Student Profile - Sarah
Written by student journalist Larissa Harris from the University of Newcastle. Student's name has been changed to ensure privacy.
Course: Bachelor of Arts
Year: First Year
Disability: Schizo-Affective Disorder
About me, and how I came to be at University:
Studying can be a challenge, especially when you are living with a mental illness; and Sarah*, a 19-year old university student, knows this all too well.
Sarah is undertaking a full-time Bachelor of Arts degree, in addition to having to deal with the hardships that her condition - schizo-affective disorder - may bring. "Sometimes I think, 'God, I've just had it, you know, I don't want to do it anymore,'" she admits. However, about four years ago, Sarah promised herself that she would complete her education, and her determination to fulfil this promise, despite her illness, is nothing short of inspirational.
When speaking about her experience of living with schizo-affective disorder, Sarah's eyes well up with tears. People living with the disorder display a combination of the symptoms of schizophrenia and depression: "Hallucinations appear and they startle you. By the time you realise, 'Oh, it's just another hallucination, don't freak about it,' they're gone."
"I see visual hallucinations rather than have auditory ones, which are the voices," she explains. "But I joke about it sometimes, because I say, 'People spend lots of money on illicit drugs just to get the kind of hallucinations I get for free.' Other times objects turn into things. Like just before, the post at the bottom of the staircase turned into a person, and it makes you look twice."
"People just can't believe that the type of stuff they have on the movies actually happens to people. I never used to believe it."
"Sometimes when I have an actual episode, it's like I become someone else, and I've got no idea its happened. So it's like I become someone else and the person I become is kind of like my evil twin sister. She sort of says things to people, says really hurtful things, and does things. When the episode's finished, and I snap out of it and I come back to normal, I'm left to clean up all the damage that this other person's done…That's really weird, too."
Although living with the disorder is tough, Sarah is even tougher. She is determined to finish her education, a vow she made when she first learned of her disorder.
She knew something was wrong in 1997 when she was in Year 9. "I missed about half of Year 9 just being away at the hospital." In about September of that year Sarah consulted her first psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with depression. In December, another psychiatrist diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, and then yet another psychiatrist diagnosed her with major depression with psychotic symptoms. It was not until the middle of 1999 that she was correctly diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder.
While being driven from one psychiatrist to the next, Sarah's feeling of self-worth took a beating. "When I was in hospital and I realised that I just couldn't go to school anymore, I thought, that's it, I'm going to be one of these people who drop out before Year 10, and I'm never going to have any sort of education in that way," she recalls. It was at this point that Sarah's mother encouraged her to take correspondence courses, and Sarah, deeply in need of self-validation, agreed.
"I did Year 10 by correspondence, and then I did a university enabling course as an HSC equivalent, and now I'm doing [university], and I never even thought that I'd get a Year 12 certificate." Taking control of her own education is something that Sarah wanted to do for her own sake. "I thought I would be worth more if I stuck with my education." Sarah believes that, by continuing with her education, she is on her way to achieving personal fulfilment.
Is it working? Sarah certainly seems happy enough. She is currently in her first year of a Bachelor of Arts degree, which she is enjoying, but hopes to transfer to a Bachelor of Arts (Communications) next year. This would be a useful stepping-stone on the way to achieving her career aspirations. "I really, really, love writing," she reveals. "I've always been writing ever since I was little, so I hope to become an author or a novelist, something like that. Maybe if I do this Communications degree… then I would hope to go into screenwriting, or maybe newspaper-journalism."
Besides working towards her degree, Sarah also tutors speech and drama students, a subject that she has been studying privately for a few years.
With all this on her plate, there have been moments when Sarah has felt like giving up. "When you get assignments that just pile up, it can be overwhelming. Even just sometimes I can feel sick, my type of sick, for so many days on end. Or, I can be ok, but the symptoms will still be in the background for weeks and weeks on end fairly intensely and I just feel like quitting…" However, she has persevered, and knows that in the long term she will be glad she did.
Sarah is determined to show herself that, despite her illness, she can achieve the education and career of which she always dreamed. Whenever she feels like leaving university, she just reminds herself, "There are not many people with a severe mental illness that actually achieve a university degree. I tell myself that I want to be someone who does, to prove to myself that I can do that sort of thing."
Sarah is lucky to have the support of her boyfriend, whom she met at the university. "I actually called my boyfriend last night while he was still at work, and I said, 'Just so you know, if I'm going to be at uni for the next few years, I'm probably going to threaten to quit a couple of times a day, so are you going to be able to put up with that?' And he said 'Yes, yes, I expect it. I'll help you along.'"
Services accessed at university ……..
Sarah also receives a great deal of support and provisions from the university. When she first started studying, she found she was having trouble coping. Then a friend referred her to the Disability Liaison Officer who has since organised assistance whenever she needs it. Sarah takes her exams in a separate room, with extra time allocated, and tea and coffee provided. As she says, "it's much, much more relax[ing], it makes it easier" than being squashed into a "humungous room with 300 people." She also receives lecture notes when needed, and when she misses a class or needs an extension on an assignment the lecturers are very understanding. "Because I'm always phoning and dropping in with medical certificates and stuff, [the lecturers] all get to know me. They're all really nice, so that's really encouraging, too."
My advice ……..
"I can't speak for any [other campus], but this university makes it as easy as possible to study here," she says, endeavouring to create a piece of wisdom with which to leave me. "So, to all you young people out there, if you want to study but your only fear is that you won't be able to because of your disability - think again. There's so many services that the uni offer for this sort of thing. Give it a shot; give it a go, because you never know just how capable you can be with a little bit of help." Sarah pauses, then ventures; "Does that sound wise?"
as told to Larissa Harris