Tips for Coping With Mental Illness During University

**A shorter and more generalized version of this appears in FLURT! Magazine here.

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This article can address most campuses, but will directly benefit those studying at Canadian Universities.

I try to avoid talking about my personal struggles in my professional writing, but I wish someone had written something to help me out when I was struggling with my mental state in first year university.

I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Depression, OCD, ADHD, Epilepsy, Migraines, and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). All of these diagnoses were made in the last four years, as I completed my undergraduate degree.

Let’s be honest for a moment:

University is HARD. Being an adult is HARD. Living on your own for the first time is HARD. A QUARTER of university-age Canadians struggle with mental health issues. A quarter of the students in your intro to stats class have anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, or another related mental illness. If you have 400 people in your auditorium, 100 of them struggle daily with mental health. 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.

Here is what I did to make the most out of the services I had access to as a Canadian University student.

Disclaimer: I am a privileged, middle-class, educated, straight, cis white woman from a wealthy city, in a wealthy province, in a wealthy country. No two experiences are the same and not everyone will have access to the same resources, and many may face much more difficult struggles than I have. I may have several diagnoses, but none of them are severe at this point in time.

1) The most important part of taking charge of your health as a student and young adult is to 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 this self-care plan, I usually target multiple areas of my life; physical heath, mental health, spiritual health, intellectual health, financial health, and social health. You can find a template and instructions/ advice here.

I make a list of the appointments I need to make and whether they are recurring. 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? Have I gotten an oil change?

2) Follow through with your plan. I schedule visits to the chiropractor, massage therapist, physio, acupuncture, and dermatologist. Any pressing health concerns, no matter how minor, are addressed. Do I have a sore back? Get it adjusted. Do I have a weird rash? Get an ointment from the dermatologist. How often do I need to see the neurologist? I set reminders and dates for appointments, and make sure I get automatic alerts on my phone and computer when I need to do things like get a prescription refilled.

3) Take advantage of the health services offered at your university. Many universities offer pro-bono or highly discounted health services. My university 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 is necessary; in stressful times I meet with her 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 and I see him once a semester. It isn’t easy to make time for all of these appointments, and I quite often feel overwhelmed by scheduling and showing up, but I never leave feeling worse.

You can visit the University of Calgary’s Wellness Centre here.

4) Use provincial and government health programs if you need them. To add to physical health, I see a nutritionist nearly every week. My epilepsy is still a mystery, but when I fall into disordered eating patterns, I am more inclined to have an episode, so I see a neurologist-appointed nutritionist. My nutritionist is absolutely incredible. Sometimes I leave crying. Sometimes I leave uplifted and ready to head to the grocery store. I always leave feeling alleviated, however. Katie lets me email and call her at any time, and thus is a constant source of support.

5) Talk it out, feel it fully. For mental health, I see a counselor and psychiatrist semi-regularly. I also take an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication. It makes me feel more like “me,” and does what I cannot do by myself. I combine this with mindfulness meditation and physical activity. I allow myself to feel emotions and take sick days, and I have a strong support system that I can lean on when I need to. Cities in Canada also offer discounted mental health and counseling services to low-income people. E-counseling can help in a pinch, and there are some amazing mental health workbooks out there.

6) Know where to go in an emergency. The walk in clinic at my university is also 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 are valid places to go when you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, and 911 is there for these situations as well.

7) MOVE! Exercise keeps me balanced during the school year. I think everyone can benefit from whatever form of physical activity they are most capable of. It is integral to our well-being and we should NEVER be shamed for prioritizing physical fitness. I rock climb, dance, go to the gym, and do yoga regularly.

Many campuses have included gym facilities and free yoga and fitness classes. You can also sign up for inexpensive fitness classes through your university if you want more of a commitment. Activities like kickboxing, weight lifting, pole dancing, burlesque, and belly dancing can give you an amazing workout AND a great confidence boost. Both of these things help with mental health! If you want to explore yoga, you can follow various teachers online, such as Yoga with Adriene, which offers short and long online classes and meditations targeting many different aspects of yoga! Almost all yoga studios have introductory deals for the first month, offering 30 days of unlimited classes for 35.00-60.00. There are about 12 studios near my house- if you do an intro month at each studio: that is a year of cheap yoga! Check out the app MindBody to find studios close to you!

If your school has a kinesiology department, there are often marathon training or weightlifting studies that pay participants AND offer free classes and training. Look for these! Students studying to be personal trainers also offer super discounted sessions to other students! It’s even cheaper if you can get a few friends to join in.

You can check out the U of C’s Active Living facilities here.

If you live close to campus, get a cheap bike online! Biking TO class forces you to bike home, and suddenly you’re exercising without even knowing it! And remember, don’t over exercise. Know your body and what you need. Simply taking the stairs and running from class to class is enough for a lot of people!

8) Ask for help when you need it. I reached a breaking point in my 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 gotten lower than an A in a class.

Check out the U of C’s facilities here.

9) Take care of your spiritual well-being, whatever that means for you. Campuses have different support groups for countless religions, and most universities have quiet meditation and prayer spaces. If faith and spirituality are big parts of your life, university can make you feel disconnected from that.  There are campus events to explore different religions and aspects of spirituality as well. Creating a space in your home or dorm room where you can create a spiritual alter or meditation area can be immensely calming. Seeing a space made for looking inward can motivate you to do so. A meditation pillow, some incense or lavender oil, some precious items, things such as tarot cards or crystals (if that’s your jam) can all contribute to this space. Even keeping a gratitude and tarot journal helps me focus on being the best version of myself and finding calm.

You can see the U of C’s Faith and Spirituality Centre here.

10) Embrace your ambivert. I don’t like the idea of grouping people into the categories of introvert or extrovert like it is something that rules our lives and decisions, but it helps to simplify the complicated interactions between vastly different people. For the sake of balance, I think we all need to try both hats on for size. Introverts need extrovert time and vice versa. I’m very introverted, which can make me spend days on end in my apartment alone. Extroverts can go on “extroversion benders” where they avoid being alone at all costs. Try to go out with friends every once in awhile, even if it’s just for coffee. Try to schedule alone time away from friends, family, and partners. Get out of your comfort zone and try to feel okay alone and with others.

11) Create. Journal, draw, craft, knit, sew, etc. Find an artistic outlet to get emotion out and calm yourself. This can be anything from composing operas to adult coloring books! Journaling is so simple and can encompass so many of these things. I collage, doodle, write, and make lists in my journal. I write down my dreams, my goals, my horoscopes, and even my to-do lists. Just seeing my thoughts on a physical page can feel so cathartic! Art journaling , vision journaling, bullet journaling, and plain old diary writing are all great releases.

These strategies are NOT universal, and they won’t apply to everyone who struggles with mental health problems. As I mentioned before, my struggles are relatively mild. I take medication in addition to these coping mechanisms, and have the ability to do so. My privilege won’t extend to all post-secondary students, and many of these strategies can apply to anyone, not just uni students! My biggest piece of advice is to just BE KIND to yourself. Acknowledge that you are struggling and you don’t HAVE to do it all! Take care of yourself the way you would a younger sibling or cousin, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It is out there.

 

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