Preparing Your Mental Health To Go Back To School

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Even though it may seem far too soon, the last weeks of summer are upon us. It's time to start gearing up for the beginning of the school year. As those dread-inducing commercials are happy to let you know, now is the time to buy new school supplies, update your wardrobe, and do everything else required to get ready for the school year ahead. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a commercial that mentions the importance of preparing for school's impact on your mental and emotional health. Everyone has different emotions related to their school experience. For some, they welcome the return to routine. The long stretches of uninterrupted time that summer provides can be difficult for people, depending on their mental health situation. And, with friends being more likely to travel and have full-time jobs, summer can make people feel isolated and cut-off from the world. For those people, school starting again can be a source of comfort, knowing that they have a schedule and will be seeing their friends on a regular basis.

However, many other people may be fearing the return to school. Schoolwork, social interactions, limited time for sleep and self care, and other typical school experiences can all lead to negative mental health outcomes. The effects of school on mental health are very real, and can lead to severe outcomes for students.

Self care is an umbrella term for methods of dealing with mental health issues in safe and healthy ways. Self care can range from talking to professionals to taking a nap, and there is no method that works best for everyone.

Data collected on children's emergency psychiatric visits found that the number of visits is much lower during July and August, when there is typically no school, and that they peak around May, when finals and end-of-year projects increase stress levels. It's normal to be a bit stressed about studying for finals, but it is clearly a mental health issue when school-related stress or sadness gets to the point of an emergency room visit.

Personally, I fall more into the camp of dreading the beginning of school, because I associate it with all of the negative emotions it's caused me in previous years. In past summers, I've tried, with limited success, to mitigate these fears by preparation for the school work itself. I buy a bunch of new pens and notebooks, create a new color-coding system for note-taking, try to begin learning the curricula ahead of time. These methods may have had a positive impact on my grades, but did little to prevent stress and despair in those weeks where the amount of homework, tests, and projects feels beyond overwhelming.

This summer, I'm trying to take a different approach. Instead of focusing all of my energy on preparing for the work, I'm attempting to prepare for the almost-inevitable mental health outcomes of the work. Since I'm an incoming freshman in college, I'll be losing most of my old support network of friends and school counselors, so it's important for me that I begin assembling a new support system before the school gets hectic and it feels like it's too late or too much work to get help.

So, in these last few weeks before school starts, take some time to plan and prepare for the mental health impact that school can cause. Figure out how you can avoid excessive stress, and who you can turn to when school gets overwhelming or when you just need to talk. A bit of work now can save a lot of stress later. Even though you may not be in the school-mindset just yet, now is the time to reflect on school years past to make this next one as positive and healthy as it can be.

Here are some more specific methods of self-care. Not all of these will work for everyone, so make sure to your own personality and needs in mind.

  • Research what kind of mental health services your school offers
  • Reach out to your school's counseling staff over the summer and introduce yourself, so when you need help, there is already an established relationship
  • Make sure you have time in your schedule for breaks. Talk to an academic advisor if you feel like your course load is too hectic to be healthy
  • Consider joining clubs and sports that provide an outlet for stress, or that are forgiving if you need to miss a day or two
  • Consider a self-imposed curfew, to make sure you get enough sleep for optimal mental health and energy
  • Find support groups (formal or informal) for people who are in a similar situation are dealing with similar issues
  • Plan ahead to make sure you have self-care resources when you need them. This could mean printing out coloring pages, making a playlist, buying a bottle of nail polish, asking a friend if it's alright to call them when you need to talk. Once you figure out what kind of self-care works for you, it's wise to make sure you'll have it available to you when you need it most

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