Sunday 16 June 2019

Being Mindful of Mental Wellbeing

Michael shares four tips for minding and maintaining healthy mental wellbeing at university.
- Michael

There has been a sharp increase in the demand for on-campus counselling services, whilst suicide risk among students has increased since 2000. Undoubtedly, higher education can be a challenging environment for those that, like me, struggle with mentally ill health. However, I believe that one of the best ways that fellow students can help one another is to share their experiences. Here are four of the most important things to help me stay grounded, mindful, and maintain healthy mental wellbeing at university. 

1. Organisation & Discipline
Take practical steps to be more organised and disciplined. 

The only certainty in higher education is that you will be required to juggle a number of different projects, assessments, modules, and the like. Being disciplined with your time management is key. If you can ascertain what is expected of you, and you can envisage the steps needed to meet those expectations, then pre-emptively breaking up your study time at the start of the semester for each module, for instance, will help immensely. Using a calendar/diary/phone app to track/plan study/research sessions enabled me to visualise tasks and avoid several months of immense stress toward the end of the year. 

In a similar vein, I try and set aside as much time as possible for hobbies, socialising, and just being ‘away’ from my work. If you’re particularly vested in your degree sometimes it, and the stress that comes with it, can consume you. Taking time away allows you to come back to your work with a clear and revitalised mind.  

2. Focus On Sleep
Be mindful of your sleep.  

I frequently encounter problems with my sleep – the prime culprit being insomnia. Characterised by not being able to initiate or maintain long periods of healthy sleep, insomnia can make day-to-day tasks (not to mention, studying) seemingly impossible. There have been times in classes that I have phased through time, almost like I was never there. I then developed anxiety about not sleeping and missing more classes that, in turn, led to even less sleep because of worrying! 

Most students will experience late nights. Whether out at clubs, or studying long hours, sleep deprivation among students is common and not particularly problematic in small bouts. It does, though, become a serious problem when you are too tired to concentrate, too restless to read, or too disassociated to listen to your teacher. Regular sleepless nights quickly became normal for me, and increasingly problematic as my studies progressed. Particularly with intense stressful assessment periods approaching, sleep might seem like the enemy because you cannot study, revise, or research whilst you sleep. However quality sleep is very much your friend during such periods. Where possible, regular sleep/wake times will dramatically decrease your chances of feeling encumbered when you’re awake so that you can study more effectively. 

3. Realising When You Need Help
Try and establish a way of identifying when degree-related stress may develop into a mental illness. 

I have found that part of the difficulty in dealing with mental illness at university is the fact that degrees are exceptionally stressful processes. As a degree requires you to face increasingly difficult challenges, it is easy to become caught up trying to meet the growing demands for self-improvement. I’ve become mindful that it can sometimes be a fine line between experiencing a ‘normal’ level of stress, and developing a mental illness. The difference between a couple of sleepless nights awake researching, and actual sleep deprivation because of insomnia, can become blurred. The distinction between a lack of motivation caused by boredom, and the feeling of hopelessness caused by depression, seems slight. 

The key here is not to normalise debilitating levels of stress. Routinely set aside time for work, and set aside time for resting as part of a healthy work/life balance. Therefore, whilst I cannot measure stress like I might with a thermometer for a physical illness, trying to be self-aware of when routine breaks down, and when stress starts becoming ‘too much’, has been imperative. Further, being open about how I feel with family and friends acts as an additional protective support, because they are sometimes better placed to recognise when I am having difficulties, and can then help and advise accordingly.

4. Seek Help
Seek help if you need it. 

If your mental health begins to deteriorate and you feel as though you are struggling, consider seeking out medical help from your GP, your local mental health charity, online services, or your on-campus mental wellbeing team. Failing all of this – consider telling a member of staff at University whom you trust. Approach your mental illness with the same sincerity and seriousness that you would do with a physical illness. 

These tips all have one thing in common – they require some level of mindfulness. Whatever outlook you adopt during university, being mindful will, at the very least, ensure that your university experience is as smooth as possible. 

For more information and advice on looking after your mental wellbeing, click here. 

My name is Michael. I’m a postgraduate International Human Rights student at Birmingham City University, and will be commencing my doctoral studies in September. Having become personally aware of the mental difficulties that university life can bring, I am trying to become more active in bringing mental health issues to the forefront of discussion in higher education. 

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