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BLOG: Navigating your mental health whilst studying at university during a pandemic

Date 20.05.2020

To celebrate Mental Health Awareness Week, second year, Law and Criminology Student, Kiera Slaven, has blogged about her thoughts on mental health whilst studying during a worldwide health pandemic.

Kiera experiences PTSD, anxiety and depression, and has had battled with suicidal thoughts in the past. She believes that anti-depressants, prescribed by her GP, gave her mind the opportunity to heal. In her own personal victory, Kiera is no longer taking her prescription medication, but has preserved the sense of support the medication gave her, by developing her own coping mechanisms.

In this blog, she shares her top tips:

I hope to make you feel at ease with your mind, by knowing that you are not alone in how you feel. I hope that you may be able to realise that,  ‘well if it works for her then maybe it will work for me’. When you get to that realisation it is important to thank yourself, because you are allowing your mind and body to try something that may ease that strain on your mental health.

If you’re wondering how it is possible that now I react completely different when I feel dark thoughts coming on, then I would say that it comes down to varying factors, such as maturation and life events, but something I’m doing now, is trying to remain as present in the moment as possible.

I’m now able to not let these dark thoughts consume me. Instead I question it. Once I’m finished detangling that thought, I actually speak to myself via my internal dialogue, I’d say something like ‘thanks for your input’, ‘I appreciate your emotions but suicide is not the right response’. By physically or mentally responding in such a way you, I found I was training my mind to disperse those negative thoughts and allowing them to pass through you. In doing this, you are simultaneously acknowledging and digesting how you feel, and giving yourself a way to work through why you feel that way – then you are able to let that thought go.

Maybe my responses have changed because the Fluoxetine I was prescribed raised my serotonin levels enough to be able to respond differently. I feel that is naive to put down such a great feat to only a tablet. Instead I’m giving myself a little pat on the back, because it’s the fact that I choose to be conscious and aware in that moment that allows the change in mindset. These are the very small differences you can make to take that step in the right direction of healing your pain.

One thing that works greatly for me is keeping my space tidy, fresh and full of houseplants. I own around 70 plants because I am fortunate enough to have the space. However, all you need is to take care of just one plant, and allow yourself a few minutes every couple of days to take care of it. It is during this time that you allow moments of calmness and mindfulness, whilst proving to yourself that you can have the responsibility to take care of a living thing, which will in turn allow you to realise that you have the strength to care for yourself.

Don’t limit yourself to a houseplant! Maybe take a moment right now to consider what has been lacking your attention recently? Does the bathroom need a good scrub? or is there a huge pile of clothes that need to be sorted? Well, start small and work your way up. Allow yourself the time to clear and take care of your space because it will truly work wonders on raising your low mood but remind yourself to aim for done, not for perfect!

I spend a great deal of time on developing and bettering my physical space although it certainly feels like an urban jungle, I cannot deny that the positive effects are numerous.  I walk into my study room and I smile. I have filled that room with things I love, books, paintings and personal trinkets, by doing this it makes me want to stay in that space and study! I don’t force it, I just wonder into that room and feel so comfortable that I don’t want to leave!

TIP: Most of us students don’t have a great deal of money (I certainly do not), and if you want to add something new to your bedroom or home on a budget whilst a lot of shops are closed look to places like Facebook Marketplace or try to shop at local and independent business such as found on Depop and Etsy! If you are decluttering your space, then use your social media outlets to sell your items or even to pass them along to someone who may use them! And on that note…Declutter your mental space.

When your mind is constantly filled with information, things to do, people to message, essays to write, what to cook for dinner … if your mind is consistently focusing on these little (granted important) tasks then you are not allowing yourself to be totally present and totally focused on the task at hand.

De-cluttering your mind applies to when you are suffering from anxiety and depression too. When I have a particularly negative thought pass through my mind, or maybe when it’s one of those days that I cannot help but to think negatively of myself, I use the tools I’ve learnt being present and focused on this moment that I am in. Combined with watching my breathing, I allow myself to think the thoughts (you know, the nasty negative ones) and then I imagine a windscreen wiper just wiping them out of my mind. I found that it is those small moments, that once you’ve tackled them, leads to much bigger and much more positive changes in your mental health overall. Don’t deny your emotions and certainly don’t bury them, but allow yourself to fully immerse in them and then just let them go.

TIP: Another way to declutter your mind is to simply write down all of your thoughts, whether it’s a to do list or perhaps just lots of thoughts running around your mind, then just write them down, as it is the act of taking them from your mind and putting them onto paper that will allow you to work on them because your mental space is free.

So, what about my studies? In all the weeks of lockdown, do you know I have spent barely a handful of those days studying and yet I don’t feel guilty for it. I did feel bit guilty at first and I was beating myself up a-bit because I was adamant that I would be a failure if I didn’t study.

I kept in mind that I was capable of putting more effort into my studies, for the past few weeks I stopped feeling guilty and I stopped putting pressure on myself. If I had a good idea for an essay that is due then I’d jot the idea down and stick it on the wall. If I had a tiny bit of admin to do, I’d space it throughout a couple of days or do a power hour.

Overall, I have stopped forcing myself to study and I’ve stopped guilt tripping myself because it only creates negativity and negative thoughts that make us feel even worse. It is these bad habits that feed our mental health issues and it is these habits that need to stop.

I am in my second year right now, I still have four essays and one exam to complete. I pressured myself so much into believing that I could complete them for their primary due dates, but those dates have passed. For a while, I stayed in a kind of limbo state on how to tackle these outstanding assessments, but we are fortunate enough to have the freedom to rely on the no detriment policy. For me, this has been undeniably helpful.  I’m choosing to take the time I need and remember that not only am I trying to complete assignments but im also trying to focus on bettering my mental health, take care of my home and myself and partner, maintain my friendships, support my grandparents… the list goes on. But I am doing this during a time where the present and the future doesn’t make sense, and the COVID Crisis offers a whole new world of difficulties to overcome.

So next time you are internally beating yourself up for not reading that extra journal article, please go easy on yourself. Take a breath and return back to studying when you feel mentally able to, it is then that you will produce great work!

How to approach studying? If you’re like me and have spent maybe a handful of days studying in the past weeks, or maybe you’ve been studying everyday but feel like you’re stuck in a rut… then don’t ignore how your feel.

I would recommend when you feel like this, try jotting down every single thing that you feel needs to be completed, by doing this you are simply transferring all of that information out of your mind and onto paper which frees up your mental space.

Most importantly I would recommend that you be kind to yourself!

I hope my words have been able to help you, if you need some support, here’s my suggestions from helpful University of Northampton resources:

The Counselling and Mental Health Team – will listen to you and help you respond to the difficulties in your life, they will allow you to develop your abilities to address and resolve issues in your life.

Mental Health Advisors – will help you to discuss your mental health difficulties and work with you to develop coping strategies whilst studying.

Assist –can give you advice and guidance for managing your disability whilst studying, the DSA application will give you the opportunity to have 6 appointments with the counselling team who can further help work through your issues.

If you have been affected by any of the issues I have discussed during this blog post and your struggling to manage or cope with these issues then you can also speak to your GP, they can refer you to the NHS Mental Health Services

Interested in hearing more from Kiera? Check out her first blog ‘Navigating Mental Health at University.