Despite the best developed plans, the start of the school year ushers in more stress than bargained for. At the beginning of the fall semester, many new, taxing things take a firm hold of students’ focus, in lieu of the vacuous summer that many experience. Responsibilities such as tuition, meal plans, working, volunteering, studying, homework and probably far too little sleep can cause extra mental stress. Sources said that taking care of your body, becoming part of a community, taking time for oneself, having healthy coping mechanisms and understanding how substances affect you are the best ways to ensure mental health.
The life of an NAU student is far too often full of stressors. Here are five general practices, according to NAU students and community members, to keep your cool and maintain peak mental performance.
Mental health can be impacted by and contribute to overall physical wellbeing. An article by Iris Telehealth, a telepsychiatry company that specializes in bringing mental health care to rural areas, highlighted the impact that a balanced diet and regular exercise can have on the mental health of most people. The shorthand is that if your mental health is down in the gutter, eating fruits and vegetables and doing cardio workouts three times a week might be your path to recovery.
Junior Macy Maine said she agrees. Maine said she is a believer in the mind-boosting power of a healthy physical lifestyle.
Maine said accountability partners are a much more reliable choice for progress than a solo workout regimen. She suggests joining a group fitness class at the Health and Learning Center (HLC). Maine said the problem she often encountered was the tought that she would be intimidated by the advanced abilities of others at the gym.
The University Coaching for Activity and Nutrition program provides counseling services to support students in whatever changes they're interested in making.
Physical health is only one facet of the many ways to improve mental health. Lutheran Campus Ministry leader Kathleen Day said she believes becoming a member of a community can also be advantageous for mental health. It is extremely important for freshman to become well-connected in order to succeed later in their academic careers.
Day has had a lot of experience with fostering community during her 15-year tenure at the ministry, where she has recognized the distinct advantage students have when they are part of a community.
“In my experience, the students who leave the college with the richest experiences are those who have friends in a variety of groups and have gotten to know people they never would’ve been friends with before,” Day said. “I see those friendships endure.”
Students who find a faith community have an added benefit, Day said. Students surrounded by their faith and their community have an understanding that they matter and belong. The most successful and least stressful approach to college is to study with the mind, the body and the soul.
Junior psychology major Akria Barnhard said he agrees that finding community and having a support group is integral to mental health in college. Barnhard said having a friend group is important, because it has proven invaluable for him to keep him cool during his studies. He also recognizes the pragmatic benefits of being in any community, especially an academic one.
"Have study groups if you're falling behind," Barnhard said. "Don't be scared to ask your professors so you can keep everything up and not have to stress later."
Day also said there is a powerful effect that friendship has on new students, and how it may be stifled due to some bad habits, such as staying home alone. She said isolation is what makes the school year difficult for some students and can especially prove harsh on mental health. While being an unintentional hermit may have mental health consequences, spending some time relaxing alone can also be beneficial.
People may start the semester with the best of intentions, but somewhere in the hustle and bustle of school it’s easy to mix up priorities. All the added stress of continuing the semester can be a large strain on mental health. For this reason, students and experts urge people to take a load off once in a while.
“I’ve had a rule since I was a freshman,” Maine said. “I don’t do any homework past 8 o’clock — that’s my time to relax and not think about school.”
Maine said it might seem counterintuitive, but having a homework break and taking time off of school to mentally declutter allows her to focus on her schoolwork. This time could also be dedicated to focusing on passions or maybe cooking a special meal once a week. Maine said no matter how small, it is crucial to make time for personal interests. When she failed to make time for herself, her mental health suffered. Spending too much time on unnecessary academic ventures left her feeling overtaxed.
“I feel like when I overschedule myself, that’s when I start to lose some of my mental healthiness,” Maine said.
Day recommended taking some time to get to know personal enjoyments.
“Think about the things that bring you a sense of peace and happiness,” Day said. “When have you been the happiest? When have you been the strongest student? What were you doing?”
Day said it is crucial that each student understands what they enjoy, and that the pursuit of what they genuinely enjoy is almost as important to their mental well-being as anything else.
Sources said it is also important to have healthy coping mechanisms, and NAU is stocked with ways to destress. ULifeline is a free online self-evaluation tool to identify mental health problems you or a friend might be having. Kognito is a free interactive course offered to staff and students for learning how to approach and discuss concerns with a peer in distress. The NAU Stress Busters offers free back rubs in the HLC as a way to relax students.
Mental health, as observed by community members, is often worsened by excessive alcohol use, Day said. She has firsthand knowledge of the negative impacts of alcohol on the mental, physical and emotional health of students.
“People do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise,” Day said.
Barnhard and Day both expressed that mental health often suffers from heavy drinking, with problems that do not exist outside of the influence taking up cavernous spaces in a user’s life.
Day said new students may be in an especially vulnerable position, expecting each other to indulge in casual drinking only to become trapped in the addictive and cynical cycle.
According to Mental Health America, depression can sometimes cause excessive drinking habits, and heavy drinking habits can inversely kindle feelings of depression. Binge drinking, or heavy episodic drinking, is an anticipated social norm on the college scene, but the negative effects can be felt by incoming students, especially those with existing mental health issues. Mental Health America, the nation’s leading community-based mental health advocacy group, identified the many wide-ranging negative effects of binge drinking, such as liver problems, shortened life expectancy, behavioral changes, physical changes and compromised safety.
"You should seek counseling when you feel overwhelmed, and there’s nothing you can do to get rid of that feeling," Maine said.
Students who need help dealing with drinking or drug use are encouraged to contact university Counseling Services at 928-523-2131. Those who struggle with suicidal thoughts can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or northern Arizona’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 877-756-4090.