A quick look at social media will tell any observer that mental health is one of the most important concerns facing college students today. It’s no surprise that the mental health difficulties students faced in high school are only intensified by the different stress of college. My own experience has taught me that, in times of high stress and intensity, mental health is usually one of the first things to go. Over the course of my four years as a college student, I have learned a few things (mostly the hard way) about mental health.
I recently learned that getting less than 5 hours of sleep a night is considered sleep deprivation. (source) Now as a senior, I realized that I’ve spent the majority of the past four years in and out of sleep deprivation. There were entire weeks where I lived in this state. If I could go back and do things over, I wouldn’t take on less commitments. I would, however, undo the nights I spent awake between 11 pm – 3 am attempting to work on assignments. The truth is, I was very rarely productive on anything academic past 11 pm. I wish I could tell my freshman self go to bed instead of scrolling through social media, attempting to garner the mental energy to finish an assignment. No amount of coffee could give me the mental focus I needed—my body, mind, and soul needed sleep. Go to bed when you’re too tired to be productive.
I have noticed that particularly in college, it’s tempting to brandish a lack of sleep as a sort of battle wound—it feels like a competition to see who has slept the least. Don’t fall into this trap. Sleeping a sufficient amount every night seriously improves my mental health, my productivity, and the amount of grace I share with others.
Since sophomore year, I’ve spent hours in the school counselor’s office. I started going because I knew going to therapy would cost me at least $100 an hour after graduating and I started to see the way my mental health was affecting my life and relationships. This was one of the most rewarding decisions I made in college. The counselor taught me to set boundaries that preserved my relationships with both of my parents, equipped me to understand my mental health, and taught me how to grow in (and out of) relationships. There were weeks I forced myself to go, even if it seemed overwhelming. Those times were difficult, but my consistency was rewarded. I learned to take the pressure off of having therapy look a certain way. Sometimes I stay the whole hour, sometimes I only stayed for twenty minutes. And that’s okay, because it was still progress.
Find out what resources your school has available and commit to using at least one of them. Start small. Stay consistent. All forward progress is a victory.
One of the harder things I’ve learned is to separate my mental health from the mental state of my friends. Going to school can feel like living in a pressure cooker. The combination of academics, campus life, relationships, sports, and extracurriculars are the perfect chaotic combination to intensify existing mental health conditions and develop new ones. Most students live in this constant pressure, which means- even if you’re doing okay mentally, at least one person around you is not.
For me, few things are as uniquely challenging as watching the mental health of my friends unravel, especially if I’m barely holding it together. Since I’ve learned that I am responsible for my mental health and my choices, but that I can’t control the choices those around me are making (thank you @therapy!), my mental health has improved. Another benefit of managing my mental health is that the people around me actually benefited from my stability and improved mental health as well.
Mental health, like physical health, doesn’t magically improve over night. However, if you do the work, it does get better. Times of stress, grief, or loss can slip you right back into the dark places you thought you left behind. Every time you rise from these places, you build your mental muscles and reduce the amount of time you spend there the next time. It’s very hard to see progress while you’re making it, but it’s there. Don’t get discouraged.
It was important for me to realize that the days when I’m not okay do not invalidate the progress I have made. Sometimes I panic when I start to experience mental red flags—like being constantly exhausted or sad, apathetic, and lethargic. Sometimes these things are the natural result of stress or a lack of sleep. And if I’m in a really stressful finals week, I’m probably going to be exhausted, lethargic, and pretty sad. These are normal side effects of living. They become serious red flags when they become the normal, instead of the exception. (thank you, therapy, for this lesson.)
Surrounding yourself with things that refresh your mind and spirit can look a million different ways. For me, making sure my environment is clean and cozy—filled with green plants and warm lighting—goes a long way in enabling me to think clearly, be productive, and rest. I’ve recently discovered that I find impressionist art both beautiful and relaxing. My laptop desktop background and the homepage on my browser are both beautiful paintings. Every time I see my browser now, I get a little spark of joy. Often making improvements to your mental health aren’t seismic shifts—most of the time, these improvements are a collection of small changes that shift your mind back to joy and hope.
For you, it may not be art. It might be making dinner or taking a walk. Maybe it’s calling a friend or hitting the gym. There is no one-size-fits-all remedy to what brings joy. The important thing is to find the things that do and incorporate them into your life.
Sometimes the expectations I set for myself are counterproductive. Deciding to not start a big project or assignment because I don’t have a long stretch of empty time before me isn’t always productive. Don’t underestimate how much can be accomplished if you take it in small, bite-sized chunks. The same thing is true for rest and refreshment. You may not have an extra hour to spend relaxing and doing something that fills you up, but what about that ten-minute break between classes? Or the twenty-minute time gap between lunch and that meeting? Take advantage of little time gaps to refresh. Reading a book or writing a journal entry in that time will likely leave you better off than a mindless scroll through social media.
It’s far too easy (particularly in our media-saturated world) to have unrealistic expectations of where you should be in life. I have so many brilliant, responsible, and talented friends—sometimes I let their talents and successes become subconscious notes to myself of another way I don’t measure up. I’ve found the line, commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, to be a good reminder— “true nobility is found in being superior to your former self.” My success is not measured in comparison to those around me, but rather in comparison to who I used to be. Sometimes it’s difficult to identify the ways I’ve grown and changed, but a review of my social media posts from a few years ago, or re-reading journals or even emails I’ve sent, is a helpful reminder. Find a way to document the ways your progress. It’s much greater than you can see or remember.
Written by: Patricia Mullett | Images: Ilumina Photography
Patricia is a first-generation college student from Ault, CO. When she’s not studying, she enjoys taking long drives, having meaningful conversations, and making soup.
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