At least one in four students experience mental health problems at some point in their university life. Worse still, many of them are suffering in silence.
Are you feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, worthless, or hopeless? Do you have trouble sleeping or loving yourself? Have you ever contemplated self-injury or suicide? Please know that you are not alone.
Australia is a global leader in higher education and youth mental health research; however, its student welfare is not getting enough attention. Moreover, although our society’s perception of mental health has become more positive, the shame and stigma around it still trap many youngsters in a negative cycle of psychological distress and health deterioration.
Let’s learn about your mental health, ways to improve it.
Understanding Mental Health
Mental health comprises our thoughts, emotions, behaviours, psychological and social well-being. It defines how we perceive and feel about ourselves, interact with people, build relationships, and overcome life challenges. Problems arise when it interferes with our daily personal and professional tasks or impairs our ability to function normally and relate to other people.
Common mental health conditions experienced by tertiary students:
- Anxiety disorders, Panic attacks
- Mood disorders (e.g. Depression, Bipolar)
- Eating disorders (e.g. Anorexia)
The most common mental illnesses (anxiety and depression) have a combination of risk factors, most of which are exclusive to university life:
- Deadlines, examinations
- Academic performance, stress from under-achievement
- Pressure to succeed, live up to parents’ expectations
- Graduate employment prospects
- Financial strain, work/study balance
- Lifestyle (lack of sleep, poor diet, physical inactivity, drug/alcohol misuse)
Now let’s find out the warning signs of declining mental health to watch out for in yourself and friends:
- Feelings of listlessness, worthlessness, hopelessness, helplessness, tearfulness
- Lack of concentration, motivation, interest, enjoyment
- Continuous sadness, anxiety, worrying and extreme mood swings
- Low self-esteem and high guilt, shame, inferiority
- Inability to handle stress, change, hardship
- Trouble making decisions, dealing with relationships
- Irritability, intolerance of people and social withdrawal, self-isolation
- Disturbed energy level, sleep, appetite, libido, menstrual cycle
- Unexplained constipation, body aches and pains
- Unhealthy coping mechanism, e.g. substance/alcohol abuse, negative self-talk, procrastination, emotional binge-eating
- Attempts or thoughts of self-mutilation, self-destruction, suicide
But remember, mental illnesses are personal and variable! Sufferers may experience all or just some of the symptoms above. Thus, seek help immediately if you are struggling.
Eligibility for Special Circumstances
Does the state of your mental health hinder you from meeting the deadlines or achieving your usual standard of essays and projects? Perhaps, it makes your studying less efficient and productive.
If your mental health condition causes you to struggle with any coursework or exam, apply for consideration of Extenuating or Mitigating Circumstances. Don’t wait till the end of your academic year to submit applications – that will limit the options of on-going support available to you.
Remember though, Australian universities have different policies for classifying exceptional circumstances, assessing on a case-by-case basis, and supporting students with mental illness. Therefore, it is difficult to know whether the Student Equity and Disability advisers would accept your case and offer any of these study adjustments:
- Deadline extension
- Alternative exam venue
- Attendance flexibility
- Academic assistance from support workers
Don’t forget to seek guidance from the Student Services Centre on the application procedure and required documentation. Typically, you need:
- Either a Health Professional Report from your counsellor, psychiatrist, psychologist, university’s Health Service or Psychological and Counselling Services
- Or a Medical Certificate from your GP
Improve Your Mental Health
Many students try to ‘be’ a certain way according to their internal standards, social norms and expectations. Besides, thoughts of being who they are, saying what they think, behaving and acting the way they want could bring intense negative emotions. Nevertheless, that should not cut you out for academic excellence, extra-curricular, or part-time jobs.
Here’s how to get in touch with your self-confidence, authenticity, individuality, and true feelings, to cope with mental health issues and get better, to ameliorate mental health shame.
Everyone experiences a certain degree of distress and self-criticism in our day-to-day life, but the prevalence of mental health conditions in university students is alarming. A way out is self-compassion. And no, it is neither extravagant nor spiritual. We only need to be kinder, more understanding and forgiving towards our mistakes, weaknesses, and inadequacies.
But how to become self-compassionate?
Imagine someone who has been understanding you in your best and worst times. A fictional character also does the trick! What would they say when you are deeply sad and crying? How would their input make you feel? Would it make you more open-minded and positive about your situation? Write the answers in a letter to yourself and repeat the process whenever you feel emotionally drained.
Celebrate Your Achievements
Most university students need to stretch themselves day in day out to attain academic goals. Although it is good to work hard, expand your comfort zone, and crush limits, don’t forget to recognise your emotions, and reflect upon your achievements. Try to focus on what you have gained, learnt, and mastered – focusing on what other students have (but you do not) will arouse feelings of inferiority.
Proper Self-care is Self-Love
Value yourself: To look after your mental wellness and wellbeing effectively, don’t criticise yourself or doubt your self-worth for having a mental health issue. And, don’t force yourself to do things from this checklist that make you uncomfortable and unhappy. Lastly, don’t compare yourself to people on social media. Try to cut down your online activity and live more.
Have ‘ME’ time: Relieve yourself of the pressure to socialise and attend all events that you are invited to. Set aside some hours at night or on weekends for leisure activities – be it purposeful recreation, mindless entertainment or your hobbies. Alternatively, try meditation and mindfulness.
Adopt a healthy lifestyle: Avoid or reduce your intake of caffeine, energy drinks, and nicotine (psychostimulants) and alcohol (depressant). Try to cut back on high-calorie comfort food such as ice cream, hot chips, sticky date pudding. We recommend frozen veggies, frozen and dried fruits for your five fruit/veg a day diet – in the long run, you will feel more energetic.
Sleep well: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day to feel refreshed in the morning and make your occasional lie-ins more satisfying. Sleep deficiency and deprivation lead to sluggish feelings all day long, so don’t neglect sleep because of deadlines, exams, or nights out.
Exercise regularly: Both vigorous aerobic exercise and 20-30 minutes of light exercise trigger the release of endorphins in your brain and ultimately dopamine – the neurotransmitter of pleasure and reward associated with runner’s high, appetizing food, chocolate, and music.
Clean your space: Open windows, let fresh air in every morning, tidy and clean your room and flat at least once per week. To de-stress and improve your focus, de-clutter your physical and mental life, take a walk and embrace nature several times per month.
Give yourself small tasks: Mental illness may prevent you from getting out of bed and leaving your room. Set S.M.A.R.T goals for your personal and educational life such as ‘Clean your room’, ‘Read a chapter’, ‘Contribute to a group discussion’. Remember to track your progress – seeing how productive you have become might motivate you to attain more goals.
We talked about battling mental health issues at university – that was about it. For more mental health resources and support services in Australia, visit Head to Health, CCI, Your Health In Mind, Headspace, AMSA, 1010. Keep in mind that self-help does not help all cases of mental illness. Medication, therapy, and professional help are critically important if you are self-harming or contemplating suicide.