In the middle of the student life whirlwind: taking care of your mental health

Student life is an exceptional experience, but it can be stressful at times, especially towards the end of the academic year when students are snowed under with assignments, deadlines and exams. A student can feel under pressure because of many other reasons too, and, fortunately, there has been an increasing awareness about the topic of mental healthcare in higher education. At the same time, various organisations, charities, staff and student societies organise mental healthcare and well-being activities to facilitate it for students to know how to deal with such issues.

During my undergraduate studies, my strategy to fight deadlines and exam-related stress was to escape them by watching comedy series and doing all those house chores that I had been putting off, and I would only start working on my assignments as I got nearer to the deadline. As a PhD student now, this strategy unfortunately doesn’t work any more because of the nature of the assignments, and I find myself having to come to terms with them sooner.

Whether it’s long-term periods of pressure or short-term but frequent bursts of stress, one way in which Lancaster University has helped to prepare students to deal with well-being issues is through their related events. In this blogpost, I write about two events that I attended earlier in the year: a training session on how to take care of your own and other students’ well-being, and a well-being fair which included a few organisations and short activities to let students and staff know of the available mental health services.

The first event that I attended was the Mental Health First Aid training. It took place early in the academic year and was a light-weight session to help students understand what well-being is and how they can spot if they, or anyone else, are struggling with any related issues. We were divided into two groups, and the session leader guided our discussions. The session quickly turned into a safe space as we started sharing our own experience in our own groups and the session leader gave us a few real-life examples from his experience.
When asked to define well-being and mental health problems, both groups compared them to physical pain. While mental health problems usually require professional or medical assistance, well-being is a state of being comfortable, and both types of issues can influence each other. For example, if a student is in an uncomfortable situation, this might trigger a mental health problem. These issues are subtle in nature and can be much harder to spot than physical pain both in oneself and in others, as one of my friends once told me, “Don’t forget to check on your ‘strong friend.’”

Even though some of the information can be readily found on the internet, it is only when I discussed it in my group that I started to become aware of how someone’s behaviour can indicate that “something is not quite right with a person” or that “this person needs help.” This shows how delicate mental healthcare can be and how interpersonal skills can be useful in setting a helpful environment for someone to express what is affecting their well-being, and, as a result, their academic progress. The session gave me a starting “toolkit” to deal with stressful situations, which might be affecting me or other people.

The second event was the well-being fair. It was on the 1st of March, the University Mental Health Day, and it was held at the Chaplaincy centre. This day was also a very cold, rainy and windy day, so I found my way quickly to the centre. A well-timed hot chocolate was being served. It was the first time for me to be inside the Chaplaincy centre, and I found it to be a peaceful place with spacious rooms, a good place for this type of event. A lady from the Alternative Health Practitioners approached me and we started chatting. We talked about the different ways that could help you relax, such as massages and talking/listening. We even talked about history and the organisation’s involvement with the community. Then I spoke to somebody from the sports centre who organises weekly walks and runs, some of which are to raise funds for various causes. Vegan soup was also being served and in the opposite room a mindfulness session took place. The fair allowed students to see what organisations, people and techniques were available to them, on campus and in the city, which can make them enjoy well-being-related activities.

Even though I am a PhD student, which means that, fortunately, I do not have to take any exams, I still have deadlines for assignments where I have to write long and elaborate essays for my supervisors (some for a few modules that I’m currently taking, and some to apply for funding for my research). I am also a tutor to undergraduate students, which means that, on top of my deadlines, I have to mark the exams and assignments of my students. Sometimes I find a healthy balance by being able to manage my time well and motivate myself, and, although I consider myself someone who works well under pressure, sometimes things can be overwhelming. Part of the PhD journey, as many would agree, is to face puzzling situations and ambiguous readings and modes of reasoning. When I started my research, I wanted to know more about how different individuals can perform better in certain organisations than in others. I was interested in this topic because, in my previous job as a recruiter, hiring managers often discussed it with me. I find this topic ever more complex and perplexing after starting my PhD research. There is no straightforward answer to it, or, rather, the most straightforward answer would be that “it depends.” On what? On whom? Or does it depend on wider societal and economic circumstances, or on how one wants to think about it? The list of questions is never-ending. As I get close to an answer to one of them, ten other questions emerge. In summary, this is what I think about daily, or try not to think about sometimes too when it gets overwhelming, especially with the presence of other personal and work-related commitments, and, for an international student, with the mental overload that comes with adjusting to living in a new environment. But back to our initial topic, the mental healthcare awareness and activities are helpful in different ways: they have helped me to take my mind off studying, and sometimes just by taking a break, I come back more energised than before.

The presence of the mental healthcare services and well-being organisations and activities has been noticeable on campus. Alongside the increased awareness of these issues, there is an increasing number of services and initiatives to ensure that students find a suitable solution for them when they face such problems or simply when they want to have a good well-being experience. These range from professional counselling services to activities to engage with the community.