My Advice for New University/College Students with Mental Illnesses

On my first day of university, I walked into the gym where they were registering new students, and a group of frosh week greeters started singing the Welcome to University song and clapping happily along. And I burst into tears. Real, very intense tears. Because I was so nervous and on the very edge of a full on anxiety attack, that their cheerful song that was supposed to be filling me with school spirit just pushed me over that edge. But yet here I stand, five years later, with the degree I went for in hand. It was insanely difficult, it took me through many mental breakdowns, beginning medication for my depression, and struggling to accept that I just need a bit more help when it comes to coping with stress. So here are my tips for those of you that are entering post-secondary this summer and are very very worried about it.

Also, a disclaimer: I’m going to keep saying “university” but this advice applies to basically anyone who is either entering post secondary or moving away from home at a young age.

Take it as slow as you need to

When you first get to university, chances are you are probably going to experience frosh week, or some variation on that. This is a week absolutely chock full of huge amounts of pressure to socialize and participate in group activities and other things that us with social anxiety have literal nightmares about. Here is me giving you a free pass to not do literally any of that. Seriously. You don’t have to do any of it. You’re here for education, and you’re paying for education, and while making friends is always a good thing, there are other ways to do that then doing the cheesy events they plan for frosh week. People will load the pressure on you to do this though. Frosh leaders will tell you you’re missing out, your dormitory leader will guilt you, and some of the people who consider these events to be essential to your university experience might sneer at you. But chances are, you probably aren’t the only one not doing the events. Stay in your room, or go to the library or gym, and you’ll probably find other people skipping out. If you want to attend a couple of events, you can do that too. You by no means have to attend every single frosh event just because you’re a freshman.

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Use the resources you are given

While not exactly in the spotlight during frosh, most post-secondary schools have a surprising amount of mental health resources. My school had a suicide hotline, counselors available for therapy appointments, and an on-site medical clinic. Also, mental health problems were a valid issue that allowed you to use the Accessible Learning Center.  It was actually that clinic where I was first officially diagnosed with depression and general anxiety by a professional. They were very understanding, didn’t trivialize my feelings as just complaining, and helped me work through the beginning of medicating my illness, which can be a tricky and hurtful experience. I also started using the Accessible Learning Center, but it took me until my fourth and last year to accept that help. Don’t make that mistake! These people literally exist to just help you and fight for your educational success. Take advantage of it! There is nothing wrong with using the help that is there for you to use. The Accessible Learning Center provided me with note-writers, people who also go to the same classes as you, and will share their notes with you. As someone whose depression kept her in bed many days, knowing that you wouldn’t miss anything in those classes. Even if you make it in, you also now have the extra notes to cross reference with your own, if you have problems with focusing for long periods or taking written notes. Bottom line, help yourself.

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Don’t lie about how you’re doing

The number one instinct of people with mental illness is to deny, deny, deny. And sometimes, that seems like the only option when your parents don’t understand and you feel like no one will just listen to what’s going on with you. But if you can trust your parents to help you out at all then they should know what’s going on with you. I spent the first two years of university telling my mom and family that I was fine. Exam’s coming up? I’m fine. Grades are slipping? Yep I’m fine. Vague posting on Facebook? No, no, I’m fine. Really. Except I’m not. At all. And I know now that if I had just told my mom that I was struggling, she would have helped me. She wouldn’t have been ashamed. She would not have turned me away. She would not have minimized my feelings or shrugged me off. She would have just helped me, in a time where I desperately needed help and understanding. I wasted two years because I was scared of being honest. Those are years that I could have spent healing, sharing with my mom, and working with her to become stronger and less stressed. I know it’s scary, and it might backfire, but getting the support system you need to fight your illness is more than worth the risk, I promise.

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Be gentle and forgiving with yourself

I know this is an analogy that is thrown around a lot, but I truly believe in it. You need to treat yourself how you would if you had a physical illness. Would you consider someone in a wheelchair weak for needing a ramp to get to their classes? Would you think someone who couldn’t attend class due to vomiting a slacker? Would you judge someone missing an exam because they were in the hospital with appendicitis? No probably not. Although if you would, maybe you’ve got other ableist problems. Now those people are generally considered to have a good enough excuse to receive extra helps and exceptions from the school to achieve academic success. So why are you getting so down on yourself for needing some extra help? Try to give yourself a break from now and then, because you deserve it. You are living your life with the exhausting weight of mental illness on your shoulders. It only makes sense that you’ll be more tired than others might be, even if you’re going through the same experiences. You just have to forgive yourself instead of adding to the weight on your shoulders. When you’re scheduling your study sessions, make sure you leave some time for self-care. Specifically set aside time for refreshing yourself. When you set aside that time, you can make sure that you have the time for this without feeling like you’re slacking your schedule. Just remember that if you don’t allow time to recharge and refresh yourself, all the time you spend on “important things” will be less efficient since you’re working against exhausting and stress that would have been worn away with solid self-care time.

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Don’t spread yourself too thin

The best advice I ever got about university was to remember that post-secondary school is all about priorities. And those priorities are entirely up to you. So if you look at yourself in school as a juggler. You have many balls in the air at once. You’ve got a ball for each class, one or two for socializing, perhaps another for a romantic relationship, one for boring adult things such as paying bills, another for hygiene, and then another one for each extra-curricular activity you’ve got. Now that is a lot of ball in the air for you to keep track of. Now when you’re juggling many things, sometimes it gets too busy in the air and you start to falter. When that happens you’ve got a choice. You can drop a couple of balls, or you can risk fumbling all of them at once. This is when your choices come into play. Maybe you’ve got a lot of assignments coming up so you’ve got to drop your socializing and extra-curricular time. Or maybe there’s a big game coming up for your sports team, so school work takes a bit of a hit for the week preceding the game. The key is to choose what is the most important to you at the time and for the future. Then you need to appropriately prioritize that. There are going to be times where you feel stretched beyond yourself and as though there are simply not enough hours in the day. That’s when you need to reflect on your life very carefully and rearrange your priorities so at least the most pressing issues can be handled.

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And there you have the ways that I survived university despite my mental illnesses. I hope that these tips will at least slightly help you with your young adult life. Thanks so much for reading, later days!

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