Recovering mental health on campus

Sports | Lifestyle

Throughout my late teens and early 20s, I experienced mild forms of anxiety. As I made the transition into post-secondary education, I had the added pressure of fully supporting myself while pursuing an education — an education that will lead to a rewarding career: a.k.a. adulthood.  This resulted in what my counsellor diagnosed as debilitating anxiety, and what I now call my early-life crisis.

The barriers that the anxiety created in my daily life resulted in a full year of depression. Just getting out of bed felt like a struggle. I lost interest in the activities I once loved; even recreational activities such as yoga and soccer dropped out of my life. Meeting friends felt like a chore during which I would have to pretend to be happy. I knew I needed help when I quit my favourite singing group and hid in bed crying on a beautiful, sunny day. It was time to admit to myself that this was not my fault, and I’d been wearing the mask of “I am okay,” and believing I could “fix” myself alone, for too long.

Reaching out for help and sharing the experience of living with a mental illness are powerful tools for recovery, mintenance of balance and relapse prevention. It is a sign of strength to open up to a friend or a mental health professional; they will remind you that there is a self to return to. The phrases “I am not my emotions; my emotions are running through me” and “this too shall pass” got me through difficult times and continue to be a support. Feeling absolutely alone is an intense and real emotion for anyone with anxiety and depression. But people with mental illnesses are not alone in feeling this, and by reaching out they will uncover that there are resources and professionals who can help.

Sports and recreation are also important aspects of managing anxiety and depression, especially mild forms. Physical recreation can benefit anyone, regardless of mental health history, in combating mood swings and everyday stress. UVic recreation facilities offer drop-in classes, intramurals, recreational classes (yoga, dance, weight training), aquatics programs and health and nutrition services. Sports and recreation act as a stress release by raising the feel-good endorphins, and are often social activities where other people surround you, working on their health and well-being. Yoga is especially beneficial for anxiety and depression, with its focus on breath, mindfulness and spirituality. But for many people, physical activities must be combined with counselling and medication, for such things as chronic mental illnesses. Depression and anxiety are often not just situational but also physiological. Brain chemistry is either deficient or altered to an imbalance through these mental illnesses and needs medication to become balanced — whether that’s for the short or long term.

Today, I am more deeply connected to my life and myself than I was last year, as are many others who have dealt with the pain of a mental illness. A fulfilling and meaningful life is possible; I now know this. But a person who has had anxiety or depression knows that there is always the possibility of a relapse. The anxious part of me finds it easy to get lost in the academic pressure of university, to put my health and happiness aside in pursuit of finishing that paper in time or cramming for the big test. For those prone to illness, self-care and management of the signs and symptoms are crucial.

Summer can be a particularly difficult time for students experiencing depression. Summer weather puts us into the pressure cooker of thinking we should be happy, but often it becomes a struggle just to go outside. Pretending to be happy or okay might be a coping mechanism. Summer classes, summer jobs (or finding summer jobs) and the busyness of the season disrupt the protective routine of other semesters. How can summer students who are prone to anxiety and depression stay connected to our healthy, balanced selves? Surrendering and admitting the reality of the struggle to a safe, supportive friend or mental health professional is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of immense strength and deep self-love.

Rita Knodel, director of UVic Counselling Services, outlines options available to students on campus this summer. Counselling Services is a free, professional, confidential resource for students. “Many of our counsellors have been here for many years,” says Knodel, “and are tuned in to the needs of students and come with their own approach and skills, which you can view online.”

The summer months at Counselling Services offer the same group programs, check-ins, same-day appointments, grief groups and regular appointments as offered throughout the winter session, minus the Peer Helping program.

The campus community in the summer months is around 10 000 students, says Knodel, about half of the fall and winter semester population — but still a huge body of people. The majority of students are aged 18–25 and transitioning into adulthood. Since UVic is a destination campus, many of these young students are moving away from home for the first time — which leaves people who are prone to anxiety and depression with a smaller network of friends and family as a resource. Knodel says connecting with peers and groups is a successful tool for people dealing with anxiety and depression. Counseling Services will offer a variety of summer groups and workshops that focus on managing anxiety and panic attacks, career exploration, learning skills, personal growth, gaining social confidence, mood and stress management and thesis completion.  Knodel also calls attention to the power of student clubs in connecting students to peers with similar passions, as it can be hard to meet and create a community network in the large classes at UVic.

There are exciting partnerships developing between Counselling Services, the UVic Students’ Society and the Graduate Students’ Society, says Knodel, in which the groups are working to build student services and student awareness to mental health. The goal is to continue to make UVic an inclusive campus.

Knodel would like students to know that Counselling Services is more than a mental health office. “We do so much more,” she says. “Our focus is to help students adjust to university and thrive. We are a team of student development experts. Career is a big focus of ours — finding meaning and purpose in your career, networking for jobs.”