Dear Students...Lessons in University Mental Health
Updated: Mar 5
Let me tell you about a girl I once knew.
The year was 1998, the place, Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett I believe). A conscientious student falling asleep in lectures having taken a job in a nightclub to top up her student loan. Staying up ‘til 4 or 5am to finish assignments and just about passing. By all appearances, she was making the most of uni life, with an avid social and extra-curricular life. The low grades didn’t matter, she’d make them up in her final year.
Behind the façade of nightclub dancing and ‘showing up’ to lecturers, a darkness was consuming her.
Depression had taken hold, and her thoughts spiralled into hopelessness and a desire to leave this world behind.
She left without her degree, leaving academic demons haunting her until her early 30s.
Over several years, she rose, rebuilding herself, until last year, she graduated with a 2:1.
How do I know?
Because that she is me. And I don’t want anyone to have to go through mental health struggles, especially during their studies. Recent concerns around student mental health are completely justified, with “alarmingly high levels of anxiety, loneliness, substance misuse and thoughts of self-harm”, as reported by The Guardian.
So, if you find yourself feeling low or suffering from FOBO (Feeling of Burning Out), hit the pause button and take care of yourself. Here are the top 3 tips that got me through my studies:
1) Check in with yourself regularly - start with every morning, asking yourself on a scale of 0-10 how good you feel. If you’re 6 or below you know you need to take some action - see below for two of my personal favourites, but it’s always good to get some help from a trusted source. The more you check in, the more you can monitor your mental wellbeing – if you find it hard to remember, stack it onto another habit (a la James Clear), e.g. having a cuppa, washing your face – of course remember not to distract yourself while doing something important (e.g. driving).
2) Develop your inner coach – most of us have a pretty vocal inner critic, judging us and other people. You know that voice, “You’ll never be good enough”, “You’re so lazy”, “Why can’t you be more like her?”. Once we start noticing this inner talk, we can counteract it with a better quality of thoughts: “You’ve got this”, “Take a break, you’ve been working hard”, “Do you need some support from a mate?”.
3) Practice Gratitude – humans are wired to look for the negative (you can thank our cave dwelling ancestors for that), but so much is going right every day, and if we train ourselves to pay attention to that, rather than the Wi-Fi dropping or not finding a parking space, we start to cultivate a calmer, happier life for ourselves. To start exploring how Gratitude can bring you a more positive perspective, grab a cuppa and have a read of my blog, Gratitude Goldmine. The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley University is the US mothership on the subject, and has some excellent articles on the science behind Gratitude and how it can manage stress, along with some practical ways to start some simple Gratitude habits.
The key thing to remember is that uni IS hard. It’s meant to be hard. But it’s not meant to destroy you. Quite the opposite. I like to believe the intention behind such challenging programmes of study is to help you discover who you are, and to provide opportunities for you to build your character. But you cannot truly do that if you’re constantly stressed out. I learnt that the hard way. Learn from my experience. Take care of yourself. Get to know yourself and what you need to thrive, and take care of yourself like you would a good friend. Ask for help when you need it – If I’d have had the self-awareness to know I needed help, maybe I would have got my degree in 1999 rather than 2019!
So my advice is, if you want to succeed in your studies, support them with some studies in YOU - learn to take great care of your mind - after all, it's the absolute key to your academic success!
I wish you flourishing mental health, not just for your academic life, but for the REST of your life - for me it was the difference that made a difference.
If you'd like to explore some of the practices above, check out my Uplifting Events section.
Sarit Gafan B.A (Hons) Open
(I wear those letters with 23 years worth of pride!)
Founder, Highest Good Wellbeing
Author, Gratitude Goldmine