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Student in recovery from eating disorders celebrates graduation

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A woman who has struggled with poor mental health and an eating disorder, is today celebrating as she graduates from Swansea University with an undergraduate degree in Sport and Exercise Science.

Francesca Murphy, 25, from Pembrokeshire, developed mental health problems in her late teens following a sailing accident. Throughout this time Francesca did her best to carry on and continued to work at Fishguard Leisure Centre and credits her co-workers as giving her a strong support network which helped her recovery. As her recovery progressed, she also began work at a primary school .

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She said: “I loved my time at the primary school and also working at the leisure centre, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do long term – I wanted to go to university. After everything I’d been through, I knew it would be hard but thought, ‘I’m going to try.’

“Swansea wasn’t originally a place I’d given much thought to, but I came to an open day with my mum and we both loved it. I still remember the day so vividly. Something clicked when I was on campus, and I knew it was where I was meant to be.”

Before enrolling in 2018, Francesca had been doing well for quite some time.

“I was in a good place when I first had contact with the University’s Wellbeing Service. I would check in with the team, which was all I needed at the time – they were amazing.”

It wasn’t until just before the pandemic that Francesca realised things had started to go downhill. In February 2020, she received some sad news and then, once lockdowns were introduced across the UK, “everything spiralled.”

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On this time, Francesca said: “When the pandemic hit halfway through my second year, I started feeling unwell quite quickly. Soon, I found myself finishing the end of the academic year in and out of hospitals.

“My third year was very much the same; in the last few months of my degree, I ended up submitting my dissertation and completing my degree whilst in Cotswold House, an eating disorder unit in England. The unit was quite some distance away and due to the pandemic, I felt very isolated from my family, friends and university, which was very difficult.”

Although she faced many challenges, Francesca did not take an official period of leave from her studies. She was determined to finish what she had started and thanks her lecturers and support staff at Swansea for helping her.

“I’m not sure whether I would have just dropped out or deferred, but there’s no way I would be graduating this week if I had gone to a different university.

On the other people who helped during those most challenging times, Francesca said: “I realise I’m lucky to be alive, and I know part of this is down to the fantastic individuals I’ve met during my studies who genuinely care.

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“When I had received the bad news back in February 2020, I didn’t know what to do and so I just walked to the Sport and Exercise Sciences department, where one of the lecturers, Dr Dr Andrew Bloodworth, kindly connected me with the right people – they made a real difference to me.”

“Judith Evans-Jones from the Wellbeing Service would stay in contact with me while I was receiving treatment and would arrange video appointments. She would always make sure that I was okay and would ask if she could help me with things like extensions for my assignments.

“Lecturers like Dr Denise Hill, Professor Mel McNarry, Dr Rachel Churm and Professor Kelly Mackintosh went way above and beyond to ensure that I had everything I needed. Nothing was too much trouble. Whilst in Cotswold House, if I couldn’t attend online lectures, they would make arrangements so I wouldn’t miss anything.”

“I’m also fortunate to have extremely supportive family and friends who have seen first-hand what I’ve gone through, and I can’t thank them enough.”

Despite these challenges, Francesca still managed to make the most of university life, joining the music society and the sailing club, where she was the beginners team captain, as well as working as a student ambassador.

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She has also been recognised with an award from the Students’ Union for individual contribution when she was a student representative in her final year, and also from her Faculty for her contribution to the Sport and Exercise Science environment.

Francesca has since returned to Swansea to study for a KESS-funded masters degree by research with South Wales Police and Crime Commissions Office, something she would never have imagined possible years ago.

 “I’m not very academic, but after my lecturers made me aware of the research, I decided it was the right next step for, and I’m now in the final stages of my masters degree.

“I was back in Cotswold House at the end of last year, but like last time, I was lucky enough to have the support of people like my supervisor Dr Jo Hudson – she has been my rock through the whole experience.”

On what she would say to people facing similar challenges, Francesca said: “I genuinely believe that you get out what you put in, from university and life in general.

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“Yes, challenging things happen to us all, but know there is always support available.

“It can often be difficult, but don’t ever feel embarrassed to accept help. If I hadn’t had support from my family and friends, the University, my therapist and Hywel Dda Tier 3 Eating Disorder Services, I don’t think I would be where I am now. Diolch i chi gyd.”

(Lead image: Swansea University)

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