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Writing An Essay With A Mental Illness

It’s that time of year again. The dreaded end-of-semester essays are looming ominously. The anxiety of word-counts and deadlines has primed and readied itself for full impact. The fear and panic is a force to be reckoned with for the average student, let alone a student who suffers with mental illness. So, what can we do? How do we cast off the clutches of mental illness to get the job done? Let’s take a moment to talk it through.  

As we all know, mental illness is a rather large umbrella term for a multitude of diagnoses. We each have our symptoms and triggers, and we also have individual tools for combatting them. But there are a few things I believe we all can do to help keep them in check for the essay season.

Your Desk

Our desk is a reflection of our mind. Wait, wait. Hear me out. When we have a mental illness, our minds become cluttered and oppressive spaces. Fears and anxieties crowd in at the edges and claw their way into our thoughts. This is what makes it feel impossible to write an essay. There never feels enough space to form coherent and sensible ideas, no room to build arguments or comfortably manage time.

Like a littered and cramped desk, it’s hard to organise and plan amongst all the mess. We waste time rifling through it, trying to find old notes and handouts. It’s kind of the opposite to meditation, which seeks to create a calm and clear space within the mind. Now, I’ve never been able to commit to a meditative state, so I create my clear spaces physically and visually. Every day, before I start working, I re-organise and tidy my desk space. I take everything off it, wipe it down, and set everything in order. I reason that if I cannot take a broom to my own mind and clear it of the fears and worries, I can instead create a physical space that is clear and organised, and envision that I am simultaneously holding the illness at bay.

It may sound silly, but assigning parts of our desk to specific objects can really help to feel in control. Have a space for your written notes, a separate one for books, an area for your coffee, an area for your laptop, an area for stationary. Have something on your desk that makes you happy, like a potted plant or photos. If you can sit near a window, that’s even better. Keeping these constant unconsciously reinforces the feeling of stability and progress, two states of mind that are really helpful when writing an essay. Whatever your preferences, controlling your desk space is imperative to writing a good essay, but it is also imperative to keeping a healthy state of mind.


Your Environment

Finding the right environment to write an essay is important. Having a space that is constant is even better. Some people prefer settling down in a café with free Wi-Fi, some prefer the quiet of a library, others the comfort of home. It’s helpful to find a place that feels right and gives you a sense of calm, because these two variables can directly affect your state of mind.

Sometimes the bustle and murmur of a café can make us feel comforted and connected, so long as it doesn’t disrupt our concentration. The sounds and smells and movements of a café environment is its own kind of constant, because it will always familiar, and will rarely change. I usually write my articles in this kind of environment; there is a particular café close to my home which is on a small market street. I find that if I sit outside and take a moment – a moment to say hello to the owner’s dog Goose and share a biscuit, more often than not – I can get into the right kind of zone. It’s also a great place to people-watch, and isn’t people-watching one of the best and most calming of pastimes?

Cafés aren’t for everyone. For many, the noise is too difficult to ignore, or the space isn’t quite right. I totally understand this, because although I can write an article in a café, I can’t write an essay in one. In a library or at home, you can almost always guarantee the desk is going to be there. And if there’s a desk, there’s a sense of purpose and a sense of control. In these spaces there is usually the added benefit of quiet to help us concentrate. There is also something about sitting at a desk that tricks the mind into work-mode. The posture of the chair, even the act of sitting in front of the work you have to do. If you feel that an environment is right, seize it, wherever it is. Take a day or two to find your nest, and once you’ve found it, stick to it. All the nuances of an environment that makes it feel right can contribute to the motivation to work.

A trick I’ve learnt is to separate my work environment from my comfortable environment. When you have a mental illness, your bedroom can become one of two places. Either it is a safe place in which you know you can relax and hide from the world, or it can be its own kind of prison; a place in which you feel trapped and all the characteristics of your illness come into play. Keeping this place separate from your work environment can help trick your mind into starting fresh. Trying to work in a space where you experience so many varied emotions is going to be difficult, so moving away from the bedroom and into a new space can be really helpful when starting an essay.


Finding Motivation

Lack of motivation is perhaps the single most shared symptom amongst all mental illnesses. The motivation to get out of bed, to wash or eat or drink. These things are foremost when tackling a single day, let alone an essay (or three). It can take me a week or more to start working, even at the best of times. But my routine is always the same. First, I revisit the environment that works best for me. Take a moment to familiarise yourself with that feeling of quiet purpose. Second, I arrange that environment to my liking i.e. organising the desk space.

Each time I start a new essay, I go to the shop and buy a new pad of paper and a new pen. It may sound silly to do this every time, but I find it helps me feel like I’m making the right preparations to begin. There is something about a fresh pad of paper and a new pen that feels like the beginning of something. Like clearing away and organising a desk from scratch, these new items have no old associations with them; the new pen isn’t a pen I used to write revision or notes for the last essay, and thus it has no associations with the panic and anxiety that accompanied that essay. The new pad of paper has no rips or marks or squiggles from before, and thus it can’t remind me of the worried and panicked scrawling that took place last time I tried to plan out some work. An act as seemingly silly as this can be the making of a new essay for me. Even the act of going to a shop and purchasing a pen is an accomplishment because it means you’ve made a decision to start.

Next is sitting at the desk. Forget the essay for a moment, and simply sit there. Don’t open Word on your laptop or hold your pen poised over a notepad, just sit there. You’ve made it this far. You have gotten out of bed and you are sitting at your desk. You may not have the motivation to begin writing yet, but already you’ve made a giant step that defies your mental illness. Put some flowers in a vase on the desk, or drink a cup of tea there. If you are at the library, open your emails and do some administration. Heck, check your Facebook feed for a little while. Try and sit there for an hour, and once that hour’s up you can do anything you like. You’ve found your space, you’ve got your tools, you’ve accomplished something that a few days before felt impossible. Take it slowly, one day at a time. You are just testing the water and preparing yourself for the work ahead. If it feels right – and only if it feels right – begin.


Take a Break

Once you’ve made a start on the planning, or the essay itself, it’s easy to fall back into old habits. The frustration and panic we feel when we’re in the thick of it can lead to upsetting lapses of mental health. All that hard preparation can fly out the window if we don’t remember to self-care. Taking breaks is so important to keeping calm and feeling steady. Unless I feel like I’m on a roll, I choose to take breaks little and often – usually on the hour. When the hour comes around, I close my laptop and make a cup of tea, or eat a snack. Going for a walk or simply standing by a window and taking a moment to watch the world outside can make a world of difference to essay-writing.

A big part of living with mental illness is becoming consumed by your own thoughts. This is why therapy is so important; it helps us to work through these thoughts and make sense of them. Although essay-writing is fundamental to academia by teaching us to use our minds critically, it is also yet another way of becoming completely absorbed in our own thoughts. Putting the two together can become utterly overwhelming. When we take a break, we are suddenly re-familiarising ourselves with the physical world. It is an act of grounding and mindfulness that therapists use to treat clients.

You’ve probably heard of mindfulness; in the last few years it has become all the rage. The basic principle is teaching yourself to be in the now. So when you have that cup of tea, or eat that snack, or go for a walk, you are bringing your mind back into the now, a now that doesn’t become overwhelmed with what has happened or what will happen. Think instead about the taste and heat of that tea, the weight of the cup, the steam tickling your nose. Or the feeling of fresh air, the movement of your body as you walk, the feel of your clothes brushing against your body with the friction of walking. Applying mindfulness therapy to essay writing is a great way to stay calm and focused. And while you’re doing it, you are also building up a crucial psychotherapeutic skill that can help combat mental illness.

Breaks can also remind us to self-care by eating and drinking, which nourishes our body. Trying to write an essay on an empty stomach is an absolute nightmare. Whatever brain-food you prefer, use your breaks as a reminder that when your body is satisfied, your brain works twice as well. We should use every tool at our disposal to make coursework as easy as feasibly possible. Even better, why not grab a quick coffee or lunch with a friend? We are all nervous and worried at this time of the year, and company for moral support is a great way to utilise a well-deserved break.


So while the essay season is upon us, looming tall and imposing as always, please remember that you are not alone and there are many, many things you can do to make it a little easier. And if you are finding it difficult to believe in yourself – let me do it for you! You’ve got this, you absolute goddess!





English student at King's College London. A 25 year old London born woman with perpetually red lips and a penchant for sparkly things. Writes about bodies, mental health and glam. 
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