How To Cope With Mental Illness In College

May is Mental Health Awareness Month! Going to college when you have a mental illness (or two or three) isn’t easy, but it can be done. Over the years, I’ve picked up some tips and tricks for dealing with it. Since they’ve helped my life so much, I wanted to share them with you!

1. Put yourself first

I’m not saying you should ignore your school and work responsibilities. But it’s hard to take care of those if you aren’t taking care of yourself because you’ll eventually burn out! It’s time to get back to the basics: Aim for eight hours of sleep. Try to eat healthy. Stretch your legs with a nice brisk walk or at least sit outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Take your meds. Attend your therapy appointments.

There is this mentality that you have to go go GO 24/7 in college and what often happens is people end up putting themselves last. That’s very unhealthy! You need to take care of yourself because A) it aids recovery, B) you deserve to enjoy the one life you’ve been given, and C) feeling better mentally and physically will help you to do better in areas like academics and work.

I find that many or maybe even most of my bad days happen because I skipped a crucial part of this whole self-care shebang. So if you’ve had a rough day/week/month/year, it helps to stop and think: Have I been eating enough? Am I overtired? Do I need 10 or 15 quiet minutes to collect my thoughts? On super bad days when you can’t make it to class or work or your internship, please try to remember to hit the basics. You deserve to feel OK.

2. Get out of your room

My therapist shared this tip with me when I was a freshman and it has helped so much! “Your dorm room is kind of like a black hole, isn’t it?” she observed. “It just… sucks you in and then it’s hard to leave.”

CALLED. OUT.

All jokes aside, this is something I focus on when I feel like I may be slipping back into bad habits. Obviously, you can’t totally avoid your dorm room or apartment because… you live there, duh. But try to avoid isolating yourself. Being around other people cheers you up and is a great distraction tool. If you take a lot of “depression naps,” see if you can break the habit by spending more time out and about, since you may be too embarrassed or uncomfortable to fall asleep in public.

By the way, this works whether you’re an introvert or extrovert. I’m super introverted, so I constantly explore campus looking for quiet places to get some work done or just sit and think. Some of my favorite places are the Blank Honors Center and the upper floors of the Main Library, the Art Library, and the Iowa City Public Library!

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

I’m serious. I didn’t start seeing a therapist until the February of my freshman year and I wish I’d started earlier. University Counseling Service offers individual, group, and couples therapy for free. You may also be able to find a therapist or psychiatrist who operates on a “sliding scale,” which means you pay only what you can afford to pay. There are some great free or cheap mental health resources available online as well. (This list is a good place to start looking.)

Make sure to reach out to your professors and TAs, too. If you need accommodations like extensions on papers, try to let them know ahead of time. And remember, honesty is always the best policy: Let them know you’ve been struggling, ask what you can do to fix the problem, and give it your best effort. Those conversations aren’t easy to have, but you will get better with time and practice.

You’ve got this. I promise. I believe in you! I mean, just look how far you’ve come already. Some days will be harder than others, for sure. At times you may feel like you’re not making any progress at all. But hang in there, all right? Make your physical and mental health a priority, don’t isolate yourself, and ask for help when you need it.

You can do this. Others have done it before… and so can you.

[All images are stock photography]