How I Manage Mental Health

15 Feb 2018

Mental health problems among university students has been epidemic in the last few years, according to major news outlets, university students, and university officials. One result of all this attention is that, as we have been assured, the grown-ups have finally noticed and are definitely going to do something about it.

At the worst point in my life – the least mentally healthy, if you like – I slept for over 12 hours a day. Even then, what hard won energy I gained had to be rationed as though it were a precious resource. Sometimes just going out to pick up groceries would wear me out enough that I would have to take a nap. I was, of course, deeply unhappy, so much so that I didn’t even think I was unhappy – there simply seemed no hope for improvement, and though I never wanted to kill myself, I would have welcomed a painless death.

I’m in a much better place now. You might think that I should be #1 cheerleader for mental health initiatives on my campus, but I don’t think any of these initiatives would have helped me then. In the end, I clawed my way out of that black hole. It’s my firm belief that a large part of the process of becoming a (better) grown-up, at least for me, is to get better at avoiding falling back into that hole.

So, in the interests of promoting student mental health, and because it would be useful to have all of this in one place as a handy reference for those future days when, inevitably, the black hole will beckon, here are the strategies I use to manage my mental wellbeing as a student.

Corgi puppy Corgi break before we start. (Corgis are always a boon to mental health.)

1. Exercise.

The first step that got me out of the black hole was going to the gym and picking up a barbell.

I have no idea where the initial drive to do that came from. Before doing it, I would have guessed that it would make me even more drained – exercise uses energy, right? Perhaps I simply figured that it couldn’t get worse than it was. In any case, I was wrong: I felt so proud of my first shaky squat that, for the rest of the day, it energized me.

This is an effect that persists today. Doing a hard workout early in the day is like granting myself a little steely nugget of pride. However much the rest of the day might suck, it is one achievement that can’t be taken away.

Valentine's day is legs day meme Obligatory Valentine’s day gym meme.

A minimal schedule is lifting heavy 3 times a week and a short run. Dropping below this threshold has a dramatic effect on my overall mood. A better schedule is lifting 4 times a week, plus 3 runs. It’s worth specifying that this is not a cap. I have no idea where the ceiling is for when I will stop getting further benefits from additional exercise. So far as I can see, the ceiling is not reachable with my current workload.

None of this is new: there’s a great deal of support for the notion that exercise is an effective treatment for depression. But it bears repeating.

Summary: if you are feeling down, go for a run. I don’t care if it’s raining or dark. It can be as short as 1 km. Just go for a run.

2. Eat well.

Another thing that improves my mood is keeping a healthy diet. This means lots of protein and vegetables, not too much food overall, very little sugar aside from fresh fruit, and no more than 4 units of alcohol a week, ideally never too close to bedtime.

To get more specific, here is, through trial and error, what I have found to result in the best consistent levels of energy and mood stability:

  Goal Note
Calories 1600-2200 depends on activity level and goals
protein 100 g usually a minimum
carbs 180 g usually a maximum
fruits, veggies 500 g of which at least 300 g must be vegetables

Weight management is also incredibly important. Few things tank my self esteem more than noticing that I’ve gained weight. This is particularly bad because I tend to stress eat as a coping mechanism, so feeling down is likely to result in me eating more, which makes me gain weight, which makes me feel more terrible.

The bright side is that the reverse is also true – getting my diet on track is magical in how quickly it can break me out of a depression cycle.

Summary: eat well and don’t get fat.

3. Keep a healthy sleep schedule.

Maybe this is starting to get repetitive, but that’s sort of the point – the most important factor in my mental health is how well I’m taking care of my physical health.

As a rule, I don’t sleep fewer than 7.5 hours a night. Occasionally something really unavoidable keeps me up far too late, but if you prioritize your sleep schedule, you’ll find that those “really unavoidable” things are rather rare.

Another trick I’ve discovered recently is to wake up at the same time every day (even on weekends!). 6:30 AM works well for my current schedule – it’s enough time for a short workout, as well as a leisurely cooked breakfast, every day of the week. And, on days when I don’t have class until 11 AM, it means that I’ve squeezed in a solid 2-3 hours of work before my day has even started.

Setting my alarm for the same time every morning has been freeing. No longer do I have to make mental calculations every night to decide on the optimal balance between staying up late to get more work done vs. leaving enough time to get ready in the morning.

Summary: go to bed early and get up early.

4. Take pride in your work.

This is a circuit I made for an electrical lab last week:

Neat wiring

The entire lab was worth 2% of my final grade, and no, neatness was not a component of the marking rubric.

It takes a lot of extra time to add that final polish. To cut my wires to exact length, typeset my problem sets beautifully in LaTeX, submit perfectly linted and Doxygen-compliant code. How much extra time? Oh, probably about 30% of the total time of the assignment, I spend on polishing it.

Not all assignments get this treatment, but I enjoy doing it when I can, because it means that when I submit that assignment, I’m not just crossing my fingers and hoping for a good grade. No, when I submit it, I am showing it off.

Can you see how powerful this approach is? Instead of dreading homework due dates, I anticipate them. This strategy turns one of the biggest sources of student stress and decreased mental wellbeing into its opposite.

Summary: you can choose to do the bare minimum or you can go above and beyond. One of these options will make you feel like a loser, and the other will make you feel like a boss. Choose the right one.

5. Socialize less.

I know, this is the opposite of typical student mental health advice, which tends to emphasize making time to socialize.

The problem is that most social interactions make me depressed. This is particularly true on a university campus, where it often seems like a social faux-pas to express happiness or excitement – about anything, but especially about being a student. To get along with most students you have to be jaded and hate your life.

I’m not free from blame here. Frequently, I end up following this convention, partly because I don’t want to be mocked for being happy, and partly because it is just easy to complain, feel bad, and then complain more.

But if you think about it, we are, as a group, mostly young, middle class, physically healthy people who live in a first world nation, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. In first year, we got to pick our major, and apparently (in UBC Engineering) 90% of us got our top pick. And yet if you listen to us, you’d think we’re undergoing a 4-year-long unanaesthesized surgery.

It feels good in the short run when you are stressed and trying to make a deadline to air complaints and feel, for a brief moment, the temporary balm of camaraderie and commiseration, but in the long run, it can only help ensure that things remain bad.

Summary: it’s hard to be happy when you’re stuck in an echo chamber of “everything sucks all the time.” Seek out people who make you feel better in the long term, not in the short term.

6. Actively choose.

During the course of writing this list, I’ve come to realise that all these strategies distill to the same thing: taking control of my own life.

I choose to exercise and eat well because I value my physical well being.

I choose to get up early.

I choose to put in extra effort on all of my assignments, not because not it gains me anything in particular, but just because I will not let anyone else dictate the standards to which I hold myself.

I choose to surround myself with people who make me feel happy, and whose happiness I contribute to in return.

This is how I avoid that black hole: by repeatedly proving that I do, actually, have choices in my life.