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  • Meg Hoffmann

Taking care of your mental health as a student

High school. A time I truly do not miss. The three hour commute (yes, I lived an hour and a half away from school by bus and subway) the suffocatingly small campus, the insecurities of being a teenager etc. Maybe some enjoyed their high school life but for me it was a time I despised (okay maybe not ALL the time, but overall it was not a vibe). I think what made it so difficult to enjoy high school was the amount of pressure I put on myself to do well. I was constantly overwhelming myself with responsibilities and could never feel content. Amidst all of this, I forgot about my mental health and completely ignored it until I truly burnt myself out. Finding the right balance of doing well in school but also taking care of yourself is crucial to enjoy being a student, and just because my high school experience was not great, that doesn't mean it has to be this way for everyone else. If you're reading this and you feel like you're struggling, here are some tips on how to take care of your mental health during high school.

1. Noticing your feelings

The first step in ensuring a healthy and balanced school life is noticing your feelings. How are you performing in school? Are you sleeping well? Are you feeling distracted, if so, why? These are basic questions that we tend to ignore when we're so overwhelmed with the pressure of school. Of course it is inevitable as students to feel a certain amount of stress or exhaustion from school, however, if you begin to notice that performing simple tasks is becoming more difficult than usual such as struggling to keep up with assignments, finding it hard to concentrate, feeling tired all the time, or losing motivation, these can be initial signs that you're pushing yourself too hard. Once you start noticing these feelings, the next step is to create a schedule that works for you, and understand what external pressures you can address in order to relieve some of the stress. This includes taking a break from some extra curricular activities or creating a schedule that ensures a good balance between study and leisure. Also keep in mind that there's no "right time" to seek support from a counselor or talk about how you're feeling with family and friends. It's more than okay to ask for help at any time, which leads me to my next point.

2. Create a strong support system

Having a strong support system is key when it comes to mental health. Although it's ideal to have your family members be a part of your support system, I understand that it can be difficult to open up to your parents about mental health, and they may not be supportive. I think that one of the best support systems you can have in high school are your friends. If you're like me and you're not the greatest with large friend groups, it's always nice to have at least one or two people close to you that you can truly rely on. It's not easy finding these friends, but once you do, talking to them about your feelings or concerns can be a great way to relieve stress. Frequently checking up on each other and making sure you make time for one another is also so important for your mental health! Although like any other teen I've had my fair share of friendship problems, you'll see that the friends you can truly rely on are the ones that are there for you especially during tough times. Honestly the number of times I've had breakdowns with my friends in the bathroom or the library is kind of funny, but I'm so grateful I had them because they were such a crucial part of getting through high school.

3. Communicate with your teachers

Speaking to your teachers about such personal issues can be scary, but trust me when I say that it is one of the best things you can do for yourself. If you're struggling to keep up with assignments and tests because of your mental health, talk to your teachers about it! I didn't do this until my senior year because of how scared I was to be seen as "slacking off", but the moment I spoke to my teachers about it, they were so understanding and I felt an immense pressure lifted off my shoulders. After my depression worsened to the point where I started missing a lot of school, my teachers and I were able to make certain arrangements such as me coming in late if I didn't have first period or leaving early if I didn't have last period. I know not all schools work like this, but for example, if there were days where I didn't feel comfortable speaking in class, or where my depression was so bad I could not concentrate on any assignments, letting my teachers know helped them understand my situation better and relieved a lot of pressure.

So how do you speak to your teachers about such a sensitive topic?

Set up a time where you can meet with each of your teachers individually. If you feel more comfortable with a parent being with you, then that's definitely a good option to have as an extra bit of support. There's no need for you to go into the details of why you're feeling a certain way, but simply explaining that you're struggling to keep up is enough. Try to be as clear as possible about setting up a plan that works for you and the teacher. For example, getting an extra 24 hour extension for assignments or taking exams in a separate room to help you concentrate. Coming up with such a plan shows your teachers that you're determined to stay on track but you just need a bit of support in doing so. Although I suggest speaking in person is the best option, if you don't feel comfortable speaking one on one, you can even email them or have your parent speak on your behalf.

Of course there is always a possibility that your teacher may not respond in a supportive way, which is why I suggest having a parent with you. However if that is the case I suggest bringing it up with the headmaster or another teacher that can support you and help your teacher understand.

4. Take. A. Break.

I cannot stress this enough.

All throughout my middle school and high school years, I was a perfectionist. I lived by the quote “sleep is for the weak”. Sleeping before midnight was absurd to me, getting a grade lower than a 7 was a nightmare, and if I wasn’t in multiple extracurricular activities of some sort, I would feel like a failure. I was addicted to the feeling of being tired (ridiculous, I know). If I woke up with dark circles under my eyes, it meant I had studied thoroughly and I felt good about it. I look back upon those times and shake my head. I was sacrificing my own health so that I could get good grades. I measured my worth based on the number of 7’s I had on my report card. And for almost five years, my body was able to keep up. I was never late or missed a day of school. However, three months into my senior year, I one day woke up and found that I could not get out of bed. I had my first panic attack, and I felt like I was falling apart. Concentrating in class became almost impossible, and I wasn’t able to complete tasks as easily as I used to. Before I knew it, the thought of going to school gave me so much anxiety it was common for me to miss school. My mental health deteriorated along with my physical health.

If I could say one thing to myself during those years, it would be to “take a break.”

As students, it is common for us to push ourselves to excel in school. We all feel pressured to succeed. I’m not saying that we all should stop pushing ourselves and give up on school. However I do think that it is incredibly important to know when you are pushing yourself to the point of no return.

5. You come first

As human beings it is natural for us to strive for greater things. We always want more than what we have in the present, whether it be more money or better grades. Although this is not necessarily a bad trait because it pushes us to work hard, there is a fine line between hard work and working too hard. The latter usually affects your mental and physical health. We are forgetting to enjoy our youth, and live in the present. Stop worrying about what university you are going to get into. Stop worrying about what you will major in and what job you will get and how much money you will make. If you get a low mark on your test or assignment, so what? If you feel like going straight home after school and being lazy, do it. If you feel like you’re losing yourself whilst you bury yourself under tons and tons of school work, take a break. Sleep in for once. Spend the whole weekend doing absolutely nothing. Go on a hike, or a picnic. Go to the museum, go out for some coffee. Take a break, refresh your soul, reset your mind. Trust me, your body will thank you for it.

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