I Took a Mental Health Leave from College. Here's What It Taught Me.
December 18, 2019
Taking a mental health leave from college was the most difficult decision of my life. It was also an opportunity to find strength and transformation.
It started in the senior year of college; the all-consuming hopelessness. I was an overachiever on a full scholarship who simply didn't know when to stop or ask for help. In the end, my obsession with self-reliance was my downfall. Believing that I had to do everything on my own set me on a path to burnout and eventually, the choice to take time off from school to reclaim my mental health.
What taking a mental health leave from college taught me how to do.
Putting school on hold was was probably the most difficult decision that I've made in my life—one that helped me grow, and become a stronger advocate on both a personal and professional level. Here's what I learned along the way.
Name my limits.
Before I knew how to recognize the signs of burnout, I tended to take on whatever people asked of me as a matter of pride—I had always been an independent and capable person and felt valued when people sought me out for help. I remember skipping meals to support a friend who broke up with a partner and staying up most nights to comfort them. I would tutor friends who were overwhelmed by midterms—instead of opting for alone time, sleep, and exercise.
I was giving everyone else so much of my energy that I no longer had any for myself. I started noticing that I would become quickly overwhelmed. I had a short fuse and would get angry or cry easily. I experienced my first panic attack. With time, I learned that helping others at the expense of my wellbeing wasn't truly helping anyone.
It was hard to set boundaries at first, but it was the first step of improving my mental health.
How to set boundaries with friends and family:
- Saying, “no" more not only benefited my mental health, but it also had the amazing effect of improving my relationships. I got better at putting my foot down when I had too much going on, and delegating tasks to others. It was a difficult adjustment at first, but my health was enough of a motivator to keep the habit going. Here's what you can do, too:
- If friends and family come to you late at night, tell them that you'll check in with them in the morning.
- If they ask for study support, be firm in your plans to help them only after completing my own work.
- Vocalize that you won't be as available to help as you may have been in the past since you need time to care for yourself.
Pay attention to eating and sleeping habits.
When burnout set in, I was sleeping less than two hours a night and my physical health was deteriorating. Blood tests revealed that I was anemic and experiencing vitamin deficiencies. Once I took my leave, I prioritized balanced meals over fast food or convenience store snacks. Getting enough sleep was also high on my to-do list.
How to reverse a bad sleep schedule:
- Turn off your phone and computer at 8 p.m., meaning no screen time or calls until the morning.
- Take a warm bath or shower before bed. This is a relaxation method and also serves as a sign to my body that it's time to wind down.
- Practice low-impact activities like gentle yoga, drawing, or reading a book
- Avoid caffeine after 3 p.m. Caffeine is a stimulant and can have disruptive effects on sleep.
- Use all of the above to create a nighttime routine—and stick to it.
Healthy eating tips:
- Take healthy snacks to class to guarantee that you won't be tempted to buy sugary treats. These include apples, trail mix, granola bars, and other non-perishable items.
- At your campus dining hall, go heavy on vegetables and simple proteins. If you're off-campus, try to go home for lunch.
- Prepare food at home over eating out. Many restaurants pack a wallop of processed sugar, salt, and other additives.
- Once or twice a week, make meals that last two to three days and can be frozen for easy reheating.
Sleep deprivation and a poor diet are linked with so many health issues—lack of sleep increases your blood pressure, negatively impacts your mental health, and has been linked with increased prevalence of major medical conditions such as diabetes, heart attack, and stroke. A poor diet can exacerbate these symptoms even further.
Make exercise routine.
The most visible sign of my descent into stress was that I stopped exercising. I love being outdoors—hiking, biking, kayaking, even snowshoeing in the winter—and going to the gym, especially to lift weights.
Exercising lets me forget my troubles to the point that I feel that I can conquer anything—and I know I'm not alone in this thinking. When I exercise regularly, my sleep improves and mental health improves.
Get moving—without spending $$$ on gym fees:
- Make it a social activity. Grab a friend for a walk around campus or your neighborhood. Not only will it get your heart rate up, but you'll also get the added benefit of bonding with your bud.
- If you take the bus to campus, get off one or two stops before your destination and walk to school. This will get the blood flowing before you hit the classroom, which can be especially useful if you have an exam or presentation.
- Try a few yoga moves or stretches between classes or from the comfort of your dorm room.
- Check out your local community center. Some offer an open gym, rink, or pool time, as well as classes to entice new members to sign up.
- Visit your campus gym or fitness center. Some schools offer free or reduced membership passes to their facilities.
Keep loved ones in the loop.
Growing up, I had always kept my worries out of the concern that telling others would be a bother. When it came to college, this was probably one of the largest reasons why I crashed. Several peers asked if I was okay as my health worsened, but I dismissed them. The result? Burnout for me, and guilt for those who may have felt they could have done more.
After taking my leave, I realized that I needed to get serious about the signs and symptoms of stress and let people in when they offered support. After discussing my struggles with close friends and family, I vocalized my plans to overhaul my lifestyle and began regularly asking them for input on whether I was improving. Their feedback helped me stay on track while and learn more about any of my possible triggers and pitfalls from an outsider's perspective.
How to build a support system:
- Speak to a school counselor. Many college and university counselling services also offer free stress-reduction workshops for students.
- Join an on-campus support group. This can be geared for mental health, fitness, or simply for forming connections you can turn to later on.
- International students can seek out their campus's international student center or services, whose staff will be may have ideas for student groups and events to grow your social network.
Know that it gets better.
Many students are afraid to admit when they are struggling as they worry about what others will think—but they shouldn't. My professors were so supportive when I reached out to them in crisis. They deferred my exams and worked with me to decide on a finals schedule that best fit my plans for recuperation. Many even opened up about their own struggles, which gave me hope that I would get through the experience.
Taking a mental health leave was scary and incredibly difficult, but it ended up being an opportunity to find strength and transformation. I discovered that no one is okay 100% of the time and that it's okay to rely on others and to be vulnerable. As aa social worker, it's something that I model for my clients to this day.
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