Four years of full-time classes and part-time work is hard for any student. For students living with mental health disorders, everyday challenges related to their conditions only add to the general stress of school. I struggled with extreme anxiety and depression throughout the entirety of my college career, and sometimes it was too much to endure. But, I ended up graduating Cum Laude, scored an awesome internship and found myself succeeding in everything I attempted, despite my disorders.
There was a bit of trial and error when figuring out how to reconcile my drive to succeed with the constant drag of my mental state. Here are the main lessons I’ve learned during that period that might be helpful to other students.
Talk to someone about what you are going through mentally and emotionally. Talk to a pet. Talk to yourself out loud at first, if that’s where you find you need to start. It doesn’t matter who you talk to, as long as you’re actively talking and getting out what is troubling you.
Until I talked to someone I trusted and finally had the courage to say what had happened out loud, I couldn’t begin to heal from the trauma that triggered my anxiety and depression. Once I had, the hold and power that my own thoughts had over my mental well being began to loosen their grip. Once I started talking, I could begin to make better sense of myself and begin to understand why I was feeling the way that I was.
The most important thing is to talk to someone that you trust, but if you are talking to a professional counselor or therapist, even better. Many universities and colleges offer mental health resources, such as counseling, for their students. Unfortunately, these resources are often vastly underused, either because of the stigma of seeking help for mental health disorders, or because students don’t know where to look for them. My university offered a set number of free counseling sessions per semester, and I regret not taking advantage of those services more when I needed them.
Find out if your school offers counseling or mental health programs for students and, most importantly, don’t be afraid to show up once you do find them.
2. Moderate Your Alcohol Consumption
Okay, you’re in college; this one is hard, I know. No matter your friend group is, activities you’re involved in or even your age, alcohol is going to be involved in your life during your time in school. My advice for those suffering from a mental health disorder, like I did: Use alcohol sparingly, if at all. Have fun, but don’t turn to alcohol when you’re not in the right mindset to enjoy it.
It’s easy to convince yourself that you need to “go out” and have fun with your friends when you’re anxious and want a distraction from the onslaught of worries in your own mind, or if you’re feeling down and need a “pick-me-up.” But, in my experience, drinking will only make you feel worse about yourself in the long run.
Anxiety forces me to replay everything I said or did the night before, even if I did nothing objectively embarrassing, and I will surely spiral into shame, guilt and self-criticism of an abnormal intensity. The day-after-drinking anxiety spiral just contributes further to whatever I was trying to run from in the first place, be it my anxiety or depression.
Wait until you’re drinking for the right reasons—to celebrate or enjoy yourself, and only when you’re feeling well and positive. This will undoubtedly result in you missing some social events in order to practice self-care.
3. Curb Your FOMO
At certain points throughout school, I was so depressed and reluctant to have human contact that I would not leave my apartment for days at a time. If I did leave, I would return to my sanctuary as fast as possible. During these periods of self-imposed isolation, I would get on social media and see all of the friends that I was unintentionally avoiding having a great time in their photos and posts. I felt like I was missing out on the “college experience,” whatever that actually means.
On the other end of the spectrum, when I was not in a depressive episode and willing and wanting to go out, sometimes my anxiety was so great that I had to stay in to take care of myself. I knew crowds, loud music and unfamiliarity would only exacerbate the feelings I was having. Passing on lunch or movie plans with friends became a common occurrence.
College is full of experiences though, and I realized that I don’t need to have all of them. Four years is a long time to cultivate friendships and memorable moments, anyway. So don’t be afraid to take a day or two off to focus on yourself if you need it, as long as it doesn’t negatively affect your school or work. And don’t be afraid of missing anything; you’re more important.
4. Be Open with Others
It took me awhile to learn that people will be more understanding, caring and patient if you explain that you’re struggling with a mental-health disorder. This new policy of mine to try and be up front and honest about the struggle with my disorders has improved my relationships with friends, coworkers and professors.
Explain to your friends why you need to cancel those plans, or why you’ve been distant or seemingly irritable with them. Once you do, they’ll realize that they shouldn’t take it personally if you’re feeling off, and will most likely want to do everything they can to help you. You may find, like I did, that some of your friends have similar disorders and can take solace in the camaraderie of that commonality.
Engaging in conversations with my professors about why I needed to leave the classroom when I was having a panic attack, or why I was struggling to focus on a certain assignment, strengthened our student-teacher relationship. Had I not been honest with my instructors, I know that my grades would have suffered in participation points or quizzes missed when I was unable to stave off a panic attack during class. They helped me when I needed it, and you’ll probably find your professors to be as helpful if you let them know what’s wrong.
5. Find Your Passion and Pursue It
For a few years, I’ve used yoga as a way to rehabilitate myself from trauma, pull myself out of depression and quell the anxious thoughts in my head. Yoga helped me connect to myself again, gave me an outlet for negative vibes and also equipped me with useful techniques, such as slow and controlled breathing, to help with my anxiety.
Yoga isn’t for everyone, but you can find your equivalent in anything you love to do. If you don’t know what your “thing” is, don’t worry. College is a great place to sample different interests and find what works for you. Even better, most of it is free.
Write, make music, play intramural sports, volunteer, get into photography, join a club. Just do something, and then put your heart and love behind it. Whatever you choose to pursue will return the love tenfold with positive change for your mental wellness.
6. Nobody Knows You Better Than You
Remember that everybody is different and requires individualized care. My experience may not be totally applicable to your situation, and that’s okay. Just try to find what works for you, and stick with it.
You got this.