I wish someone had written something to help me out when I was struggling in university. Throughout the last four years as an undergraduate, I’ve been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Depression, OCD, ADHD, Epilepsy, Migraines and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). But I’m not alone. A quarter of the students in one of your classes has anxiety, depression, an eating disorder or another related mental illness. Add that to physical health, sexual health and the general stress of school, and you have a very high demand for health services and self-care initiatives on campuses.
Below is a list of things that worked to help me cope with mental illness during university. As a note, I realize as a privileged, middle-class, cis white woman from Canada that not everyone will have access to the same resources, and many of you may face much more difficult struggles than I have. Hopefully some of what I learned will be helpful for you too.
1. Establish a self-care plan.
I usually do this at the beginning of September, once my work and class schedule have been solidified and I have a better idea of what I’m in for in the coming semester. In my self-care plan, I target multiple areas of my life: Physical heath, mental health, spiritual health, intellectual health, financial health and social health. You can find a template here.
Included in my self care plan is a list of the appointments I need to make. Do I need a general check up with my family doctor? Have I been to the dentist lately? Am I due for an eye exam or a pap smear? Do I have enough contacts to last the semester? When do I need to fill my prescription? It helps to set reminders and dates for appointments on my phone and computer. Taking care of myself will help the other things in my life – like studying and exams – go smoother.
2. Take advantage of university health services.
Many universities offer free or highly discounted health services. My university, for example, offers free counseling and discounted chiropractics, acupuncture, and massage. My doctor and gynecologist are also on campus. I take advantage of the counseling services offered to me and meet with a psychologist whenever necessary; in stressful times I meet with them every week. I also participate in a ‘shared care’ program, where I meet with my doctor and a psychologist together once a month. My psychiatrist is also located on campus, where I see them once a semester.
It isn’t easy to make time for all of these appointments, and I often feel overwhelmed by scheduling and showing up, but I always feel better because of it.
3. Watch your nutrition.
What you eat has a big impact on how you feel, and because of this I see a nutritionist almost every week. When I fall into disordered eating patterns, I find that I’m more inclined to have an episode, so I make sure to see a professional who can keep me on track.
If you don’t have access to a nutritionist, do your best to educate yourself about foods that are going to make you feel your best. Everyone’s body is different, but the general rule is that the more natural your food is, the better it is for you. So work on skipping the processed food and switching to a whole food diet instead. It can be difficult to eat healthy on a low budget and easy to grab cheap junk food, but your body and mind will thank you for it. If you’re looking for a guide to eating well for cheap, try Good and Cheap: How to Eat Well on $4 a Day.
4. Learn how to de-stress.
I see a counselor semi-regularly to talk out my feelings. I also take anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication, which makes me feel more like me. I combine this with mindfulness meditation and physical activity, allowing myself to feel emotions and take sick days. I also have built a strong support system that I can lean on when I need to.
Some cities offer free or discounted counselling, and there are also online options such as E-counseling that can help in a pinch. If counseling isn’t accessible to you, there are some amazing podcasts and workbooks out there you can find online. You can also try watching the many YouTube videos available online.
For a mental health crisis, call a help line or 911. Also, know where to go during an emergency on campus. The walk in clinic at my university is a god-send. Doctors and nurses were immediately there for me when I collapsed in class in first year, and when I suffered a manic episode in third year. Campus security is also there for when you can’t physically get to the clinic or doctor. Emergency rooms aren’t just for broken limbs and heart attacks – they’re valid places to go when you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts.
5. Create an exercise routine.
Exercise keeps me balanced mentally during the school year. Making time to move, whether it’s going for a walk, run, bike ride, doing yoga or going to the gym, increases your blood flow, raising your energy and your mood. Doing something active every day is just as important as making sure you’re eating nutritiously or taking your medication.
Check out your campus for access to a gym, swimming pool, climbing walls or just trails to run with friends. Many campuses have free or inexpensive fitness classes as well, and there are often students who are studying to be personal trainers who wouldn’t mind practicing on other students. Doing activities with people you meet at university is also a great excuse to make friends while staying active. But if you’d prefer to exercise alone in the privacy of your room, there are many YouTube channels online that show you how to do exercise routines.
6. Ask for help when you need it.
I reached a breaking point in the last year of my bachelor’s degree. My anxiety, migraines and general stress levels were out of control and I was unable to keep up with work, school and volunteering. The first thing I did was talk to my professors. I was honest with them about my struggles and they showed me immense compassion. They suggested I speak with Student Accessibility Services, which provides accommodations for students with disabilities, health struggles and mental health problems. I was provided with an academic strategist whom I meet with weekly to help me stay focused and on top of assignments, despite everything else that might be happening in my life. Since I began working with a government-funded academic strategist, I haven’t received lower than an A in a class.
Do you have any more tips for coping with mental illness in university? Let me know in the comments below!