By: Julie Maio
If you conducted a Google search and typed in “mental illness” and “college students” (which is what I did before outlining this article) you’ll find a plethora of articles talking about the mental health crisis facing today’s college students. According to an American College Health Association survey, 61% of students reported they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the prior year, and roughly 40% said they experienced depression over the past year that made it difficult to function. This mental health crisis may only continue to worsen, as many job fields require employees to have a bachelor’s or even a higher degree to be considered for a job, putting extra pressure on today’s students to succeed.
Although college campuses try their best to provide on-campus resources to help students manage their mental illnesses and how they intersect with their studies, there is still work to be done. As someone who has had mental illnesses since a young age (and has a couple of degrees and a graduate certificate under her belt), I’d like to share how mental illnesses can make pursuing an education challenging as well what helped me live more harmoniously with my mental illnesses during my time as a student.
Education and Anxiety
My anxiety manifests itself in a number of ways, but one of the most debilitating ways it affects me as a student is that I’m constantly trying to fight off being a perfectionist. It makes me procrastinate due to the fear of not knocking an assignment out of the park, I can mull over the tiniest of details for way too long, and I end up stressing myself out when it comes to studying for tests because I need to get an A.
These qualities exist in people without anxiety, I’m sure, but the reason the strive for perfectionism can be worse with anxiety is due to the constant negative self-talk if you aren’t the straight A, perfect student. So, if you do end up not getting a perfect score or stumble through a presentation, anxiety brain can take over and make you feel horrible about yourself.
Speaking of presentations, public speaking is usually difficult to do when you have anxiety (I guess it’s a good thing I pursued an education in communication and taught public speaking, right? :)) My anxiety causes unignorable physical sensations when faced with a public speaking engagement: racing heart, sweaty palms, dry mouth, difficulty breathing, etc. There have even been times where I worked myself up so much before and during a speech that I became dizzy. Anxiety can also cause us to create worst-case scenarios in our heads surrounding public speaking, which in turn can cause the physical symptoms to crop up.
Lastly, if your brain resembles a hamster constantly running on a wheel, it can make it difficult to focus and grasp readings and other class material. In turn, this usually means that it takes an individual with anxiety more time to fully understand course concepts.
Education and Depression
I’m sure it goes without saying, but depression sucks the life out of you and can cause a clear lack of motivation. Yet, sometimes people who have never experienced depression have a hard time understanding this, perhaps thinking that depression is just laziness, which is not the case. Something as easy as making notecards to study from or reading the last 10 pages of a chapter can seem like a monumental task, and maintaining the energy to get through assignments even when you are able to start them can be difficult.
In addition, you may get a case of the scumbag brain, as I like to call it. My depression sometimes manifests in telling me not to bother trying my hardest because I’m not good enough anyway. Usually, I can fend off these thoughts, but sometimes they wear me down and I start to believe them, which doesn’t create a good mental atmosphere for producing anything of high-quality.
Resources, Strategies, and Tips
Thankfully, I have found ways to lessen the hold mental illnesses have over me. Here is a list of what has helped me manage my mental illnesses over the years while being a student:
Use On-Campus Resources
Most college campuses have a plethora of different types of resources and therapies you can take advantage of. I have gone to counseling centers for traditional therapy; I’ve utilized gyms and rec centers to stay active and healthy, making sure to take advantage of yoga and zumba classes; and I’ve taken mindfulness classes through my graduate school’s Health Promotion and Wellness center, which also helped me hone my meditation practice.
Moreover, your campus should have an office that provides students with specific accommodations based on individualized needs. You may be able to get a note-taker, an extension on assignments, or take tests in a room free from typical classroom distractions, among other accommodations, which can make a world’s difference for students who need a little assistance to understand class material, complete assignments, and take exams.
Make Time for Self-Care/Self-Love
I get it. College is a time where there’s seemingly always something going on, whether it be an on-campus event, friends wanting to go out, or a sporting event. While it’s certainly a good idea to get out of the house and be social, it’s just as important to learn how to say no and make room for alone time in your schedule. I was much better at this in graduate school, but I found that even taking a few hours on a Sunday to get through my checklist or just completely relax made my brain happy, which made me more centered and focused when doing schoolwork.
The self-love component is a suggestion to help you learn how to not get down on yourself. It’s okay if you don’t get an A on every assignment - it’s not the end of the world. Instead of letting scumbag brain show up and take over, try being kind toward yourself and figuring out what steps you can take to do better next time (but make sure these steps are reasonable and don’t put too much stress on you!).
Ask for Help
I fully understand how difficult it can be to ask for help. I’m probably the poster child of not asking for help when I need it most, but when it comes to mental illnesses, you shouldn’t have to face the challenges it can present alone. So, you may need to ask a friend to proof a paper for you or speak privately with your professor to ask for a deadline extension, or you may need help in other areas to make more time for your academics, such as cooking, house chores, or running an errand, and that is completely okay. It’s not easy for everyone to ask for help, but if it will help you feel better it’s certainly worth it.
What are your thoughts on how mental illnesses and education intersect? Do you have any tips or strategies that have helped you or someone you know manage mental illnesses while pursuing an education?