Thousands of students across Canada begin university or college programs every year. This milestone on the journey to adulthood can be an exciting time for both young people and their families. But for many students, this step away from home and what is familiar can be harrowing and provoke anxiety.
Anxiety to some degree is normal and is to be expected. After all, this is a period of significant change.
Many young people will get through this transition with little difficulty. For others, the increased stress caused by this transition can trigger mental-health problems such as anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse. In some cases, it can reveal underlying major mental illnesses that manifest in early adulthood: depression, bipolar and even psychotic disorders.
So what will help students make the transition to campus life successfully and healthily? The first step is to anticipate difficulties young people and families may have and prepare for the transition. Here are five ideas to help protect the mental health of young people starting school this fall:
1. MAKE TIME FOR PLEASURABLE ACTIVITIES.
Find and schedule moments to remain engaged with hobbies and activities, such as reading leisure novels or listening to music. Exercise is a great way to manage stress and anxiety; most campuses have facilities and an abundance of opportunities, such as recreational sports teams, to add physical activity to the student's routine. Many campuses also offer yoga, which is a helpful way to engage in physical activity and psychological relaxation.
Be mindful of diet, and try to make healthy eating choices. This may be difficult during this transition, especially for those who are not living at home. Mood regulation depends on eating regularly and choosing foods wisely.
3. CONTROL ALCOHOL AND DRUG USE.
Minimize or refrain from alcohol or drug use, especially if there is a known vulnerability to mood and anxiety problems. Drugs and alcohol may seem to offer an easy escape in the moment from feelings of stress or loneliness. However, they more frequently serve to make these feelings worse. Moreover, drug and alcohol use can trigger underlying mental health symptoms that are more serious.
Get enough sleep and try to establish a regular sleep routine. With academic pressures mounting and unrestricted social opportunities, students may not prioritize sleep. Too little or inconsistent sleep will heighten the stress of daily challenges. Further, class schedules often vary from day to day, making a sleep routine difficult. Poor sleep hygiene may also lead to missing classes, making it more difficult to meet the academic challenges of the college or university environment, adding to the students' already high stress levels.
5. STAY CONNECTED.
Keep in touch with family and friends from home, especially those who may be going through a similar experience. Families may wish to develop a plan for how and when they can keep in touch with their child. This way, if there is a departure from the established pattern of communication, parents may take note and make appropriate inquiries. Participate fully and wholeheartedly in campus life. While it is important to remain mindful of academic priorities, a commitment to sleep and an overall healthy lifestyle, campus activities offer a great opportunity to settle into the environment and make new connections. Over time, developing new friendships and skills will help to manage stress in difficult moments.
Finally, it is important to remember that a transition to university or college life will be hard for everyone. If, however, you or your child notices that difficult feelings are not going away, and perhaps getting worse, it is important for your child to speak to someone about this. Colleges and universities have mental health support services readily accessible. In preparing for a student's move to college or university, it is important to be aware and continue a dialogue during this exciting but challenging time.
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Susan MacKenzie is a staff psychiatrist and the Clinical Head of Child, Youth and Family Outpatient Services at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.