Mental health isn’t always the easiest thing to talk about, especially at university. We’re so busy learning how to live independently, meeting new people, and attending classes, that our own mental health can often fall to the back of our minds. However, this year has been very different. Meeting people isn’t something we can do so much anymore, lectures are more often than not an online, solo experience, and a lot of us are finding ourselves with a lot more free time, and a lot less routine.
My first year at university was totally normal. No one had ever heard of COVID, going out was a regular event. While I was still struggling with my mental health, I had a great support network and hobbies to distract myself with. Lectures had more of a structure, and social events filled in the rest of my week, giving me plenty of busy time, but also enough downtime to have to myself. My second year was a mix of normality and the beginning of COVID restrictions, but I hadn’t yet felt too overwhelmed: like many others, I assumed this would be a short-term thing. We’d have a lockdown, and it would all blow over.
Of course, this unfortunately wasn’t true. In my third year, I have not had a single in-person lecture, and I have only seen my friends a handful of times when restrictions were relaxed. Even then, the guilt placed on students around the pandemic often kept us inside and isolated. My routine was non-existent, and I found myself feeling guilty over self-care, since I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to deserve relaxing. Talking to my friends, they echoed these feelings of guilt: for going home, for not going home, for choosing to do their lectures online, or choosing to do them in person. Feeling like we can do nothing right, how can students feel good?
I decided to try and emulate my first year as much as possible, once I realised how bad I was feeling. I gave myself a routine, a time to wake up, a time to work, and a time to relax. However, I also did not hold myself too firmly to it, and allowed myself a break from this routine when I needed it. To start off, even small bits of routine helped. If you take medication, set an alarm to take it at a certain time. If your favourite Youtuber releases a video at a certain time each week, watch it at that time. Give yourself something to remind yourself of the time and the day, because with lectures often being less structured than before due to being more easy to rearrange online, tracking the days can become a chore.
Another thing I found helpful was allowing myself to relax. Some days are unproductive, and anyone who struggles with their mental health knows about those days where even getting out of bed is a chore. I quickly figured out that having a stock of easy self-care items helped immensely for these days! A stock of food that I didn’t need to prepare before cooking, like ramen and frozen chopped veg I could just add to some pasta sauce, was great for helping me at least eat something without being overwhelmed by the task of cooking. Working out a cleaning routine with my housemate, where I would load the dishwasher, and he would empty it, took a tedious job and broke it into two smaller pieces that really didn’t take too much time. I’m lucky enough to have a bath in my house, which helped for those days where having a shower didn’t appeal to me, but I wanted to feel clean. If you don’t have a bath, baby wipes and dry shampoo are a great way to feel a bit fresher. Lots of these “mental health hacks” are floating around the internet, and I think they’re a great way to not only help out people who might be struggling, but their popularity on apps like TikTok and Twitter help to destigmatise these days.
While this year has been challenging, there does seem to be light ahead. Restrictions will slowly ease, vaccines will be rolled out, and the days will get longer and brighter. As we move back to a sense of normality, it is important to take some time to ourselves to be honest about how we feel, and how we can help ourselves feel just a little better.
Mollie Barker is an undergraduate psychology student at Royal Holloway, University of London. She works for YGAM as a Community Development Manager at this university.