5 Mental Health Tips for Students

08/28/2013 12:37 EDT | Updated 10/28/2013 05:12 EDT

I have been fortunate enough in my career to work with many university students throughout Canada. Sitting across from these students in therapy has certainly provided me ample opportunity to get a handle on some of the more pressing issues facing them during their college years.

Given that classes are about the resume in the coming weeks, I thought I would pass along some advice that might be helpful to university and high school students hoping to make this year a good one. While I could offer a lot of things to bear in mind, let's focus on just a few that are especially important:

1. Stay Connected

Although there exist some rare exceptions, everyone needs to have social connections and relationships. Witnessing the impact that relationships (or lack thereof) can have on the psychological well-being of students prompted me to write a book (The Need to be Liked) about this and related issues. It is no coincidence that Tip #1 on my list is related to making and maintaining relationships during the academic year. I have seen too many young adults in my office over the years dealing with problems in this area not to highlight its importance.

Psychologists have studied people's need to associate with others and have found that we all differ in how much social interaction is needed. So, don't feel you have to be a social butterfly with loads of friends and parties to attend. Some people only want and need a few connections, which is fine. Knowing (and respecting!) your social and relationship preferences is important.

Unfortunately, learning to cope with the loss of a relationship is also often a part of student life, as is rejection and sometimes exclusion. These types of events cause real pain and can lead to depression and serious anxiety. Use your friends and family to get through these tough times, and if you feel you need some extra help, see Tip #3 below.

Finally, a significant proportion of students describe themselves as shy. If you are looking for ways to meet new people, I would recommend clubs and organizations at your school. Most universities have at least some such organizations (ex: law society; psychology club), and the big universities will have many. I can't think of a more perfect way to meet new people -- you already have a common interest and odds are the people who are joining are looking for other people to connect with as well.

2. Know the Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Perfectionism

Perfectionism tends to get a bad rap as something to be avoided for those who want to maintain good psychological health. However, it is possible to have healthy perfectionism, which basically refers to having standards that are at the high end of what you can reasonably attain. It is a good idea to set some goals in terms of grades and averages, but try to think of them as general targets rather than hard and fast requirements. Golfers who tee up their shots do not expect to get a hole in one -- their main goal is to get as close to the hole as they can. Similarly, trying to get a specific grade, and treating anything below this mark as a failure (known as "all or nothing" thinking), is unhealthy. Choose a reasonable grade average and anything within a decent range would be considered a success (ex: if you aim for an 85 and get an 82, you've basically hit the mark).

Unhealthy perfectionism involves rigid, unrealistic goals that result in lots of self-criticism if they are unmet. Such perfectionism affects many students, not only in terms of grades, but also things like body image and social performance. It is OK to be self-critical, but the amount of self-criticism should be proportional to the mistake. For example, your level of self-criticism for receiving a grade slightly below your goals should probably be minimal.

3. Make use of Psychological Services

Many universities in Canada have counselling and psychological services available to students*. This is a tremendous way to receive great mental health care for FREE! I emphasize the FREE part because once you leave university and have to pay psychologists' fees out of pocket, you will miss this option.

University is stressful and students can develop mental health disorders at this time. I used to work at the First Episode Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at University Hospital in London, Ontario. This program's main mandate was to identify and treat adolescents and young adults experiencing their first significant problems with mood and anxiety. In fact, the majority of these disorders tend to develop around this age group. Not surprisingly, we saw many students from the local university and associated colleges. Getting help early on for mental health problems is always a good idea. For example, it is ideal to prevent problematic shyness from becoming Social Anxiety Disorder and normal sadness from becoming clinical depression.

In terms of stigma, some students worry about their peers knowing that they see a psychologist. First, all sessions are confidential. Second, more people than ever are seeking the services of psychologists, and there are many public campaigns that target the stigma of seeking treatment. This means that more and more people are talking about mental health and accepting the fact that it is necessary for many people to attend therapy at some point. The catastrophic worry of "everyone will think I'm crazy" is simply not true.

Furthermore, not everyone in therapy has a serious mental health problem. Many of my clients do not have a mental illness. They use therapy for support, decision-making, proactive coping, etc. I think we are getting closer to the day when going for a psychological assessment will be considered on par with a physical check-up with your GP. And by the way, if your friends learn that you are seeing (or saw) a psychologist, that might empower them to seek help as well.

4. Avoid Overreactions

Inevitably, at some point this year you will have an argument with a friend or significant other, a conflict with a professor, or experience some sort of rejection. As a result, your immediate emotions of anger, shame, embarrassment, anxiety and/or sadness might motivate you to do something impulsive to address the issue (ex: leave a voice message you really shouldn't leave; decide that a relationship is over; write yourself off as a loser).

I have seen enough of these situations to offer the following tip: wait until some time has passed and the emotions have decreased in strength before deciding to act in some significant way. Generally speaking, people don't stay angry for long, they forgive, you forgive, and life returns to normal. Many people tend to catastrophize (i.e., think of the worst case scenario) following stressful events, and they feel like they have to act NOW! Breathe, slow down, and wait until things have calmed down. Nine times out of ten, things are not as bad as you think and life will return to normal sooner than you think. If not, see tip #3.

5. Stay Active

There is just too much evidence that exercise reduces stress and contributes to increased physical and mental health -- both published and anecdotal -- not to include this final piece of advice. Between intramural sports (which is one of the things I miss most about university) and the university gym, there is ample opportunity for you to exercise and keep active. And these things tend to be free or very low cost. The impact this will have on stress, anxiety and mood is well worth the time it takes out of your day. It is also a great way to have some social time.

*Due to high demand, university counselling services can sometimes have long wait lists. If you need to see a professional sooner than later, consider seeing a psychologist in private practice. You might have some insurance coverage to help pay for private sessions (speak with an administrator at your school about such coverage). Also, some psychologists have a reduced rate for students, so inquire about which psychologists provide this option. There might also be programs at the local hospitals or clinics that take new clients. The intake coordinator at the university counselling center can usually offer information on such local services.

If your mental health issue is an emergency (ex: suicidal thinking), go immediately to the nearest emergency room.