3 Ways to Balance Mental Health and Education

I’ve been working with students since 2012. I mean, when I started working with high schoolers to develop a self-care routine and begin building careers with emotional wellness at the center, I was in college. I was juggling trying to start something bigger than myself and making people proud. I was navigating unfamiliar waters five and a half hours away from home, friends, family, and everything I’d known.

I was so focused on what I was supposed to be doing and what I thought people needed from me. Let’s just break down my goals list. Over the next eight years or so, starting in 2009, this is how I thought things should have gone:

  1. Get accepted to my first choice and go off to start my next chapter in the fall of 2009.

  2. Graduate college with a GPA that would make my “perfect student” mindset proud.

  3. Enter veterinary school and conquer the next 4 years.

  4. Do what I need to do to ensure I was married, starting a family, and running my own veterinary empire in my 30s.

So, what happened?

I burnt out and ended up on academic probation. I had to back home and try to fix the mess I made trying to be perfect. I went back to school and got my grades up. And then, when I found out I couldn’t afford to keep going to a school I thought was so right for me, everything halted.

 
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This post is not meant to scare you, deter you, or make you feel guilty. I actually had a request from my virtual assistant to talk about something I only bring out for special occasions. See, I talk about my depression and my anxiety in a way that seems easy to people.

I talk about how I have obsessive compulsive tendencies at work and in my home, like it’s normal, like a lot of people have them. But, I haven’t mentioned how I had to step on tiles in a certain way at my parents’ house in high school because my anxiety was so bad about grades, peer pressure, etc. Or, how i had to flick the lights on and off a certain amount of times when my mom was in college or at work and my dad was fighting in Iraq to keep my emotions at bay during choir. Music has always done something me, breaking open all that hurt so I can breathe.

I know what it looks like to put education before your mental health. And, I know what it looks like to put mental health before your education. It’s like trying to learn the steps to a dance you’ve never been taught. One where you’re too afraid to get on the dance floor when it’s your time to shine.

How do we know when to stop pushing ourselves or when to be more disciplined?

Well, I’m going to tell you. These are 3 tips to start that dance as a student with a whole lot more live to live from someone who has been there and done that.

Break down your goals.

I've heard this one from various people over the years but Lara Casey in her book, Make It Happen, says it best. ”Believe in what you can't yet see."

You know how you study for a big test. You get a group of your peers together. You make a bunch of flashcards. You repeat the steps, the names, the dates, the information, over and over again. Think of the breakdown of your goals like quizzes. They may be only 10% of your grade, maybe less, but it adds up over time to boost your grade in that class, right?

You can work backwards or you can work from the ground up. As long as you’re studying the material, retaining it, progress will be made. There is no need for this process to be perfect but it needs to make sense to you. You need to understand it.

Think about the very last thing you have to do to excel, to check that goal off of that list. So, what comes before that? And before that? What’s at the very beginning of that list?

You get to cross these things off that list as you do them and nobody gets to say "well, that was easy.” I mean, they may try but you know what it took to get here. Celebrate that. You started conquering that goal little-by-little and that's the biggest obstacle to creating discipline!

And no, these goals don’t have to be purely academic. This works with just about anything. I know, it’s awesome!

Schedule self-care in your calendar

I bet this never even crossed your mind. To pencil your own self-care time into your already packed planner. Between the tests, the social outings, that date on Friday, the football game, who has time?!?

You do! Yes, you reading this!

Every single day, you should be trying to find the time to take a 10 minute break. Whether it’s journaling in the morning or before bed, meditation, a bike ride, a quick workout. Whatever you choose to do, it needs to be off of social media and in the moment. If you don’t, one thing is going to happen and I can tell you from experience it will happen. In fact, I already mentioned it once. You will burn out and your body will try to shut down.

Before you put up an an argument, this happened to me at least once a year for about 2 years. Then, it started happening for 3-4 days every month, a viral infection. I’m not going to diagnose you and I only know what the doctors told me. There was nothing they could do. I had to take the medicine they prescribed, that I could go buy from Harris Teeter or Wal-Mart mind you, and wait it out. I had to rest and I had to stay hydrated.

The first time anyone else knew I was burning myself out, and called me out on it, was the weekend I did the Dream On Youth website relaunch in 19 hours. I’m talking full fledged website rebranding, logo design, etc in 19 hours straight. I’ve never been team no sleep. I’ve never pulled an all-nighter, not even in college. And, I’ve never stayed at a desk for that long without food or water. So, yeah, you guessed it. I made myself physically ill and I’ll never forget our COO at the time, Emily, saying “never do that again. I mean it. Take a break. Get some rest.”

We all work remotely but I was busy running my mouth about how it was finished. Acting like i hadn’t procrastinated until the last minute, like so many students do, and pushed my body to the point of exhaustion. You know Sunday, in our newsletter, I’ll tell you about a recent moment that changed me. About the moment I watched something happen to a young woman who I can only assume was her way home from school while I was with my family. Terrifying, yes, but she’s okay.

Again, I’m not using scare tactics here and it’s not something I want to post on the blog for the whole world to know. It’s more of a private conversation between us and a scary truth we’re all avoiding.

In the words of my mother, “you kids don’t really know how tired you are.”’

Don’t do this alone. Find an accountability partner, or two.

You don’t have to wait until college to find your community, your people. You can start in high school, even earlier. You can find people who will advocate for your wellbeing and remind you to “breathe.”

Yes, they’ll remind you of your why in the actions they take and the way they stand by your side. They won’t blow up your ego to the point of no return, where you’re standing like Regina George in the hallway of chaos. You know the scene.

They won’t tear you down when things go wrong. Tough love could happen, but it’ll be love and not envy, pride, or greed. They’ll let you know “yeah, you messed up” and “this is how we move forward, together.” And, if you feel like you aren’t going to find those people, you have people who’ve already been through this. In the Dream On Youth community, in the friends you grew up with, maybe in your relationship.

I’m not telling you to be dependent on someone. You need to cultivate discipline and know how to do things on your own. But, when you can’t find the strength, you need people around you who can be that for you. You need people who are going to celebrate you and remind you how amazing you are, because you are.

You’re more than just a student, a daughter, a boyfriend, a feminist, an influencer, a business owner. You’re a person, trying to make it through this world and enjoy it, just like the rest of us. Don’t forget that.

Conclusion

The way to find balance as a student isn’t to focus on being balanced. It’s to focus on being present, on giving yourself some grace, on allowing some mistakes and disappointments. To learn how to press pause, you have to learn who you are and what works for you. Your way may not work for me exactly how you have it mapped out and vice-versa. It’s okay. We can all learn something from one another. A student in the school of life.

May be cheesy, but it’s true and kind of cool. Just admit it.