It has been such a privilege to meet up with Elle (virtually!), a member of National Youth Stakeholder Group helping to shape Mental Health Services for children and young people in Wales. Elle is a Masters student and really wanted to use her experience to think about the particular hardships facing Freshers this year. Going to University is a huge step anyway…add COVID into the mix and the need to focus in on mental health and well-being is even more important. Here are Elle’s top tips in time for World Mental Health Day:
1. Home sickness is a real thing……
The chances of feeling homesick are actually very high – and yet, unlike Covid, no one ever really talks about it. When it hits it can hit hard, and often when you are least expecting it – a day in, a week in or even a couple of months in. Suddenly you miss your mum, your brother, your grandad, your bedroom, home cooking, your school friends, your pets. Just anticipating that it is going to happen, that it is normal and that it doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong will help! Unlike most years you might not be able to just pop home so prepare ahead. What can you do to keep in touch and build in things to look forward to that will help you through?
2. Sleep is precious and takes more effort to get right in halls……
A good nights sleep can make a huge difference to how you are feeling and equally, poor sleep can make everything seem worse. Find what works for you and recognise that your routines at home that helped you get to sleep may need to be different in a new environment. Is it earplugs? Is it headphones? Is it black out blinds at the window? Is it the signature student fairy lights? (Although check beforehand as many halls have rules about them!) Is it a regular bedtime? Is it no coffee after 2pm? All the disruption before going to University may mean you’ve not had a regular sleep routine for a very long time and you may need to work even harder to put one in place. It’s worth persevering as more than anything sleep helps you feel like yourself.
3. Routines make a big difference to your mental health well-being…..
One of the great things about going to Uni is that no one is there telling you what to do and when to do it. The trouble with that freedom comes a loss of routine; and with that a loss of predictability. Routines can really help at times of uncertainty – and what could be more uncertain than a global pandemic? Politicians, parents, lecturers – the people we turn to for reassurance about what is happening are facing uncertainty too which all adds to the anxiety students are facing. That is why it is important to focus on the things we can control, and our own routines help things feel more certain while the big things are getting sorted out. Whether its starting your day in the same way, a regular time to go outside for a walk, a lunchtime catch up with a flat mate, ‘attending’ virtual lectures at a set times or with a friend, or having a warm shower before bed, doing set things at set times can really help things feel predictable at an unpredictable time. The prospect of possible lockdowns in halls means this is even more important as your world may need to shrink for a period of time.
4. Find your tribe……
This is really important as who we surround ourselves can make a huge difference to how we feel about ourselves. It may not be immediately obvious at first but universities are so big, and so full of different people from different backgrounds that your people are out there somewhere. You may get lucky and find them in your flat, but if not don’t give up! Courses and societies are more likely to have like minded people, shared interests and just space for connection without the pressure of trying to share a tiny fridge space. Covid, of course, makes this much much harder as we lose many of the incidental moments that grow into familiar faces and eventually friendships. All the more reason to work even harder at this – don’t be put off that many societies are operating virtually to begin with – they are a start and a familiar online face is better than no connection at all. And don’t forget – Uni lasts at least three years. It’s not all about the here and now – your tribe may not have joined yet!
5. Be careful about your news and social media consumption…..
The headlines at the moment are pretty grim – whether it’s on official channels or on your feed as you scroll the various platforms filled with what your family or friends are sharing. You don’t need to be tuned in 24/7 to be informed. It is important to switch off and relax too. Students and young people generally have had a particularly tough time in the media in recent months – from the abrupt end to schooling, cancelled exams having been building up to them for years, the results debacle, uncertainty regarding University places, and now the Covid outbreaks in halls. Try to focus on yourself and your own experience – we are all individuals going through this in our own way. You deserve a break but more than that you deserve acknowledgment that this has been a particularly tough time to start out on what should have been an exciting next step on your life journey.
6. But be aware and plan ahead……
We can’t avoid the realities of Covid either. Lots of people coming together from all parts of the UK and abroad, and living in small spaces means some outbreaks are inevitable (even big spaces like 10 Downing Street and the White House have had their share!). Do what you can to minimise the risks but plan ahead in case you face a local lockdown or quarantine. Get yourself a box of foods ready in case you can’t get to the shops and someone else needs to go on your behalf. Bookmark a favourite series on Netflix. Make sure you have one or two of your favourite treats in stock (within budget!). Organise your room so that it feels as ‘homely’ and comfortable as possible. Put photos of good times on your pin board. Arrange regular virtual catch up slots with friends and family so you keep connected. No one ever thought we would have to think about Uni in this way but we can get through it one step at a time.
7. Change is stressful and starting Uni brings monumental change…..
Leaving home, fending for yourself, moving town, meeting new people, studying a new subject, learning in a new way…..you name it, becoming a student changes just about every aspect of your life. Give yourself credit – these are majors challenges that take everyone a bit of time to settle into. Add in Covid, and we need to be even more gentle on ourselves. Be kind and go easy on yourself and on each other too. Emotions are running high, tempers will be frayed, especially with broken sleep, and someone using up the last milk in the fridge might feel overwhelming. Take a breath, count to ten, listen to your favourite tune, watch your favourite episode on Netflix, go for a walk. Remember to try to do whatever it takes give yourself space to face the next challenge.
8. It’s okay to not be okay…..
And its okay to feel overwhelmed by it all too. There is so much pressure at Uni to have a good time. In some ways COVID may have taken a bit of the pressure to be constantly out socialising away as that can be a source of stress for some people. For others it may feel like totally missing out on the student experience, and that is a very real loss too. It has heightened the risk of loneliness and feeling like everyone else must be doing better than you are. Take one day at a time, and trust that it is a marathon not a sprint. Remember this is a global pandemic after all. Most importantly try not to judge yourself.
9. Don’t suffer in silence…….
Whether it is someone in your flat, someone at home, someone on your course, a lecturer, a personal tutor, the student welfare service or a helpline there is ALWAYS somebody to listen and help you make a plan to get through whatever you are feeling. NOTHING is too difficult to sort out. Use the time when you are in a good place to make sure you have a go to list of people and numbers, local and national, just in case you need them.
10. Reach out to others…….
Is their someone in your flat or on your course or in your society or friendship group who you think might be struggling? Reach out and check in with them. A kind word, a cup of tea, a game of FIFA, an offer of a walk to the shop – whatever it is, it is often the little things that make the biggest difference. That act of kindness can help you too – there is no better feeling than knowing you have made a difference. It will take time for Uni to feel like a community where you belong, and Covid means it might take even longer than usual. It is these little connections that all add up and will get us all through.
Thank You Elle!