Challenges and coping mechanisms: student's mental health tips

Mental Health Awareness Week is 21-27 September. But University of Auckland student Yvonne Ruan says every day is a good day to be aware of your mental health. She offers her story and tips.

Student Yvonne Ruan wearing a white jumper and semi-smiling
Student Yvonne Ruan says staying on top of mental health involves troubleshooting, as well as accessing services.

The pressures of a competitive course and a pile-up of life changes proved too much for student Yvonne Ruan, who is sharing her story for this month’s Mental Health Awareness Week.

Yvonne is a BSc graduate, now completing honours in Physiology at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences (FMHS). However, in her first year, the combination of being new to living in halls, meeting new people and studying Biomedical Sciences intending to enter a clinical programme, all proved too much.

“The whole environment was very foreign and competitive. Eventually, it all started piling up and became completely overwhelming.”

Her usual method was to bottle it all up, but when panic attacks and depressive episodes began, Yvonne realised she needed to talk to someone. Counselling services helped, but she still had ups and downs. Looking back, Yvonne wishes she had seen her GP sooner, as cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressants helped stabilise her mood greatly.

Second-year study involved new academic challenges and Yvonne found exams could trigger extreme anxiety. With the help of FMHS staff, Yvonne booked an appointment with the University of Auckland’s Student Disability Services (SDS). She was surprised to find out that diagnosed mental health conditions are covered by the University’s definition of disability. Yvonne wants to spread the word, because the support of the University’s mental health advisers has made a huge difference.

“The nurturing environment created by SDS, combined with the fact that they never doubted my condition, really helped me be more confident in speaking out about problems I encountered academically and mentally.”

Rather than asking Yvonne whether her depression was causing her symptoms, they said, “Okay, your depression is causing this. Here’s what we can do.”

The options they presented were ones Yvonne hadn’t previously realised existed.

The mental health advisers liaised with University Health and Counselling and spoke to departmental staff about special conditions, and the possibility of compassionate considerations.

“It’s nice to feel that there’s someone on my side and know someone is advocating for me,” Yvonne says.

My SMART goals in lockdown are to go for a walk or do at-home workouts for 30 minutes to an hour, just as a break away from the computer. 

Yvonne Ruan, student, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences University of Auckland

When it comes to advice for other students or people facing difficult times in lockdown, Yvonne acknowledges she still faces challenges.

“With depression comes many unexpected curveballs. One of the main symptoms I experienced was a flat mood and a loss of interest in things I liked to do,” she says. “What helped me was setting achievable goals and trying to develop them to become habits.

“As an example, I used to like power-lifting, but I dropped it entirely during a depressive episode.

“So I started small and set a SMART goal to go for one hour a week. My SMART goals in a lockdown situation are to go for a walk or do at-home workouts for 30 minutes to an hour, just as a break away from the computer. The most important thing is to take things step by step, even if they are baby steps.”

Another technique has been to take time out to mentally switch off. Yvonne uses self-care tools such as meditation and journalling to get in touch with her emotions and thoughts.

“I try to treat myself like I do my friends: I wouldn’t tell my friends to ‘get over it’, so I try not to be mean to myself either.

“From there it’s troubleshooting, so I can figure out what steps I need to take to solve the problem.
“Nobody knows me better than I do, so trusting in myself has been a big highlight, and a challenge, in managing down days and my mental health overall.”

Jodi Yeats

The story first appeared in the September 2021 UniNews magazine. 

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