Marc Glendinning discusses the struggles of maintaining a healthy diet while struggling with mental health problems
Content warning: this article discusses mental health problems and disordered eating
When I moved to Glasgow for university I thought - finally, independence. More specifically, food independence. Having struggled with weight troubles most of my life, there was something about having the ability to make your own food choices and tailoring that in order to reach your personal goals that helped fuel the motivation I needed, albeit lacked, to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Unfortunately, that was the enthusiastic, optimistic and ultimately naïve version of myself that didn’t realise the “Freshers’ fifteen” was a thing. Rather, by the end of my first year, I was the heaviest I have ever been. In the subsequent years, my weight has yo-yoed drastically. This got me thinking, with almost every student struggling with their weight over the course of their undergraduate degree, what are the added repercussions for students who are mentally ill?
It was about a month into the academic year when I had the first major dip in my mental health. At this point, everything stopped. This included academic work, cleaning, grocery shopping and cooking. Living independently means that if you don’t buy or cook food for yourself, then you either starve (from lack of cooking or even loss of appetite), live off of junk food, or resort to take away.
Days go by that you won’t rise from your depression pit until the late afternoon or even night time. Often by the time you gather the motivation or the compulsion to eat overrides your depression, you can only muster enough energy to order a takeaway. If you barely have the motivation to get out of bed, then the chances of having enough to prepare and cook a meal are slim to none. Feeding yourself, like everything else, becomes a chore. If a common symptom of depression is losing interest in the things we once enjoyed, then how is it possible to muster the motivation to prepare your own meals - something that for many is a chore at the best of times - when you’re at your lowest ebb?
Besides, takeaway becomes both a crutch and a comfort. There’s a fleeting solace in food, that can be a temporary antidote to your emotions and a way to curb that numbing hollowness. Despite the alleviation, it doesn’t last for long. A sort of guilt begins to hang over you (partly due to unnecessarily spending money, partly due to considering how the food might impact your body), especially if you overeat to compensate for not eating for extended periods of time.
This very quickly becomes an internal rhetoric of things such as “I’m a failure” and “this is the reason I’m gaining weight”. Your body enters survival mode because it’s being starved, and clings onto every bit of food you give it once you finally eat. When your weight and self-esteem are factors that potentially worsen your mental health, and your mental health makes you retreat to these “quick fixes”, it becomes a vicious circle of one reinforcing the other. We are always told that a nutritious diet improves our mental wellbeing, but what happens when your mental illness is the reason you’re eating like trash in the first place?
By the time you actually manage to get yourself out of your depression pit in order to cook the healthy food you paid money for, it has gone out of date. Once again, the cycle of self-attributed blame continues with things such as “why do I even bother” and “what’s the point”, which ends up with the “fuck this shit” attitude of ordering, you guessed it, more takeaway.
At this point, I’m sure many well-meaning people are thinking of potential solutions. Meal plans? A foreign concept that implies you have your life together enough to plan what you are going to eat, as well as being mentally well enough to cook that day. Batch cooking? More often than not, most of it will go off because of days where your symptoms haunt you. Not to mention it will usually take weeks, if not months, to undo the damage of a few days (potentially weeks) of mental health hell, and even this assumes a maintained level of good mental health while doing so.
All of this is without even mentioning medication. I came to university a few months after turning eighteen, the age I started taking antidepressants. As anybody who has ever taken antidepressants will know, these drugs take a few months to start working effectively, and they probably kicked in properly around the same time I started university. As it turns out, antidepressants like SSRIs (including Zoloft and Prozac) are notorious for causing weight gain. So, then you have to decide if it is worth taking the medication. Yeah, this is working for me, but at what cost? This drug that is managing my mental health condition is a potential factor either in me gaining weight or simply preventing me from losing weight. This, consequently, presents the question of whether or not to take on the traumatic process of trying to switch medication and the terrifying months of mental and physical instability that comes with it.
All in all, trying to maintain a healthy diet is difficult for anyone at university. The constant stress of assessments and exams is reason enough to drive one to comfort eat. However, speaking from both my own experiences and similar ones I have heard, I haven’t even touched on things such as: not eating due to intense anxiety, the restrictive nature of some eating disorders and the countless ways in which different mental health conditions impact on maintaining a healthy diet. What I will say is that if you are going through mental health hell and you feel that some comfort eating will benefit you, then do it. If it is the only way you’re going to eat that day, then do it. At the end of the day, your body will probably thank you for it.