As a mentally ill student, I am fully aware of how difficult it can be to take care of yourself while adjusting to such a drastic change of environment. The stresses of everyday life add up. Being thrust into the dichotomy of the academic world and student life is never easy. That’s why self care is so crucial.
I really hope this doesn’t come across as preachy or anything, because I promise I do know what I’m talking about. My first year of university was spent navigating lectures and seminars and a new-found social life with mine and my friends’ mental illnesses. I won’t say we’re great at dealing with life, but we are trying. I have learnt a lot, about life, about myself, and what I need to do to take care of myself.
For me, university is where I started to get proper help. I think the spectacular failure of therapy and counselling both before and during university did fuel me to ask for better help, but also I think turning 18 a couple of months after starting uni was part of it. Being 18 meant I could be prescribed extremely useful medication. It’s still touch and go with how well they are working, but it definitely does help when I remember to take them. And this brings me to the first act of self care.
If you have them, take your pills when you need to! Invest in a cheap weekly tablet box if you have to – I got a pink one for 83p! – just please please follow the instructions for your medication. And if it’s not helping you, you need to get a different prescription. It’s very important. You are entitled to the best medical care for your condition.
Eating right is just as vital. This doesn’t have to mean a fridge full of expensive vegetables, but it also doesn’t mean living off Pot Noodles and fizzy laces. Whether it’s a Tesco’s Own pizza with some lettuce or instant rice with vegetables, as long as you eat something more than once a day. It’s okay if all you can eat some days is some chocolate because it’s in the cupboard and you can’t make yourself make something better. I know how hard it is to stay on top of feeding yourself. If you have any spare energy though, you need to make nutritious meals (orrrrrrrr, eat wedges five days a week like me whoops). If you’re having a good day and you have time, you should consider preparing and freezing/refrigerating some meals so you only have to reheat them when needed.
The thing about universities is that they tend to be in or near cities. That makes shopping easier for some people in that you can make use of online deliveries. Sometimes people I know pool their shopping with flatmates to meet the delivery minimum. If you can’t or don’t want to do that, make sure you do a shop at least every two weeks. You need to have food in the cupboard. You don’t want a situation where you are finding it too hard to go outside but you have no food or no washing up liquid. Sometimes this can be a motivator, but other times it can lead to too much pizza delivery or just not eating all, which are really not good ideas.
Just don’t do what a friend and I did on our first proper shopping trip, which was have one basket between the two of us, which turned into several shopping bags we had to lug around looking for the bus stop. Make sure you know where you’re going – Google Maps is your friend – and what time the buses are. Maybe you won’t even need a bus or a map; maybe your accommodation is two minutes away from a Sainsbury’s or something.
Basically, you need to balance your social capabilities with needing to eat and get essentials such as toilet paper. Once you reach a happy medium, you can feel relaxed as you won’t have to drag yourself outside when you’re unprepared, and you have everything you need.
Cutesy self care things can be helpful too. A pretty bath bomb if you have a bath, your favourite coffee, even some cute sticky notes. They can brighten your day and lift your mood. Don’t let anyone tell you self care has to be all clinical, washing and tidying. Self care can be things that make you happy, too.
You could try saving a little money every month (even a fiver) to buy yourself something nice. Call it a pick-me-up if you like. Having the spare money to treat yourself for getting through the month can really help you feel happier. And you deserve it.
In the words of the great Tom Haverford, TREAT. YO. SELF.
Leave yourself reminders everywhere. This is where the cute sticky notes come in handy! Stick one in your drawers, in your kitchen cupboard, on your mirror, inside a shoe – anywhere to remind you that you are awesome and valid and wonderful.
Showers. As I said in my post about bad mental health days, wet wipes and dry shampoo can be lifesavers when you just can’t force yourself to shower. On the other hand, showers can be used as a “reset” button. Feeling cleaner makes anyone happier, and often when I come out of the shower I feel like I’ve washed away some of the bad feelings. This often leads to some kind of faux-motivation with which I attempt to be productive, with mixed results. So occasionally showers can be doubly awesome.
If you have a bath, I have been reliably informed that a long bubble bath can be relaxing and helps with a multitude of probems.
Doing your laundry is an annoying yet crucial part of living. Even more annoying when you can’t figure out the washing machines and you have to get your dad to top up the laundry card cos you’re too young to have PayPal. It’s hard to keep track sometimes of when you last washed your clothes, and it gets to be a burden. Maybe try to set a date on which to do your washing, and do your best to stick to it. See if you can go at the same time as your flatmates, if you get on. Letting your dirty washing pile up is so easy, I know, but putting on clean pyjamas or a fresh duvet cover feels so much better than avoiding going out. If you’re worried about going out in old holey jeans and a nightie because you have no clean clothes left (lord, people have seen me in some awful outfits) or are just too self-conscious for whatever reason, then aim to go when there’ll be fewer people, whether that’s lunchtime, when it’s dark, or just before the washing area closes. Of course, if you have a washing machine in your accommodation like I’ll have next year then this all becomes much easier.
When it comes to cleaning your flat or house, most accommodation has a weekly cleaner who will do a basic kitchen and bathroom clean. However, you and your flatmates are responsible for keeping the entire place neat and tidy. However unmanageable it seems, try not to let it pile up. You could try the system of five-minute-tidying, where you clean up for five minutes before taking a break. Another method is starting something and saying “I’ll stop washing up after the fifth dish” etc. Not only are you more likely to continue until you’ve finished, but it helps break tasks down into attainable goals. A tidier environment is good for your health and mind, so at least try not to let it become a tip. I’m a big believer in not going overboard – my room is organised chaos – so don’t stress too much about a little bit of mess.
If you know people (or friends of friends) in the same lectures or seminars, you should see about studying for tests and exams together, or getting together to plan essays. It’s always helpful to work with other people, especially when you can compare notes. It also makes you more likely to start and finish your assessments if you have someone else to motivate you (I learnt this the hard way). Your discussions could bring up points you haven’t thought about, and sharing resources means you don’t have to wait for library books or DVDs to be returned. Your uni work can be a major source of stress, so getting it done in time will definitely alleviate some of it as well as boost your marks.
If there’s a club or society you like the look of, you should join it. I got lucky and found the nicest, most welcoming and supportive society. Don’t feel you have to go to every meeting and event, but try your best. It does you good to get out and socialise sometimes. Do remember it’s okay to take a break, to say no, to not go out sometimes. It’s okay to make time for yourself, especially when you aren’t feeling social. Pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone can be beneficial too, however.
Techniques to support you include relaxation, breathing exercises, distractions in the form of art or music. Here’s some from Mind, the mental health charity. Whether you have your own or you develop some, coping mechanisms are a way of getting through difficult things and times. Here’s where the self care comes in: don’t let your way of coping be destructive. Even if it lets you get through the weariness of mental illness, it’s still harmful and unhealthy, and for your own sake, you should try a range of methods to find one that sticks. Keeping a list of things that help or even a box of stuff to distract you (for example: colouring books, play dough, recipes – literally anything) is also a good idea.
Small things, like getting curly fries down the union or saying yes to going to a barbecue with your friends, can be good for you in so many ways. Even smaller things like keeping a music or video playlist for when you need to calm down; getting a fancy notebook to keep your notes organised; cleaning your desk occasionally to help you stay organised; tidying up a bit of your room if you can’t manage the whole thing – every little bit helps; going for a walk on a nice day; all of these can have a positive effect. I personally cannot recommend the benefits of fresh air and sunshine enough.
Take advantage of good days. That might involve making a dent in an essay a few weeks before it’s due, familiarising yourself with the bus routes, or going along to office hours to ask something. Basically anything that will be physically and emotionally impossible for you to do on a bad day. It makes it easier to cope with a bad day when you have less things to worry about, and it stops things piling up.
It’s exhausting living with a mental illness. University is great with helping in some ways, but detrimental in others. You’re more than likely living away from home and you have an increased set of responsibilities. That’s why self care is so essential.
Just take baby steps. You’ll be okay. You’ve got this far, so well done you!! And if university or college ends up not being for you, then don’t worry. You’re not a failure and you will find something that is right for you. The best thing you can do is to look after your mental health. Wherever you end up, just promise me you’ll take care of yourself.
If you’re interested in reading a Google Doc I compiled, designed to help with a variety of things such as self care, bad mental health days and distracting yourself, contact me here and I will send it to you.
I really hope this post was helpful, even though it was mainly aimed towards first year students. If you have any self care advice or ways to cope at university or college, feel free to send them in or comment below. We’d love to hear them.