just to chat and make friendships with other students from other areas of the university. We planned a day trip to Portrush with each other face-to-face during the Summer, so we all have something to look forward to!

What are you hopeful for in 2021 post-pandemic? 

Academically, I’m hopeful that I will get a 2:1 or a 1st in most of my university modules. I still must deal with losing my granny, see more of my family, get over the physical impact of Covid-19, and most importantly get help with my mental health team to try and help me get back to being in the community again. I would like to get back to what I was like before lockdown so that I’m not scared to leave the house. I know that if you’re willing to put the work in, most mental health service teams will be willing to help you to get where you want to be. There’s a lot that I’m looking forward to post-pandemic such as my society as I hope all of us catch up on a day trip to the North Coast soon!

Why is it important to raise awareness about mental health issues and do you have any advice for others thinking about seeking help?

For anybody that is struggling with their mental health, don’t be scared to ask for help. Glow NI is a great example. Go online, do your research, and find out what services are local to you. Use confidential mental health resources such as Lifeline and Samaritans which operate 24/7. There is always somebody out there to listen – if I could give out my phone number I would! It takes a stronger person to admit they have a mental health problem than somebody hiding behind the issue. Therefore, ask for help from others; I think that if you ask for help with your mental health it is the start of a long journey, and would applaud anyone who takes that initial step forward.