Hi there, today’s blog is written for fellow students who are trying to do their best at school while struggling with mental illness. On top of regular difficulties COVID has added some challenges, however some components can be used in our favour if we know how.
First off I just want to say that I’m so sorry that you’re facing mental struggles while trying to move forward with your life and become who and what you want to be. I understand how painful and lonely this can be, and how it feels to work 10 times harder to get a grade that normally would’ve been ‘easier’ to achieve. I feel for you and I really hope some of these tips can help. We’re in the same boat trying to figure things out as we go along but here’s what I’ve learned.
Online vs On Campus
Are all of your classes online or do you have to attend school in person for certain classes? If you have to go to school, I imagine that stress is much higher given the current situation. Going out is a risk and new procedures have made attending school look quite different than it used to. The only thing I can emphasize if you’re in a position that you must go in person is that you minimize risk and be as safe as possible. An effective, multiple layered mask is essential, and keeping contact to a minimum is safest. I even wear a visor when I go out and when I was working. I find it to be a great extra layer of protection both for others and for myself. If school is online for you, this comes with new challenges as well; there’s a certain productive energy that comes from physically being in a classroom and expected to work. This means that motivation and discipline can be more difficult to harness on your own. On the other hand being able to stay at home and travel a lot less can reduce stress and leave you with more energy to work since transit worries are eliminated. I know that I wouldn’t be able to take my 3 classes if they were on campus; the 3 hours in total of bus transfers each day really wore me out, as did wandering around on campus like a ghost. I couldn’t find a quiet place to regroup and keep myself in one piece. This way I’m also with family if things turn really sour.
Here are some of my own hard-earned tips and strategies, as well as examples of what NOT to do. This advice isn’t just for those with a mental illness – anyone can benefit!
Discipline and Routine
School always requires disciplined time for homework and studying but with classes online it can be even easier to fall into bad patterns.
My first piece of advice is to treat your classes the way you would if they were still held at school. It’s easy to stay in bed and wear comfy PJ’s for an 8:30 online class where no one will see you, but the question is; is this a good idea? My take is that it’s not, and that’s backed up by science. We will never be at our most productive and effective if we’re not in the right frame of mind. When we’re in bed and wearing PJ’s our brain doesn’t expect us to be doing hard work. It thinks we’re going to be sleeping or at the very least relaxing and not doing anything really important. This means our focus, attention, memory and so much more, are NOT primed and ready to be used. This is why last semester I got dressed for class, tied up my hair (I won’t have a problem with that one anymore, haha) and sat at the desk in my bedroom with good lighting and a hard-backed chair. This put my mind into learning and working mode. (Also, it’s hard to take effective notes in bed.)
I also recommend participating in class if it’s that kind of course; participation really helps understanding so even though we don’t usually have to, I think it’s a smart idea. It’s also less boring for everyone if there’s some dialog and exchange. After all, learning is also about that!
With classes online, we don’t have periods of free time where we go to a study area or the library. What’s also unfortunate is that we don’t have study groups in person. To manage these challenges it becomes extremely important to manage our time effectively. Home is a place of comfort and relaxation but it’s also filled with potential distractions. These are essential when we need free time and breaks, but it can be too easy to get lost on our phone for example. If motivation is a problem, coming up with your own class and study schedule can really help if you stick to it. Waiting too long to start homework, projects and studying only builds stress and can be super overwhelming. Tackling things early on and budgeting time over the course of days makes the bites easier to chew. When we don’t feel well the last thing we want are a bunch of deadlines and work weighing us down! I’ve waited too long in the past and the level of anxiety I reached was paralyzing. I found every excuse to work on the assignments that didn’t scare me so much but I left quantitative methods to end. The thought of doing it was daunting and discouraging and it took a lot more effort to finish everything in time and do well. That’s why I love my dad’s advice of ‘FTF’; feared things first. Get them out of the way and things will be significantly easier… and more importantly, it’s psychologically comforting! When we’re already overwhelmed, lost, discouraged, etc., it’s even more essential to distribute the weight of what must be done in a careful and balanced way.
This is a piece of advice that goes with pretty much everything, but I’ll say it again because it’s that significant. Eating and sleeping well are essential for success and well-being. Feed your mind and body healthy foods that keep you going. Snacks that are just filled with carbs for example will not nourish us AND will leave us unsatisfied. Keeping a regular sleep routine is just as important, so determining a time to go to bed and wake up that works for you is highly beneficial but it has to be stuck to. (For advice on creating a healthy routine / schedule, this article may be helpful.) Last but not least, we all know how important exercise is! Now I know that as students (who sometimes work as well), time isn’t something we have a lot of. This is why having a short exercise routine that we follow consistently will yield us the same benefits while only taking up 15 minutes to half an hour. It’s not about quantity it’s about quality, and adding physical activity will help our mood, concentration, sleep and so much more. Even a short walk outside to re-oxygenate our brains can have a large impact! These may seem like small details, but stacking the deck in our favour in every possible way gives us the greatest chance of succeeding.
Mindset and Priorities
Remember what you’re working towards. It can be very discouraging, especially with present circumstances and attending school while experiencing mental illness, but I urge you to remind yourself every day of why you keep going and what plans you have for yourself in life. If you’re unsure…that’s natural! We won’t have it figured out yet and there are bound to be times where we even lose our way entirely. It’s a sad and unfortunate reality but remaining determined by holding on to faith in a better future that we ourselves can create, is emboldening. Don’t let go of optimism and dreams even in the face of darkness. Keep a flame of will and passion burning in your core even when things look like an interminable challenge. We can’t see it at the time – I certainly didn’t, but things WILL improve.
It’s horrible to have a list of tasks the length of your arm…it’s scary and stressful for anybody but for us it can be panic inducing and paralyzing. This is why looking at it all at once isn’t helpful to us, meaning that prioritization is our best friend. There’s only one time we should look at it all at once, and that’s when we plan our strategy. Here’s an example of what I would do:
- English essay due next week
- Comprehension text in French due in 4 days
- Lab report in 3 weeks
- Psychology exam in 8 days
- Humanities assignment due the day after tomorrow
I start by looking at what’s due first and make that a top priority. Then I look at the other deadlines and see that I need to put in segments of work over a period of time. For example day one I’ll work on the humanities but read the text and take notes for the comprehension text in French as well. Later in the day I’ll study a certain chapter of my psychology textbook as well but not overdo it and cram it into one day. Lastly I’ll allocate half an hour to create a rough plan / outline of the points in my English essay. The next day I can plan to read another psych chapter and dedicate an hour to beginning the lab report. Throughout the week I’ll break things down like this and on the weekend when I have more time I can plan to spend 2 hours on the lab and write the body paragraphs for my essay.
Our minds like it better if we only concentrate hard on something for a maximum of about an hour and a half. 45 minutes is often better. Short bursts of focused energy yields better results than working for hours on end because we tire ourselves out. It also helps to change the subject. For example after an hour of working on the English essay I’ll take a break of at least 15 minutes and after that I’ll use a different part of my brain by working on something mathematical like the lab report. It sounds so simple but this technique really works.
When information just isn’t getting in anymore or you can’t for the life of you put words on paper, it’s time to stop! Seriously, even if you can’t stop thinking that you really need to keep pushing yourself because you still have this and that to do and then the other thing…it’s better to take a break and come back fresh. We may think that ploughing away will get us through it, and it may, but not very effectively. To do the best job it’s far more important to listen to yourself and rebuild some mental energy than to work yourself into a stupor. Do something entirely different and ideally something that is more physical than mental and you’ll find yourself coming back to the task with greater concentration and motivation.
Something that I find very important to keep in mind, though I struggle with it anyway, is that education is about learning, growing, discovering…and so much more. It’s not just about getting the highest grades to get the highest possible r-score or GPA. We all know why it’s necessary to be academically successful but the pressure we put on ourselves due to the significance we attach to a number, is frankly damaging. More than that, it leaves out the big picture. Now I’m highly sensitized to the notion of basing self-worth and success on numbers; the highest possible grade and the lowest weight. This is however not, and I repeat, NOT, life! This topic is a whole other article that I should definitely write, though I am so sensitive that it’s a little too soon to delve into. What I do put forth in the meantime is the notion of remembering why you’re doing what you do, and striving to do your best to understand and think. If you don’t get that super high grade you wanted so badly, it’s not the end of the world. Everything is a learning opportunity and perfection doesn’t exist. Let’s try to measure our worth by our level of motivation, determination, focus, will, perseverance and the ability to get back up and learn even when it would be easier to stay on the ground. That is something I’m striving for, and I think it’s well worth it!
The Number 1 Priority
Remember to put yourself first, and yes that means above school and above work – above ANY of your obligations. Your health, both physical and mental, are of the utmost importance. Without them school, work, etc….none of it will matter. This is the foundation upon which everything else is built and leaving it cracked / damaged is a recipe for disaster. Take it from me, having been forced to stop school three times. It’s better to wait until you’re ready and build yourself up stronger than to push until you hit the wall and crumble. It’s very true that it takes so much longer to put yourself back together than it takes to fall apart. So if you’re pushing with all your might, exhausting every ounce of energy and living in constant pain…please, please stop. If you need help, seek it as soon as possible. If you don’t want anyone to know there are ways to get help that are entirely anonymous. It’s better to take a break from school entirely than to push yourself too far. I assure you, a year or two off will not destroy your future! I fell into the trap of not wanting to be left behind and that set me back far more than a short break would have.
I send strength, courage and motivation to all my fellow students and I pray that this article may serve you well in the upcoming semester!