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School Survival Tips for the Student Who Lives With a Mental Illness

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Now that we’re finally in the familiar rhythm of the school year, as a student with a mental illness myself, I wanted to offer some school tips for those and the family/friends of those who find coping with school tough. I know I had a tough time in school. For me, keeping up with homework and notes was a nightmare. I was a five-star procrastinator, homework was boring and tests were pieces of anxiety paper.

So for students who are just like me, I want you to know there is hope. It took me years to create a system for everything, and I did really well in school because of it. One thing I know is that students who have mental illnesses often find school more difficult, which can lead to these students not graduating or not going to college — even though they want to. While everyone deserves a right to get an education, I can understand why many students with mental illnesses and disorders find it hard to cope in school. I hope these tips help as we gear up to finish the school year.

Before School: Try to eat something. Check that you have everything the night before. Lay out your outfit. Make sure your alarm works. Tell yourself you can do this. Make a goal for the day. Make sure it is achievable. For example, write your notes completely or ask someone that question you need answered. Read a chapter in that textbook. Get out of bed and get ready for school, and if you take the bus, try to get there a little early so you’re not in a rush.

While in class: Take a deep breath, try to keep calm. If you get anxious often, bring something that calms you down. For example, in my backpack in high school I kept a stuffed toy, stress balls, essential oils, favorite hard candy, etc. Always ask your teachers if you may either record the audio or video of their lessons. This way you can watch or listen as many times as you need. If they don’t let you, it’s OK to read ahead in your textbooks. If you miss something, there’s absolutely no shame in asking for help after class from other students or your teacher. Ask questions — it can help shape the class to your learning style and keep things interesting so you don’t get bored. If you find yourself dozing off or getting distracted, try to find a way to bring yourself back. It’s OK to get distracted, however, it can make you miss notes. If you find yourself getting restless, try getting up to sharpen your pencils or go to the bathroom. A brisk walk towards the bathroom can be an attention lifesaver.

Homework: It gets boring fast because you go through class learning it. and then have to keep repeating it again. Keep homework interesting. For example, make some slips of paper, write down your subjects and put them in an envelope. After that pick one and start that homework first. When you start getting bored pick a new subject and replace the first slip of paper. I know it seems like it might throw you off — however, it often gave my constant thoughts a new and entertaining system. Also if you have a lot of homework, plan a break. Take 30 minutes to get food, stretch, maybe go for a run or take a shower. Anything that can help center yourself.

Study nights: Big test tomorrow? Procrastinator like me? Well here you go, first take a deep breathe. I don’t care if the test is 99.999 percent of your grade, panic doesn’t help. Now once you calm down, get out what you need to study. Some things you may need are notes, textbooks, syllabus, cheat sheet (if your teacher gave you one). For me, it was helpful to make notes on my own. Yes, not everyone has beautiful handwriting, nor do we all have the same learning style. I personally learn better from seeing symbols rather than words, so I came up with my own doodles for class. My notes were always littered with doodle masterpieces of art. If you are more of an audio learner, write your notes and then verbally reread your notes to a recorder so you can listen over and over again to keep the information in your head. Record yourself asking subject related questions and answer them out loud to yourself. If you are better with reading or verbal learning, read out loud your notes, type them up and read them like an article.

If studying is getting boring by yourself, try having a classmate help. You can have someone read the questions and the other answer, and whoever gets more answers correct gets a prize; like a piece of candy or a sandwich. Keep yourself entertained while learning is a good way to retain more information, rather than just memorizing for a test and forgetting after that. Never pull an all-nighter. Also, I found it helpful to eat something up to a half hour before. It’s hard to focus with your stomach complaining half way through, and granola bars are lifesavers.

Tests: Ask if you can have a hard candy (make sure it is one you like). I had a teacher who gave us lemon heads before tests. It helps you focus and keeps your mind from wandering so much. Breathe, and try to get to class around a minute to 10 minutes early so you can set up your testing environment. Make sure you have your pencils or pens, scratch paper, a book for reading afterwards, calming items and calculator (if it’s math). I found it was helpful to not look at the clock during a test. I would get panicky if there were five minutes and I still had questions left. But it will be OK — you can do this. Write yourself a positive note on a post-it note and stick it to your desk. Let your teacher know if you do that, though, so they don’t think you are cheating.

The most important tip I can give you is to take your time. Don’t rush. Stay grounded, take deep breaths and know you are worth it. You are capable of passing and getting a good grade — just take a moment to clear your head and focus. When it comes to having a mental illness, going to school might take a little more time and focus. School can be tough, and it is OK. Don’t let your mental illness keep you from achieving your academic dreams.

Also please remember this, even if you don’t remember anything else from this article: Make school enjoyable. Don’t give up art because you think you need that AP class. Don’t quit that language because someone nags you. You are not your parents or guardians. You are you and you deserve to enjoy the classes you take. So please have an art class, take an extra math class or creative writing. You have more control in middle, high school and college on what classes you can take, and that is an important thing when it comes to shaping your interests. You are allowed to enjoy school no matter what people say.

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Originally published: December 15, 2016
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