Starting or returning to college can bring with it many challenges. We go from the relative security of the familiar; home, family and community, to the often large, alien, impersonal experience that is college life.
We can become overwhelmed by this new reality, which pushes us beyond our comfort zone in a number of ways.
Many of us are required to leave home, move town or country and share our space with virtual strangers.
We require a period of adjustment as we make new friends, find our bearings and learn to adapt to a new culture. All this and attend classes, learn new subjects and prepare for exams! It is little wonder that our mental health can suffer.
The impact on mental health
It is normal to experience some degree of emotional distress from time to time. Feelings generally begin to improve after a few days, or at the very most, a few weeks.
For a small number of people, feelings of low mood, anxiety and hopelessness can persist and prevent them leading a productive and satisfying life.
Physical changes such as poor sleep, loss of appetite, trouble concentrating, anxiety and tearfulness are often subtle early warning signs that our mental health is beginning to suffer.
Other signs include feeling overwhelmed, avoiding friends and social situations and staying in bed.
Finally individuals can experience negative thoughts e.g. ’I’m not worth it’ or ’I’ll never recover from this’ or can feel that life is not worth living. In a small number of cases, this can lead to suicidal feelings or actions.
How to safeguard your mental health
It is important to remember most difficult times are only temporary; none the less, problems need to be acknowledged and addressed. It is essential to allow yourself a period of adjustment.
Feeling anxious or overwhelmed are natural responses to a new environment. However, there are many ways in which individuals can take responsibility for their own well being e.g. remain calm and stay focused, make friends with others in a similar situation to yourself, learn as much about college life as you can and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Looking after your physical health will improve the quality of your mental health. Make sure to give yourself a break, and ensure you get plenty of rest, relaxation, exercise, fresh air and sleep.
Avoid the use of alcohol as a crutch, it is a depressant and can add to your difficulties. Instead adopt a healthy eating regime and increase your level of exercise to help you relax and beat stress.
Talk to someone, a friend, family member, college counsellor or lecturer. They will all help support you and advise you of your options.
Sometimes talking helps us realise we are not alone and many of our peers are feeling exactly the same way.
If you are experiencing any of the above for more than two weeks it is important to seek help by talking to your GP, calling a support service or joining a support group.
The Walk in My Shoes Helpline for 18-25 year olds is a confidential telephone and email service staffed by experienced mental health nurses Monday to Friday with late evening Monday, Tuesday and Thursday until 9pm and an answering and call-back facility outside hours.
You can contact the Walk in My Shoes Helpline service by calling 01 249 3555, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edel Fortune, Programme Manager| St Patricks Mental Health Service| Dublin 8