Boosting Mental Health In College and Graduate School – Guest Post

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As a graduate or undergraduate student boosting your mental health has become a necessity especially during these unprecedented times. To help you cope up with your mental health and understand the different methods and scenarios we can come across as graduate student, I have invited Elizabeth Mulherron a PsyD graduate student currently on track to become a licensed psychologist to share her expertise on the subject. While being a graduate student herself, she specializes in working with adolescents and young adults. This article will definitely help you boost your mental health and stay focused. 

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Elizabeth Mulherron

PsyD student studying Clinical Psychology at the Rosemead School of Psychology, USA

Elizabeth is a PsyD student currently hoping to specialize in working with adolescents and young adults as a licensed psychologist. She has been studying psychology since high school, including pursuing a bachelor’s degree and additional terminal master’s degree in psychology and counseling psychology. Her dissertation research focuses on depression, anxiety, and stress during the university to workforce transition. You can find more of Elizabeth’s writing on social media such as Instagram, Twitter, and WordPress. Additionally, you can obtain a copy of her guided journal designed for student pursuing a terminal certificate or master’s degree on Amazon called The Grad School Journal: Master’s Edition. In her free time, Elizabeth loves to spend time with her loved ones, watch movies, play with her cat, and travel. Hope you have some time for self-care this Sunday! 🙂

Find her on IG as @theyounggradstudent

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Mental health is a major issue across the globe—especially as we all have been facing new and unique challenges living through a pandemic! How we take care of ourselves and the difficulties that we face looks drastically different right now as people cannot rely on all of their coping strategies (like going and hanging out with friends) like they used to. When we consider this, it is not surprising that there are growing mental health issues popping up across all demographics. This has contributed to the growing mental health awareness throughout the world, but also has left people feeling drained and at the end of their rope arguably more than ever! This rings true for students, too, who are already facing unique mental health needs compared to other age groups as they experience excessive transitions, unique developmental tasks, and have a high rate of mental health disorder onset.

Most students are considered emerging adults, which lasts until your mid-20s and really is just a fancy term for that feeling you get of being almost-but-not-quite an adult or a pseudo-adult. It is characterized in American culture by continuing to become independent from your parents, learning what your personal values and beliefs are (rather than the ones you simply accepted from growing up) and is filled to the brim with constant changes and transitions personally, socially, academically, and professionally. One moment you are living in your childhood room and the next you are in a dorm of 600 people half-way across the country, only to be suddenly sent home again away from your friends and stuck attending class on a screen for 8 hours a day.

All of these things contribute to large amounts of stress and the importance of taking care of your mental health in order to best function! Plus, it is during this time that many individuals first experience symptoms of common mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Learning when to get help and how to appropriately get your needs met is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially if you’re having mental health struggles.

So how do we take care of ourselves? How can we navigate the world around us as we are going through so many changes and transitions? I want to take some time to share some of my top tips to help students take care of their mental health through their thoughts, actions, and behaviors and in their relationships. While there are unique considerations as we break down the category of student further (such as university vs graduate students) I will be broad and try to share tips that can help everyone in the areas of social relationships, academics, and professionally before sharing some additional apps and resources that you may find helpful.

Assertiveness & Self-Awareness to Promote Mental & Relational Health

As emerging adults, one of the things that we are frequently facing is dealing with changes in our relationships. This can be relationships with friends, parents, significant others, and even some of the systems we interact with like school or religious institutions as a whole. Oftentimes we can become overwhelmed and confused as we are trying to figure out what we want and how to advocate for ourselves appropriately. This has largely to do with knowing your values, learning to have critical conversations, and implementing boundaries.

What Are Values?

Knowing your values may seem like a given, but have you ever really sat down and thought about what your values are? How do you know that something is a value of yours, or even what a value might be? Values are things like love, family, respect, stability, change, power, independence, loyalty, trust, and finances. There are plenty of long lists you can look at online if you want more help finding values that stick out to you! In fact, knowing your top 5 values can be really helpful in navigating your life choices and decision-making processes. After taking some time to self-reflect, you can shift to application of your values in your life.

Once you have identified the values that are the most important to you, then you can look at how the actions and decisions you make align or are in tension with them. Do you say you value family but never visit your parents or facetime your siblings? Do you say your top value is loyalty but spend time gossiping and spreading rumors when you are bored or angry with a friend? Living in tension can result in increased stress and negative self-perceptions, taking a toll on your mental health. Identifying the areas of tension and working to act in alignment with your values can help improve your relationships and sense of fulfillment. Plus, it can help you when you are faced with one of life’s inevitable decisions like moving in with a partner or deciding on a career path.

How To Use the Rule of Threes

Once you learn more about yourself, you are able to learn when you need to have critical conversations with others in order to improve relationships and maintain your mental health. If someone does something that bothers you or is upsetting, how do you know that it is worth it to bring it up to them and have a critical conversation? After all, we want to believe the best of others and it can be hard to tell if something was a mistake or a fluke. This is where the Rule of Threes comes into play.

The Rule of Threes says that the first time someone does something that upsets you, you need to think about why it was upsetting and what you would have liked to have been done differently. You need to become aware of the problem and begin to see if it is a pattern with that person. 

The second time that this person upsets you in the same manner, make note of it and that it could be a pattern of behavior that needs to be addressed. This is when you can think about what you would need to say should you confront the individual about their behavior. 

The third time the behavior occurs, then you need to ask the person to set aside some time to speak with you in private, this is when you confront them with the pattern that you have noticed, explain why the behavior is upsetting to you, and assert your boundaries and needs in the relationship, of course with some room to compromise as needed!

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Identifying Boundaries

This brings us to boundaries: what are they and how do they help us? A quick Google search will show that there are a lot of guidelines on personal boundaries and how to define them, but I like Wikipedia’s definition:

“Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Knowing your values and utilizing the Rule of Threes can help you to know what boundaries are important for you and when to address them with another, be that your parents, significant other, best friends, or boss. When you are having a critical conversation with someone and asserting a boundary, it can feel scary or intimidating at first. Truth be told, people may need some time to adjust to your boundary through reminders, or if it is a persistent problem you may need to be willing to say no to the person or implement other consequences in order to protect yourself and follow through with the boundary you have placed. Of course, there is room for compromises and changes as appropriate, but generally once a boundary is set it is important to stick to it as letting one thing slide could result in a person trying to push other boundaries and limits with you later—no one wants to be walked all over!

Having Critical Conversations

 
 

Having a critical conversation, or a confrontation with another person, can be intimidating. For many of us, we grew up with families and friends that did not know how to communicate assertively, resulting in communication styles of passivity or aggression. These ways of communicating are not balanced views of each person’s needs. None of us can be assertive all the time, but we can certainly try our best! So, here’s my 5 tips for having critical conversations assertively and how you can prepare for them.

  1. You need to be able to explain what pattern of behavior you have a problem with and why it is problematic for you. This goes directly back to knowing your values and having gone through the Rule of Threes before confronting someone. Recognizing the behavior pattern and reasons the behavior is upsetting makes for clearer communication and determination of how to get your needs met.
  2.  Use “I” statements to help the other person feel less defensive about the confrontation. No one likes to be called out. When we feel like people are attacking us, the natural reaction is to put up our walls and show the other person they are wrong. If this is true about us, we could assume it might be true of others as well. That’s why we need to put the emphasis on the behaviors and how they conflict with our personal values and needs rather than attacking and blaming the other person for our problems.
  3.  Have a plan for what you would like to see from the other person and how you will respond to them if they violate your boundary again. Since we have recognized our needs are not being met, it is important to communicate what you expect and need from the other person. We want to be clear and transparent about our needs so that the other person isn’t left wondering or feeling like they are walking on eggshells around us. This helps to be build a two-way street of communication where both people’s perspectives, values, and needs are respected.
  4. Take time to really listen to the other person to understand them. Do not listen just to respond to them so you can win the argument, they deserve to have their perspective valued and understood too. This often looks like taking turns talking and not interrupting one another. Remember, the goal of a critical conversation is not to prove the other person wrong or to win. The goal is to communicate how the other person can respect your values and help you get your needs met in a reasonable, safe manner.
  5. Finally, make sure that you leave space to continue the conversation if needed—perhaps a boundary you asked for felt clear in the moment, but the person has questions later. Try to be a safe place for that person to ask their questions and to set their own boundaries with you in the future! This communicates that you are open to the other person’s opinions and relational needs, and also that you are willing to take responsibility for your role in any future miscommunications.

Application Example

Let’s tie things all together with an example. You are living in student housing at your university with a roommate. You noticed that your roommate took some of your food without asking from the fridge. You realize that finances, consistency and stability are important values of yours, and your roommate taking your food messes with your meal planning for the week leaving you unexpectedly having to make adjustments or re-purchasing missing ingredients. You understand that your roommate may have mistook their food for their own, so you decide to give them the benefit of the doubt until you notice that it happens again the next week. This time, you are aware that there might be a pattern and so you decide that if it happens again you will pull your roommate aside and ask them not to eat your food without permission and suggest organizing the fridge so that it is clear who’s food belongs to whom. The third time this happens, you ask your roommate if you can talk with them privately when they have a moment that day. When you meet with them, you explain that you have noticed that sometimes food you have bought is missing from the fridge, and this causes you extra stress, anxiety, and expense that is upsetting. You tell them that you need them to ask you before they use your food and offer to reorganize the fridge to make it clear who owns what so that you can plan your meals and decrease the stress. You state that if this continues to happen, you will ask your roommate for financial compensation to replace the missing items. Your roommate says that they don’t know what the big deal is, so you reiterate that you value stability, consistency and finances, and that this is something that you need in order to maintain those values in your relationship with your roommate and your personal functioning throughout the week. Your roommate agrees to work on it and asks that you make labels and organize the fridge since this is something that is important to you. You agree and thank them for respecting the boundary as well as remind them that if they are not clear about anything you are always willing to hear their questions or concerns before going to reorganize and label the shelves in the fridge.

 

 

Now, this is a relatively simple example and for those of us who are not used to setting boundaries or dislike feeling confrontational, it can be intimidating to start this process. However, the more you practice setting boundaries with others, the healthier your relationships will be and the more empathy you can have when someone else confronts you with a boundary of their own. I used the example of a roommate here, but this really can apply to any social situation like telling your lab mate that they need to complete their work on time, saying no to taking on an additional project for your PI or the prof you TA for, or even in telling your parents that they need to plan ahead when they are coming to visit you rather than showing up unannounced. When we are able to act congruently with our own values and are willing to make those needs known to others, we help to strengthen our support system’s ability to help us during times of need. Further, it can help us to recognize potential contributions to feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress that could be stemming from circumstances or relationships.

Additional Mental Health Resources

I want to leave you all with some additional resources to consider that could help you address your mental health. While there are many, many wonderful resources out there, these are a few of my go-to suggestions in the areas of apps, reaching out for professional help, and talking to an anonymous and confidential hotline. Each of these could be helpful for anyone, so start where you feel the most comfortable. Once you have made the most comfortable step, think about what might be an appropriate growth step for you to take regarding your mental health care.

Apps

The first is an app that I love and recommend often called Sanvello, which helps you to track your behaviors, stress levels, and health through working on having balanced thoughts, setting goals, tracking physical health, doing mood checks, and providing spaces of encouragement, guided visualizations, and meditation. It teaches you everything you need to know as you go and has a free version! This can be a great place for you to process, explore your own mental health and see how the different areas of your life impact one another. A bonus is that you can share the information with your therapist or counselor!

Other apps that have been really popular are for mindfulness, guided imagery, and deep breathing. Some of this is on Sanvello, but I would encourage you to look at other apps like Headspace and MyLife Meditation (formerly Stop, Breathe and Think). These apps help you to identify your emotions, use proper mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and provide opportunities for you to consider the needs represented by the strong emotions you are experiencing. Additional meditations are available on practicing empathy, focusing on the body’s responses, and creating healthy sleep habits, amongst other things!

There are so many different mental health apps out there–so many so that a thorough review would deserve a post all of its own! But these three apps I mentioned should be a good starting place as you consider integrating mental health care into your own health monitoring and reflective routines. If you don’t like these ones, that’s okay! Keep looking around for something that is in the best fit for your style and what you want to focus on. Again, there are tons of options out there!

When to Reach Out to a Professional

Which brings us to the topic of knowing when to get professional help. If you are feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or that your feelings of anxiety, depression, or inability to manage stress are impacting your life in a negative manner I would encourage you to meet with a mental health professional. Take the time to find a therapist that fits your needs—meeting over video calls, willing to have distanced office sessions or sessions outside, affordable, etc. It may take a couple of times to find a good fit and that is totally normal, but try to give it a month before you decide therapy is not for you. For many students, I would encourage you to start with your university’s counseling center as they are attuned to the unique needs of students and emerging adults and are affordable!

If you are feeling really debilitated by your mental state, then you may want to consider getting medication as well. Sometimes our brains need help to adjust as they are still completing development, and working with a psychiatrist (a trained specialist, rather than your GP who may not be able to help identify the best medication fit, dosage, etc. to minimize side-effects) could help you feel like more of an active participant in your health and life. Oftentimes working with a psychiatrist AND a therapist can be especially helpful! There is no shame in deciding with your therapist that medication may be a helpful option for you. Just like your doctor would prescribe you antibiotics or other prescriptions for being sick, dealing with mental health difficulties can be vastly improved with professional care.

Online Resources

Finally, I want to provide you with a brief list of online resources that you can go to if you are feeling stuck or in need of more support. Firstly, Love Is Respect is a great organization with texting (LOVEIS to22522), chat, and phone lines (1-866-331-9474) that you can call to help you navigate intimate relationships be that dating, identifying healthy relationships, dealing with your family, etc. They have lots of people wanting to help and lists of resources available to you! Additionally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) is available to help with a variety of mental health issues throughout the week and helps to connect you to local resources and places to get help. Finally, if you are thinking about harming yourself or have thoughts of suicide, don’t hesitate to reach out to the professionals at the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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I hope you learnt a lot from this article and saw some pointers to help you boost your mental health. If this article helped you or think will help your loved ones, please do share it with them and leave a comment below with your thoughts. Do subscribe to get access to my free library or resources and check out her book The Grad School Journal: Master’s Edition which is available on Amazon. 

Have a lovely day!

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