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5 Tips If Your Mental Illness Is Interfering With College

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For many, going to university represents the culmination of several years of hard work and commitment. An adolescence dedicated to learning and cultivating knowledge, just to be deemed valuable enough to earn a place on your dream course. Self-worth somehow becomes inexplicably tied to academic achievement and the opinion of a faceless institution that you are intelligent enough to be allowed a place in their prestigious halls.

Living with a persistent mental health condition complicates the traditional university experience. Instead of receiving encouragement, people ask, “Why don’t you just drop out and work full time?” Or they try to reassure you by saying, “university just isn’t for everyone.” The carefully laid plans of your younger years become distant concepts, seemingly unattainable, yet tantalizingly close. Instead, you find yourself justifying leaves of absence and poor attendance, having to explain the days you can’t bear to face the world outside of your duvet, and sacrificing opportunities for the sake of your stability and health. Each small success feels like a mountain climbed, but is ultimately diminished by the overhanging shame it took so long to complete.

This is not a healthy perspective, but it is a realistic representation of how I find the mentally ill mind works. The illness twists your experience, stealing away the individual confidence and accomplishment, making each victory hollow. For many, university isn’t the best years of your life. It isn’t the memories you’ll treasure when you grow old, the wildness and freedom of youth each parent wants their child to experience. This common misconception is intrinsically flawed, reinforcing the idea university must be positive.

That is a lot of pressure to assign to one portion of your life. This myth needs debunking, society needs to cease perpetuating this unhealthy ideal. All human experience is nuanced and individual, there is no perfect university experience, despite what reminiscing adults would have us think. In reality, it is a time of emotional upheaval, of transformation both painful and beautiful. It is a time of discovery and dissolution, where new facets of your personality emerge and develop. It is an undulating wave of intensity, simultaneously the best of all your days, and the worst. This is a commonality across all students, regardless of mental health considerations. However, in the case of those with such internal struggles, university can be a truly toxic environment. A place where your value is measured and analyzed, pulled apart in academic terms and revalued continually. Maintaining a healthy mindset during this experience can be a challenging feat, particularly in an environment that values academic rigor over students’ emotional well-being.

However, there are some basic elements that can be addressed to make improvements. It is the small steps that count, and each one is another acceleration in the right direction.

1. Balance.

This is the most important, and arguably, most difficult thing to find. There is so much temptation at university to indulge in the excess, and living with this pressure can prove detrimental. The expectation of binge drinking, poor diet and a raucous social life is practically ingrained into the university experience. If you aren’t engaging in these unhealthy activities, you are somehow “failing” to utilize the time and have the maximum enjoyment of your wild youth. It is a paradoxical environment when excessive, dangerous drinking, promiscuity and  risky behavior is not only a given, but actively encouraged in many places. That is why finding an equilibrium is so crucial. There are no rules to say these activities cannot be indulged in, but moderation is key. Interspersing wild nights out and calorific eating with exercise, fresh air and a healthy sleeping pattern is a great way to instantly improve mental health and give the mind a breather. Constant unhealthy input is an often disregarded consideration to declining mental health, and making these small adjustments can elicit a significant improvement. We cannot expect our brains to function adequately when they are pickled in cheap spirits and budget pizza. Finding a healthy and desirable balance is a difficult, but ultimately worthwhile task to undertake.

2. Workload.

Another hidden challenge within university education is the sheer size of the workload. Most every student has heard the classic line, “uni is the easiest years of your education” and many sign up under the false pretense of an easy, low-maintenance degree. In reality, higher education is a taxing, lengthy process that requires hours of commitment and dedication. Lengthy reading lists, back-to-back assignment submissions and 10-hour days are a more accurate occurrence, a nasty surprise to those expecting smooth sailing. Managing this hefty load under the strain of mental illness can be additionally challenging. Organizing time, prioritizing specific tasks and focusing on meeting deadlines are great ways to alleviate this pressure. Instead of tackling an overwhelming mountain of work, break it down into manageable chunks. The “Rocks and Sand” method is an excellent way to employ this tactic. This involves visualizing a container of several large rocks: the big, important tasks that must be completed. These are the priorities, the non-negotiables. The space in between these rocks are filled with sand: the smaller, individual tasks that are less important that fill the time and can help build up your progress to filling the container, namely achieving your goals. Employing such productivity strategies can relieve the struggling brain and hone focus, rather than becoming overwhelmed and giving into unhealthy self-hatred for not fulfilling your achievements. Break it down, work through steadily and reward your effort regularly.

3. Dealing with it.

Sitting with a problem tends to be an easy, but ultimately detrimental, coping mechanism. It is incredibly tempting and surprisingly easy to ignore mental health at university, and bury it under an avalanche of booze and kebab-eating. Many will experience “student blues” and simply refuse to acknowledge brewing health issues, my past self included. Tackling these issues can feel terrifying, the words simply too difficult to speak. However, it is significantly more difficult to pick up the pieces after the fact, when it’s too late and the problem refuses to be ignored anymore. Preemptive action is always best to get on top of it, before it gets on top of you. General practitioners and university mental health services serve a purpose, and are available for this exact reason. They are trained to deal with these issues and can offer real, practical support to students in the short and long term. Reaching out to them can feel daunting, but passing this barrier is an important act of bravery and the first step to getting things back on track. Having a constructive, honest conversation is much better than allowing matters to escalate months down the line and lead to more long-term disadvantages. Starting the conversation is the best thing you can do, and something you will thank yourself for doing in the future. In true clichéd style, a problem shared really is a problem halved.

4. Taking a break.

Universities across the globe have an obligation to support students’ studies and health during their education. They are equipped to help students in times of crisis and ill health, and offer a range of solutions to any problems incurred as a result. Don’t be afraid to inquire into extensions, deferrals and leaves of absence as options for managing periods of illness that interfere with academic study. This is not admitting defeat, rather giving yourself a better shot at recovery and allowing yourself the space to focus on getting better. The books and assignments will still be there another time, and can be resumed at a later date. It can feel incredibly frustrating to be told by a professional you need to take a few weeks or months to recover, and elicit feelings of powerlessness and exasperation, but for many, it is for the best. Forcing yourself to engage in studies whilst experiencing poor mental health can only do more harm rather than good many times. Take a step back, reevaluate the situation and return at a later date, fresh, healthy and more stable. This will benefit not only you, but your academic performance, too. When you are mentally healthy and stable, your productivity and levels of achievements reap the rewards.

5. Comparison.

Finally, it is worth noting we are all individuals, each of us different and varying in a myriad of ways. No two university educations will be alike, and everyone achieves things in their own way. When you are stuck in that self-destructive, unhealthy mindset, it can be so easy to start comparing yourself to others. The power of social media is known to be problematic, but seeing others having an ideal university experience whilst you struggle can be a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Being bombarded by images of nights out, lavish balls and remarkable achievements when you are not in the same place is its own form of self-punishment. Their success and happiness can feel like an insult. It is valuable to take a step back from this, to remove yourself from that state of toxic comparison. Your health is not a weakness, merely another step in your journey. Just because your experience does not look like theirs, does not make it any less impressive or remarkable. Their success is not your failure. Their happiness is not your inability to thrive. You are valid and should be equally proud of your experience and achievements, no matter how small or how they differentiate from others. Use this as a mantra to remind yourself when slipping into toxic comparison.

Sending love and light.

Unsplash image by Siora Photography

Originally published: April 23, 2020
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