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What's Rowing on in Your Head? - Ellie Leeder

My Journey With Mental Health at Uni

Hello everyone! My name is Ellie and I am the current Secretary for Dundee University’s Boat Club (DUBC). I am a third year Biochemistry student; this is my second year at Dundee and in the club. Rowing helped me in ways I cannot describe through some of the hardest times I have experienced. I started rowing at university when a flatmate encouraged me to come along to a “give it a go” session during fresher’s week. Little did I know then how much this sport and environment would help me.

The summer before I started university my Grandfather was hospitalised rather seriously after a triple spinal fracture. Not long after being released he had another fall and broke his hip leading to an operation and more hospital time. While my Grandfather was recovering for the first time, my Grandmother, his wife, had a brain aneurysm. It was pure luck that my Auntie happened to find her passed out. This happened the Saturday before my A level exams began. She was rushed to the local hospital who then decided to move her, before operating, to a more specialist hospital. At this point it was overnight and we didn’t have an update on her condition for quite a while. I found this very stressful and with my A level exams beginning in under 48hrs I found this very unsettling.

Myself with other members of the ladies squad at the fundraising celidh

It was then that I found that I had the most amazing friends to reach out to. I didn’t feel like I could talk to my parents too much about this as I didn’t want to add to their own stress and workload at the time. They had plenty of other things to focus on. My friend in this moment was the best thing for me. She dropped what she was doing for me and took me out of the house on a walk. I cried with her more than I thought that I ever could. But despite that it felt so good to let it out and talk to someone. She had her own exams at the time and has her own life and stress but that afternoon she was there for me. I don’t know what I could have done that day without her.

I am very lucky that both my Grandparents are now recovered and are back home safe and well. However, little did I know that my mental health was only going to be stretched further that year when I started university.

I come from a busy family which is to be expected with three younger brothers. I was really looking forward to beginning university and moving away from home for the first time, to be independent and study something I am really interested in. After the first couple of weeks I began to feel more and more homesick and low in my mental health. I was becoming more stressed and anxious as university assignments started rolling in and the 500+ miles between me and my family really started to sink in. I was still able to put on a brave face and attend all my lectures, however the thing getting me out of bed in the morning was rowing training.

My first rowing session

Most mornings I would wake up to get ready for the day and I would be sick. I wasn’t trying to make myself sick, but I couldn’t help it. It was only ever water and phlegm that would come up, but it meant that I didn’t want to eat a lot of the time, and it made me even more anxious and stressed. Sometimes I wouldn’t even be sick right away and I would be walking to university early in the morning for training, when I felt the overwhelming urge to be sick and I was sick in a hedge.

After this happened a couple of times I chose to tell my parents. The longer this went on the more homesick I felt. When I realised that this wasn’t going away I talked to a friend at university who I met through DUBC and my parents about it more who urged me to make a doctors appointment and see what help I could find at the university. It turned out that I was being sick because of excess stomach acid due to stress and anxiety. This was in part caused by my homesickness. I reached out to the university counselling department who were able to get me an assessment appointment the next week. Unfortunately, I did have to wait a few weeks before I could have regular meetings however in the meantime they were able to point me in the direction of the peer support system. I was paired with a student on a similar course in the year above and we would get coffee once a week together. I had plenty of other friends, even some who knew what I was going through but this scheme was really nice as I was able to talk guilt free, in a relaxed environment about what I was missing from home, why I loved being at university and yet at the same time how it made me so stressed and depressed.

Myself with some of the other fresher girls

Every aspect of rowing helped me get through and move on from all of this. I feel so much better than I did but that experience will always stay with me. I’m not fixed or cured, and I still get overly stressed and anxious sometimes but I know myself better because of this experience including how to cope with the low days and to enjoy the better days even more. For me exercise helps, gives me something to do but also I have found that reaching out to people and even just having a coffee or messaging someone ‘hi’ can help and before you know it the low days are less and the high days are more and more frequent.

The main reason I was getting out of bed and continuing with my day was because of the people at DUBC and the encouragement and support I had to train, even on my hardest days. DUBC kept me busy. I signed up for every training session that I could and throw myself into the training plan as it took up my time. The time that I spent being surrounded by people and being in the fresh air or sweating on an erg made me feel so much better and took my mind off of the things that were making me feel stressed and anxious.


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