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Painted Brain | Hindsight In 2020: Self-care In Graduate School
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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Hindsight in 2020: Self-Care in Graduate School

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I’ve just finished my first year of graduate school. I’m tired, fatigued, depleted, cranky, etc. The quarter system that my university chooses to run is utterly brutal. The marathon stretching from winter through spring, with the smallest of breaks in between, feels unnecessarily cruel, especially now as I face three long months of TV, snacks, TV, a late-night snack before settling in and falling asleep watching TV. I’m unsure who invented this ruthless quarter system, stressful under normal circumstances, but did I mention we’re in a pandemic?

COVID-19 has affected us all in many ways. My husband’s work as an architect has dried up, I’ve had to adjust to online learning, I worry for my family who live overseas (my mom works in a major hospital) and I haven’t been able to see friends, family, coworkers or classmates in person due to the quarantine requirements. It all seems so surreal.

But I know I’m not the only college student facing mental health problems right now. My classmates are feeling very similar — they are anxious, stressed and worried just like me. But as a recent immigrant to America, I have had a hard time adjusting to the U.S. style of education that relies so heavily on test and exam scores. I’ve never been a good test-taker, but give me an alternative form of assessment and I’ll nail it — whether it be a research paper, essay or presentation. I’d probably do better demonstrating my new knowledge through some sort of interpretive dance than a test!

But in all seriousness, there are a couple of things I wish I had done to take care of my mental health this quarter, and I hope these are useful to other college students struggling with their mental health and the stress of studying.

1. Utilize campus counseling services.

I’m a social work student, so there’s really no excuse for me to have not sought out help. Our professors often tell us that a good social worker is in therapy. There’s no shame being in therapy. We benefit greatly from therapy because it helps us not only deal with the problems we may be experiencing in our personal lives, but also prevent burnout. For college students, therapy can be affirming and provide you with the energy and reassurance to succeed not only at school, but in many facets of life. Your school counselor may also help you work out academic accommodations if your mental health is interfering with your ability to succeed in college.

At the outset of this pandemic, my college’s student counseling service acted quickly to offer telehealth appointments and maintain “virtual office hours” identical to the hours in place when the campus is open. I applaud my school in offering this, but I also worry about students who may not have reliable internet connections or lack access to a safe, private space that keeps discussions confidential.

[Related: 7 Self-Care Recommendations for College Students During COVID-19]

2. Talk to your professors and advocate for yourself.

There’s no shame in asking for help or extra time to complete assignments. If you can’t make a class, see if your professors can be accommodating. In my experience, many professors have been very understanding during this pandemic.

Adjusting to graduate school has been stressful for me. If I could do this first year over, I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself. Remember, there are only so many hours in the day and maintaining your mental health and enjoying life is important. If you feel some of the expectations being placed on you by your professors are too much, speak up! Talk to your professor or your classmates — chances are, they’re feeling just the same as you.

Interpretive dancing, anyone?

Interpretive dancing, anyone?

3. Get a life outside of school.

I think it’s a good idea to have an interest in something that is not at all related to school. You need something to spend your time doing that you find pleasurable.

I’m still trying to find that hobby, but now I have three long months to work it out and I’m very excited to see what there is out there. Maybe I’ll begin learning a second language — my husband is Chinese American and I would like to be able to learn more Mandarin, as I only know a few cuss words right now. Or perhaps I’ll really take a dive and give up my pandemic diet of Cocoa Krispies and learn how to cook like a real grown-up.

Sharpening my interpretive dance skills sounds like a lot of fun, too.

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