Self Care 101: Protecting Your Mental Health

While the15884166831_5787d26901_z previous two blog posts in this series spotlighting mental health in the classroom focused on the issues facing students with mental health issues, and administrative solutions for some of these problems, the last segment in this series will widen the scope and focus on preventative care for everyone. It’s not just students that are feeling overwhelmed with university today – faculty members are also suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. It’s important to remember that no matter who you are, you can benefit from a little preventative mental health care.


In a high-paced academic environment, it’s easy to feel that any time not spent on academic pursuits is wasted. This mentality is common not only in uWaterloo but across many university campuses, and while it may lead to bursts of productivity and output, it also leads to a great deal of stress, exhaustion and misery. In order to avoid these outcomes, it’s important that students and faculty alike take time away from their work to practice self-care. Self-care can include almost anything that you enjoy. All that it truly means is setting aside some time from your day to treat yourself well.


Clichés, but….

  • Get some sleep
    • Allowing your body to reset during a full 8-9 hours of sleep per night will ensure that you go through each day with as much energy as possible. When you’re well rested, you don’t have to be constantly fighting against the urge to take a nap…and you’d be surprised at how much nicer the world seems!
  • Eat something
    • Along with getting enough sleep comes giving your body fuel. While it’s important to eat healthy, it’s more important to simply eat enough of food that you enjoy. If self-care for you is relaxing with a brownie, don’t feel guilty! Eating guiltless allows you to get rid of the expectations that you’ll always eat perfect and focus entirely on eating what makes you feel good. Sometimes that might be carrots, and other times cookies.
  • Drink some water
    • Just like your body needs food, it also needs hydration. If you feel tired, anxious or irritated, often getting a cold drink of water will rehydrate you, and you’ll find that you feel a little bit better.
  • Get off the couch
    • Even for a little while. Exercise gives us endorphins, or the ‘feel good’ chemical. Being active also gives you a chance to change your setting a little bit – so next time you feel stressed out and cooped up in your office, take a walk outside.

Don’t forget about the rest of your life!

  • Make time to see friends
    • It may seem like there’s no time to do anything but academia, but filling your life with only work can create a lot of stress. Making time in your week to see friends and just enjoy life can really take a load off of your shoulders and make going back to work a little easier.
  • Take a break!
    • Sometimes, all we really need to reduce stress and take care of our mental health is a real break from the things that are causing us stress. If you can’t face another second working on your research paper/thesis/marking, maybe it’s time to take half an hour and do something you really enjoy. The work will always be there when you get back.


All of these self-care tips are easy to implement into your daily life. They all boil down to one simple thing – there’s always time to take care of your mental health, and no matter what you’re doing, you deserve to be happy and enjoy your life.


The Debate Over Accommodations: Making Space for Mental Health in the Classroom — Sarah Forbes

Equality doesnt mean EquityMost professors are aware of their responsibility to accommodate students with disabilities in their classroom.  Many of them may not be as aware that this responsibility extends to students with a documented mental health condition as well. While mental health issues are often invisible, they create many difficulties for students in academia. By allowing reasonable accommodations, instructors can encourage these students to reach their full potential.

What do these accommodations look like?

Accommodations can take many forms. For students with difficulty focusing in crowded environments due to issues like ADHD, alternative exam locations allow them to write their exams in smaller rooms. Often other resources are used alongside alternative exams such as peer note-takers, where a student will take lecture notes on behalf of someone who may not be able to multi-task or focus as well. For students with depression or anxiety who may have difficulties with motivation, short negotiated extensions on assignments may help them to manage their time. Other changes in assignment structure can be negotiated with specific students as well, such as changing a public speaking presentation to a prerecorded lecture for a student with social anxiety. In any of these cases, accommodations require the student to document their issue with AccessAbility Services. For extensions and other personalized changes in exam or assignment structure, the student and instructor can collaborate to find a solution that fits both the assessment needs of the instructor and the issues faced by the student.

cartoon accommodationsThere is some controversy over the idea of accommodations that change assignment structure or allow extra time. However, as illustrated by the cartoon accompanying this article, expecting all students to achieve the same results based on their different abilities and starting points in life is unrealistic. Accommodations given to students who need them simply gives them the chance to truly show the work they have put into the class and the knowledge they have gained.

 The debate over content warnings

The most controversial accommodation by far appears to be the “trigger warning” or “content warning.”  The idea is exactly the same under either name. For controversial or difficult topics that must be discussed in class, the instructor will present a short warning prior to the introduction of the topic. This allows students for whom this topic may be upsetting or trigger flashbacks/anxiety attacks to choose how they interact with the subject matter. This is especially important in the arts, where controversial discussions are the backbone of many classes. While discussions about rape culture and sexual assault on campus are important and help to eliminate stigma as well as introduce students to new viewpoints, they can send a student who has survived sexual assault into a debilitating panic attack, forcing them out of the conversation. Many professors view these warnings as an escape route from difficult conversations and assignments. Anyone can claim to be “triggered,” they argue, and then skip out on important lecture material and assignments with no penalty. However, the content warning does not mean that the material is not mandatory – it just allows students to be prepared for the discussion. If a student knows that they will not be able to handle the material, they can then approach the professor privately and negotiate any other accommodations necessary.

These warnings are easy to add to a syllabus. They can be placed in the class schedule, next to lectures in which topics such as sexual assault, eating disorders, violence, and any other potentially graphic or disturbing topic are discussed. The discussion culture of university is incredibly important for allowing students to experience many different ideas and viewpoints – but by including upsetting subjects without any warning it can alienate many students with mental illnesses, leaving them out of a discussion that often focuses on them. The voices we most need to hear when talking about some of these issues are from students who have personally experienced them. To encourage them to speak up, we need to keep our classrooms welcoming.

‘As Long As You Don’t Get Sick’: Mental Health on the University Campus – Sarah Forbes

In the past few years, mental health issues have become increasingly visible as an obstacle in university education. Ivy League schools, such as Yale and Harvard, have been faulted for placing standuptostigmastressful burdens on their students without providing access to services that would help them manage the load. Rachel Williams, a student at Yale, wrote of her experience suffering from depression and attempting to navigate the withdrawal/readmission policy, ”Thinking back to that welcome packet, there is a conspicuous omission: ’We love you and want you and will provide for you and protect you, as long as you don’t get sick.’”

In this student’s case, her forced medical withdrawal from campus was prompted by her sense that her safety and security were in jeopardy at her university. Others felt that they were being forced to choose between staying in their programs at the expense of their health, or medically withdrawing with no guarantee of being able to readmit. After Luchang Wang explicitly referred to the readmission policy in her suicide note in January 2015, Yale promised to examine where it can do better. But is it too little too late?

These are the schools that students aspire to attend and educators strive to emulate, and even they are struggling with how to handle the mental health issues of their students. Therefore, it’s important for us to look at the experiences of those affected by these problems in our own community. This winter, Imprint published a feature article (I Don’t Live Here I’m Just Visiting) that discussed one student’s battle with depression and how it impacted her academic success. A key point in her narrative is the idea that the services were never going to be sufficient for the number of students that needed to use them, leading to wait times that could be extremely detrimental.

It took about a month of waiting for my first appointment. And then when I was walking to the bus to go to my first appointment, I got a call saying the counsellor I was meeting was taking a sick day and I’d have to reschedule. The next available time was a month later.

The University of Waterloo has committed to address this issue, but in the meantime students are left in the cold without the tools to handle their symptoms. Untreated mental health conditions can lead to withdrawal from courses, failing grades, late or incomplete assignments, and many other negative outcomes in the classroom. With the aim of keeping students in the university system, what can instructors do to help students?

At a classroom level, there are many actions instructors can take to improve the learning experience for those with mental health issues. A huge factor in student success is the sensitivity of the instructor, and this can manifest in many ways. For a student who has suffered a trauma, some seemingly innocuous subjects can cause flashbacks or anxiety attacks. An instructor who is willing to preface these topics with a warning or allow students to pursue alternate assignments will allow for greater success in their class. For students whose depression leaves them without the energy to complete assignments on time, flexible and reasonable extensions make a huge difference.

In the next installment of this series, I will discuss specific accommodations and strategies in more detail, focusing on the debate over reasonably accommodating different needs while still accurately testing the abilities of each student.