With all the wisdom of a rising sophomore, I tend to view the previous year with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. My excitement mounted day by day as I came closer to arriving on campus. I could almost taste the surge of independence, the stimulating new academic course load and the booming social scene that would make up a perfect first year.
Looking at how my first year at Pitt actually unfolded, though, I recognize that while I did enjoy the freedom and novelty, I had not anticipated the feelings of anxiety and loneliness that can come with uprooting one’s life and diving headfirst into a completely new environment.
I’m not the only one who faced mental health hurdles during this pivotal new chapter of life. A study from the American Psychological Association in 2018 found more than one third of first-year students reported symptoms consistent with a mental health disorder. And in a survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, 95% of counseling center directors surveyed reported that the number of students facing significant mental health concerns is an increasing problem at their school.
Clearly, no one is alone in battling depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, especially in their first year. Here are four tips that helped me through what Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., director of the Combined Clinical and School Psychology Doctoral Program at James Madison University, calls the “College Student Mental Health Crisis.”
Entering college, I had an incredibly unsustainable view of what “studying” looked like. As a chronic procrastinator, I filled my first semester with all-nighters, panicked cram sessions and anxiety-ridden attempts to score the 4.0 GPA I viewed as a standard of success. Jeffrey M Ellenbogen, Jessica D Payne and Robert Stickgold of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School found that pushing yourself beyond healthy limits not only has negative effects on your mental health, but actually hinders your efforts to achieve a goal.
“Lack of adequate sleep affects mood, motivation, judgment, and our perception of events,” they wrote. “Research suggests that sleep plays an important role in memory, both before and after learning a new task.”
Sleep not only gives your hippocampus time to encode the information you’re studying, but also gives your mind much needed respite from the stressors of the day. Whether it’s committing to leave Hillman Library for some much earned sleep by midnight (yes, even if it means skipping some material) or choosing to stay in to watch a movie and rest rather than venture into South Oakland on a Friday night, self-restraint is key to managing your mental health.
Find alone time
For many, college is the first time they had to share a living space with anyone, let alone a virtual stranger they met on Facebook. Living in tight quarters with someone else, learning in large lecture halls with more than 300 of your peers and eating in a dining hall surrounded by mobs of hungry young adults means first-years in particular typically face a lack of “me time.” However, according to research from Reed W. Larson of the University of Illinois, teenagers struggling with depression experienced significant relief from depressive symptoms after time alone. Taking a walk through Schenley Park or doodling in the Center for Creativity, located on the bottom floor of the University Store, are great ways to check in with yourself and your mental health.
Establish a routine
Going from having classes non-stop from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday to a much more lax and individualized schedule is not easy. While each day may look different depending on your classes and extracurriculars, it is imperative to anchor yourself with some sort of a daily routine. Prioritizing seven to eight hours of sleep, blocking in regular time for self-care and maintaining a healthy eating schedule are great ways to help your mental health. In fact, research from our very own University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found a daily routine greatly benefitted patients with bipolar disorder. Dr. Steve Orma, a CBT clinical psychologist, explained that specific elements of a routine can also help anxiety.
“To manage anxiety you need to consistently check in with yourself about what you’re worrying about, then address it,” Orma said. “Just as we create routines with exercise for our physical bodies, we should do the same for our mental health. One way to do this is scheduling ‘thinking time’ to think through any problems or worries weighing on you instead of letting them build up.”
Pitt is a diverse and inclusive campus with opportunities for people of all interests and backgrounds. Joining one of Pitt’s 600+ student organizations of like-minded peers can not only allow you to get more involved at the University, but can be a great way to find people to lean on. At the end of the day, serious mental health problems can’t always be solved on your own.
The University Counseling Center, located in the Wellness Center on the 2nd floor of Nordenberg Hall, is a great free service offered at Pitt. Mental health professionals are excellent resources to help you through whatever your first year throws your way.