For many students, heading off to university means moving away from home and to a new place, facing the prospect of making new friends or adjusting to larger class sizes. For some it will also mean readapting to in-person learning.
Amid the normal life transitions from teenage years into adulthood, the pandemic introduced new stressors and interruptions, instigating changes to most people's daily lives and routines. Students may have experienced additional challenges such as reduced social contact with friends and supports.
These factors, individually or collectively, can negatively impact learning and lead to worsening mental health. Our research shows that during the pandemic, one in three university students reported elevated rates of anxiety and depression. This means that a large portion of students experienced feelings of sadness, hopelessness and/or excessive worry.
The transition to a new school year will be an important time to focus on strategies for fostering positive mental health and well-being in addition to recognizing signs that help may be needed.
Below, we provide five strategies to help set students up for success as they embark on a new academic year.
1. Show yourself empathy and compassion
During tough times, being understanding, empathetic and practising self-compassion can improve your mental health.
This means approaching upsetting emotions without judgment, rather than ignoring them, and showing yourself care instead of criticism. These practices can improve your mood and help you cope.
Similarly, when friends and loved ones need support, there are ways to show them empathy and compassion. This might involve listening to them without judgement and validating their feelings.
2. Re-connect or get connected
Research shows that we feel better when we feel supported.
If you feel like you are struggling with your mental health, re-connect with a trusted friend, family member or peer. Setting yourself up for positive well-being this school year might also involve making new connections through participation in on- or off-campus clubs or groups.
3. Recognize when you're struggling
Transitions can be challenging and it is a good idea to ask for help when you need it. This could be to a friend, a family member or an academic advisor. Before reaching out to someone we trust, we first must recognize when we are struggling.
It is important to take stock of how we are feeling and notice when we feel different from our usual selves. Sometimes, short-lived changes occur, including having more or less energy than usual, sleeping more or less than usual, losing interest in things we used to enjoy and shifts in mood, like feeling more sad, angry, irritable or worried.
When these changes are sustained over weeks or months, it's a good indication that you should reach out for help.
4. Access available mental health services
The age at which students attend university coincides with an increase in experiencing mental health challenges. People are only able to deal with so many stressors on their own, and many students are having to face more stress and uncertainty during this pandemic.
When our lives and routines feel unpredictable and uncontrollable, our mental health often suffers. If you notice that you aren't feeling like yourself, access mental health resources available on campus. These can usually be found on university websites or through campus wellness centres.
5. Practise self-care and do things you enjoy
Post-secondary education can be a demanding experience. To cope with stress, prevent burnout and improve your mood, try incorporating self-care practices and leisure activities into your routine. This may involve improving sleep hygiene, trying to eat healthy meals, putting aside time to read a good book or socializing with friends.
It is important to set ourselves up for success by taking steps to foster well-being, both in and beyond a pandemic. This includes taking time to reach out to our support networks, show care and compassion to ourselves and to others and reaching out to professional mental health resources when in need.
Authors: Jenney Zhu - PhD student, Clinical Psychology, University of Calgary | Elisabeth Bailin Xie - PhD student, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary | Sheri Madigan - Associate Professor, Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development, Owerko Centre at the Alberta Childrens Hospital Research Institute, University of Calgary