Mental health and wellbeing is one of our core true Life pillars. But never has it been so important as over the last year. With the UK plunged into three lockdowns and countless restrictions, being a University student has never been so challenging. On top of the usual stresses of assignment deadlines, exam seasons, homesickness and more, students are now faced with an even more difficult change, virtual learning. This has replaced, but under no means replicated, the experience of face-to-face teaching and physical contact with lecturers, peers and support staff. Here at true, this has meant providing our true Life events calendar virtually and finding new ways to support our students remotely.
In recognition of University Mental Health Day 2021, we asked our award-winning GP and young people’s mental health expert, Dr Dominique Thompson, to reflect on 2020. The timing of this article could not be more relevant, as she takes us on a journey through the past year and helps us look ahead towards what is hopefully the end of the final lockdown and the beginning of brighter days to come.
Take it away, Dr Dom…
Reflections on 2020 (and squirrels!) #UniMentalHealthDay
The thing about all my endless daily walks; round the park, round the block, round the houses, is that they do give me a lot of time to reflect (and talk to the squirrels… or is that just me?) So I’ve been thinking, and pondering, and trying really hard to focus on the good things that have happened this very weird year. And if ‘good’ is too strong, then perhaps ‘less awful’ will do...
Students have had a tough time (but responded impressively)
Students have had a phenomenally challenging year. And to be fair I think that even people who don’t often think about students would agree with this. The isolation in halls last autumn, and now again in mid-winter. The remote learning and lack of social contact. The disappointment of the current university experience for many, compared with their expectations, hopes and dreams for student life. The constant uncertainty and anxiety that we have all felt, to a greater or lesser degree.
I want to acknowledge on this University Mental Health Day how impressed I am by students everywhere, studying the best they can, connecting with new peers remotely, and generally trying to make the best of a situation none of us could have conceived of.
Some good, some bad
My own year has been one of working from home, often alone most of the day (apart from the squirrels on my daily walk!), and there have been times when I have felt stressed, exhausted and worn out, like everyone else. But I have also realised that although I missed not seeing colleagues around the UK, I didn’t miss the interminable train journeys and early starts. And I have really loved the new sense of community locally, with neighbours saying ‘hello’ on my daily walks. The socially distanced chats and waving (is waving the breakout move of 2020?!), and even a wonderful ‘distant Christmas drinks and fairy lights’ evening in our street.
What matters most has become clearer to us
When we eventually have the energy to reflect I think many of us will conclude that people are what matter most to us, and to our wellbeing. We have missed our families or friends so much. Perhaps, by the time we can finally meet up, we will have realised who we want to spend the most time with - those who make us feel happy, and good about ourselves.
We will probably focus our energy on the people and activities that have helped us through the most, and less on those that drain or exhaust us.
You might have discovered a new hobby, or re-discovered an old one; tried baking, knitting, painting, poetry, or making tik-toks. The science shows that arts and crafts have been very good for our wellbeing this year, second only to ‘connecting with others.’
Help time to pass with purpose
Another thing you might like to do, if you haven’t done it already (and if you can’t have a puppy!), is to plant a fruit tree, or grow a herb garden in a pot, as the time is takes to mature can feel like time well spent. Connecting with nature, and nurturing it as you watch it grow, may help time to pass in a more hopeful and positive (and fruitful!) way.
Be kind to yourself
We have all got through this year the very best we can. Some have needed more support (and Netflix!) than others, and that’s ok. We should be kind to ourselves, acknowledge what we have achieved in surviving endless lockdowns, isolation, separation and anxiety, and try to look forward for now.
We can think about what we will be most excited to do when things are more ‘normal’, who we will want to see and hug, and where we will want to go. This ‘difficult time’ will become the past and slowly fade, though for those who have lost loved ones, worked at the front line, or had their mental health severely affected, it will take longer (but help is out there, start with your GP).
For anyone who needs a bit more student-focused help right now, don’t forget Student Space, the amazing website set up by Student Minds, full of resources and blogs for coping with the pandemic. And never forget that all universities provide professional student support, so reach out to your local uni counselling service or wellbeing team, if you need a helping hand. You are never alone.
Here’s to better things (and never having to talk to squirrels again!)
For more advice or support check out Dominique’s Student Wellbeing Series of books.