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10 Reminders for Students With Mental Health Conditions Who Are Starting a New School Year

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New folders. New laptop. New dorm room. New landlord.

Whether you’re starting a new school year in middle school, high school, college or graduate school: as routine and predictable as the change can be on paper, it’s almost never that easy in reality.

It can be even more complicated and challenging, though, when you’re facing it with a mental health condition.

And while it’s just as difficult to try to make that aspect of things routine or predictable on paper: nevertheless, here is a handy back-to-school supply list of 10 reminders to keep at hand as a starting point — for students, as a reminder throughout the change process; for parents, as a view into the challenges your child might face to help you better support them; and for teachers and professors, to better understand the needs of your students so you can aid them in growing as learners and as people, and so you can be sensitive to their specific needs in helping them find the best resources to access and chart their most fruitful paths forward.

Way back when, my first counseling professor always spoke about experiences, encounters, practicum work and theories in books in terms of “tools for your toolbox,” things to learn and then pull out as the situation required. In that spirit, I hope these can be something like Post-Its in your backpack: little brightly-colored tidbits that can help to ground you if you struggle, help foster understanding if you love or work with someone who struggles, and ultimately remind you: you’re not alone.

1. Change is never easy. But with certain mental health conditions, it’s even harder. Particular kinds of anxiety are tightened by changes in circumstances. Depression, in turn, can be deepened; conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) might arise in unexpected ways. In life, change is inevitable — but with the start of a new school year, you can try to limit the changes that take place in other aspects of your life, such as home environment and the way you keep your space, to make sure you have a touchstone to retreat to and regroup until the changes outside begin to register as a new “normal.”

And yes, it’s OK if this happens every year. Every semester. Every quarter. It’s OK.

2. Routines are important. (And make sure your routine allows for wiggle room!) Having a routine is sometimes the best way to reestablish that necessary “normal.” That might mean planning out your meals, outfits and the time you set your alarm for in the morning (and how many times you can hit “snooze,” or whether you’d like an alarm that doesn’t allow for that option). Relish in the simple pleasure of the to-do list: write one out in a notebook if the visceral joy of checking a box of crossing a line off is fulfilling, or use an app on your phone if the ease of shifting something from today to tomorrow with the tap of a fingertip makes the stress of rearranging less of a burden.

And remember: there’s a saying that in the history of master woodworking, the ideal “fit” between two pieces of wood was not the stereotypical perfect fit, but one that allowed a bit of wiggle room. So allow yourself some wiggle-room for unplanned interruptions, events or even just the need to sit in quiet or curl in bed.

3. Rewards are not earned or withheld: they are universally deserved and oftentimes necessary. Sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between “reward” and “indulgence.” This oftentimes coincides with certain forms of anxiety, wherein a person never feels like they’re “enough” — that they’ve done enough, accomplished enough, proven themselves enough, are worth enough.

“Enough” can be an ugly word.

So instead of reinforcing a sense of “enough” that’s not only largely unattainable in modern society as a rule, but also highly detrimental to people who never feel like they can be enough, and therefore have never quite earned a reward: make small rewards a standard. “Little treats,” a wise friend once told me, can be anything that lifts your spirits. It can be a fancy coffee that would otherwise feel like an indefensible expense; a nice soak with a decadent bath bomb after you’ve turned in a paper; or two hours of uninterrupted time playing a video game without the nagging feeling you’re cheating or sneaking something forbidden after a long day that was hard to get through. It can even be just taking a breather every so often to stretch, stay hydrated, dance or grab a snack within a long session of editing your final paper (this method is often helpful in reminding you when it’s time for some downtime).

Whichever way works best for you and suits your circumstances: every time you cross a hurdle, give yourself some recognition of your accomplishment. You deserve it. And eventually, it’ll start to feel just that little bit less like something you didn’t earn.

4. Recognize and be aware of coping mechanisms. For instance: In anxiety, sometimes taking on more work or responsibility than seems wise from an outside perspective is really just a means of distracting the mind from dwelling on all the things it can fret about, the things that make the anxiety worse and lead it closer to the surface.

So if you find yourself reacting to one end of a spectrum of mental health symptoms by taking on lots of work, running for leadership roles in every club or society that catches your eye, working 10 part-time jobs, signing on as editor for three publications — what have you — recognize the impetus (one main one, or many of them!) for that desire toward involvement. Sometimes it’s genuine interest. Sometimes it’s self-preservation. Sometimes it’s both. But try to understand how the draws toward these commitments interact and comes to bear upon your experience, so that as your mental health symptoms shift (for instance, from hypomanic productive to depressive withdrawal), you can anticipate your ability to meet the demands ahead of you, and plan ahead accordingly so as not to set yourself up for feeling worse about things if you’re not able to meet a deadline or accommodate a demand on your time while you’re struggling just to leave the house each day.

5. Try to focus on the moment. When you can’t, try not to view it as a failure. (And when you can’t not view it as a failure, try not to view that as a failure.)

Sometimes the mind gets away from us. Whether it’s so depressed it can’t get out of bed, or it’s so anxious it can’t stop spinning, or any of the countless other ways it can slip from one’s control, if we can grab it and make it be still for just a second (which is often a trial in itself!), we’ll at least stall some of its momentum when it gets back up and starts trying to sprint and whirl away again.

So when things get overwhelming: take a walk. Set a timer to just be, without any agenda for a little while. Grab an app to help you (if an app seems like it would help you). Play music that helps you decompress. Watch cat videos or dog videos. Listen to a podcast or an audiobook for a bit of de-stressing; whatever fits your mindset best. Give yourself a time-out: not a punishment, but a necessity — one of those “little treats” everyone deserves just because you’re human and the world is hard, sometimes.

And if you’re struggling to manage this? That’s OK. You tried, and when it comes to mental health? That’s worthwhile in and of itself. Give yourself a little treat for your effort.

Because you deserve it.

6. Needing help isn’t a bad thing. Some of the smartest people I know need help. Valedictorians. Professors. Counselors. CEOs. PhDs. We’ve spent so much time as a culture trying to make needing help, or struggling with a mental health condition, into a dirty little secret, so many people have never felt like they could talk about what their real lives and challenges look like. But trust me:

Needing help, and recognizing that you need help, is one of the most intelligent things a person can do.

7. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak. Another of those pesky messages society has passed down through the ages — “The only person you can count on is you,” “Never let them see you bleed” and so forth.

I’ve got a secret for you. Those are lies.

Think about all of the roles, professions and ideas in our lives that are built primarily around the concept of helping others — teaching and counseling being two that the school year brings to mind in particular — and then consider all the people who might not make a living or orient the most of their time around a helping-oriented profession, but still reach out and help where it’s needed, just because they see someone in need and are naturally inclined to lend a hand. Helping others keeps the world spinning. Ask yourself: How do you feel when you’re able to lend a hand and help someone? Does the gratitude and joy that’s shared help brighten your day, too?

Helping makes the world go ‘round. And you’re a part of that world. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak: it means you’re human. Just like everyone else.

So ask for a referral for counseling if you need one. Ask for a letter from your counselor if you need accommodation in class. Ask for an extension if your mental health condition is weighing down with particular viciousness. There’s no guarantee against encountering one of those few people who don’t like to help, but more often than not? If you’re respectful and honest about what you need, people will work with you to find a way to make things easier given your situation.

8. Getting help doesn’t make what you accomplished somehow less. This odd idea that a thing is better, or even that a thing is achievable, if it’s done on one’s own is a strange beast. Much like the issue of asking for and receiving help when you need it, the idea of asking for help to achieve something is a quintessential part of being a member of society — because a society at its best is a group of people aiming to achieve something for the common good. Peace treaties aren’t made by one person alone. Disaster relief takes millions across the world, working together to help where there is need. People aren’t changed and taught and shaped by just one person, but by all the people and circumstances they meet — and isn’t it better to have more experiences to draw from, more perspectives to consider?

It’s not just a pretty saying: it really does take a village.

9. It will get better. It may also get worse again. There is no destination to reach. There is no need to “fix.” Sometimes mental health conditions change as the result of circumstances. Sometimes some medications work better than others. Sometimes mental health conditions are like chronic illnesses of any other sort: they stick around, and there is no “fixing” it. There’s just getting by with it. There’s just learning to live with it. There’s just the process of trial and error to see what works and what doesn’t to manage it. In that way, life becomes almost a constant experiment.

Mental health conditions, whether you grapple with one or many, often ebb and flow in some degree of a cycle: a carousel that might go around from OK days to not-OK days, back and forth, or maybe one where depression feeds anxiety which feeds obsession, which feeds depression, and then anxiety, again and again. There will be ups, and there will be downs, and it’s often easy for people who don’t experience those highs and lows to see a “high” point, a “good” day, or a few in a row, and speak of it as being “fixed” or “cured” — and that kind of language can be tempting to buy into, even as it’s hurtful to think of the fact that being “fixed” implies you might have been “broken” first.

And you aren’t broken. And the fact that being “fixed” only lasts for a little while doesn’t make it less. And the fact that the “good” days only last so long doesn’t make you less.

Using another amusement park metaphor: it’s very much a roller coaster. To say “it gets better” is a truth, but not necessarily a permanent one. But that’s OK, because nothing in life is permanent.

And that’s why these are reminders. Because if it’s a truth that doesn’t always last, then it bears repeating, as often as is necessary.

10. Needing a reminder is OK. Seriously, it is. Again: that’s why I called this a list of reminders: whether it’s the notifications app on a phone or a kind tap on a shoulder, we all need them. From the teacher to the tutor; the professor to the counselor: even we need reminders. All the time. And not just about when our next meeting takes place or what to pick up from the store for dinner. We also need reminders about the important things, the deep things:

You’re doing all right.

You’ll get through this.

You’re doing good work.

You’re strong.

You matter.

You’re going to be OK.

Everyone needs to know those things. Mental health conditions just tend to make it difficult to tell yourself those things. So it’s OK to ask for reminders. A friend, a family member, a mentor: someone you trust who knows your situation and your struggles — sometimes it’s easiest to just ask once, explain this thing you need, and then in future, just go to them and say: I need a reminder.

And because you’re doing all right, and you’ll get through this; because you’re doing good work, and you’re strong, and you matter: they’ll remind you.

And whether you believe it or not on any given day: you’re going to be OK.

(But it’s all right to not believe that today. We’ll just try again tomorrow, and see if it sounds more true then.)

Image via Thinkstock Images

Originally published: August 18, 2016
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