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Managing Stress on Campus: Some Strategies for Students Living with Mental Illnesses

by Katrina Gay, Chief of Field Operations, NAMI National

Certain levels of stress are inherent in the life of a student. Stress can be a good thing when the body reacts by focusing energy to maintain balance, order, and motivation. For many students, however, particularly those living with a mental illness, stress can loom larger and present problems that may threaten to derail recovery and set them up for academic failure.

"Staying disciplined to keep up with my studies, classes, my work schedule, and my social life has been a problem for me," said Jason, who is studying computer animation at a technical school. "The way I have coped with stress this first year of my studies has not always been the best for my grades. I am learning to get better at understanding how overwhelming everything can be and to simplify in the ways that I can, such as keeping a set work schedule from week to week and better managing my bipolar disorder."

Considering the daily difficulties that students living with mental illness often encounter, experts agree that recognizing and responding to early warning signs of overload is the best way to prevent a spiral that may counteract a consumer’s recovery.

What are some ways to manage stress? Students, including those living with mental illness, offer the following suggestions:

  • Get the right information at the start of the semester or term. Purchase and use a calendar to create a realistic timetable. List the deadlines and exam dates and work backwards. When you receive an assignment, estimate how long it will take and add some extra time to your estimate. Schedule regular, short-term appointments with yourself to review the course or class assignments and to work a little each day or week to keep from procrastinating and creating an impossible deadline that has grown into a monster.
  • Maintain healthy eating habits.  Avoid junk food and too much caffeine, and plan regular times for meals. When you are anxious, particularly during deadline and exam times, preparing your own food may feel like a daunting task. Scheduling meals at easy-to-reach locales, choosing healthier options from fast-food restaurants, and keeping healthy snacks handy will help.
  • Get organized. Mapping out your workload and integrating it with the rest of your daily life can be very beneficial. Ask for help in this area if you need it. Create a realistic daily schedule that includes time for sleeping, eating, playing, studying, working, and socializing.
  • Identify and access peer support.  Having regular therapy, counselor, and doctor appointments is important, but the informal, easy-to-reach support of a peer can make the difference between managing a particularly stressful time and letting it manage you. If you feel stressed, talking to someone who is in a similar situation—a friend, student, or peer—can be a tremendous help.
  • Give yourself a break. Plan for and take “mini-breaks,” regardless of the clock. Take a walk, listen to music, or watch the clouds. Taking breaks may distract you from your problems and put potentially negative thinking and overwhelming thoughts into perspective.
  • Exercise. Develop a regular exercise program to help manage the effects of stress and provide social opportunities. The physical benefits are an added bonus.
  • Anticipate school problems and build remedies early. If you know you have a hard time concentrating when deadlines and exams near, arrange to have someone from your class take notes for you. In addition, arrange for a study partner or join a study group to help you keep your focus. If you anticipate exam anxiety that may derail your entire semester’s efforts in a class, negotiate flexible testing times and alternative testing venues with your instructor in advance.
  • Develop a recovery network. In addition to your family, doctor, and counselor, your recovery network can include support and education groups that may be offered through your local NAMI chapter or elsewhere in your community, either on or off campus. Exploring strategies to decrease anxiety and enhance coping skills, securing assistance with financial aid and admission forms, obtaining support for managing financial difficulties, enhancing communication skills, and accessing education about mental illnesses can all help alleviate stress.

Dana Lefko, director of Education and Communication at NAMI Maryland and a graduate student in health administration, agrees that creating a balance between school and other activities is vital. “It is important to be involved in school and in life in ways that you enjoy and to stay involved in some activities that are leisurely to keep your mind clear and to bring perspective,” she says. "As a student, I have come to understand that we all need some stress. Facing a challenge and learning to manage stress is an accomplishment at the end of the day, and we all need those."

From: NAMI Advocate, Fall 2004

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