When I leave KW for co-op, my mental health declines. I always think the next term will be better, but then I end up feeling like garbage when I get to the new city. It’s a vicious cycle every damn time. I would like to preface this article by saying that I have never been to counseling, nor do I have any diagnosed mental illnesses. I do have long periods of high anxiety and depression, but these are not diagnosed by any professional. Symptoms have become aggravated for me when I am on my co-op terms, especially the ones I have spent in Ottawa, which includes this term.
How do we cope with a general decline in mental health when we are far away from the typical resources that university students have? When on campus, or in the area, we can always go to counseling services or MATES, and for those of us who are lucky enough, we are generally around a pretty good group of friends. Support is relatively easy to find. Although school and work have different stressors, they are both challenges in their own right. So, what do we do when we feel that it might be too much to handle?
I have only my personal experience and some resources that may be available that can help you with adjusting to being away from Waterloo on your co-op term. These are tips for general mental wellness for anyone, especially those who think they’re “not mentally ill enough” to seek professional help.
The first thing I will recommend is self-care. This sounds like a hippie thing, but taking care of yourself is always the first step to being healthy in all senses of the word. Making sure you have adequate sleep, healthy food, time outside, hygiene, and exercise will help you feel good and thus, your mental health will improve. It is hard for people with depression to do some of these things because our brains just don’t motivate us as well. It is especially difficult in the winter because it’s so cold (especially in Ottawa) all the time, but finding ways to motivate yourself to go out and buy groceries and maintain a self-care attitude, will help your mental health in the long run. I find that a motivation for me to get groceries is that I can also buy junk food while I buy salad. Also, it doesn’t hurt to eat comfort foods, use a bath bomb, and blast your favourite music. In essence, light a candle and eat your veggies, and you’ll be on the right track.
Another thing is just talking with people. I found that I felt loneliest at the beginning of my first co-op term in Ottawa. I was busy with work, so I could not talk with my friends as much, and I just didn’t know anybody in town. I found that once I talked with people more, my mood dramatically improved. This term, I have taken to calling my mom every so often (basically every two days) just so I can talk with her. Find someone you can call just to talk, and it will help you feel less isolated. I find that hearing someone’s voice connects me to them more, so calling my mom really helps me feel less apart from her while I am away. Just keeping in touch with people helps me feel less isolated. Most cities have a UW Co-op Connection page on Facebook, and I found that I enjoyed going to their events and being around people for a while, even though I did not know everyone that well.
Being so far away from my friends has also made me appreciate the time I am with them more. Planning trips on weekends to go home, or having them come up for a few days one week gives me something to look forward to. I already have all of February booked with things I am doing on the weekends. Having something to look forward to helps stave off some of my depressive feelings and gives me the drive to get through tough weeks. Make a part of your budget for travelling and visiting. Plan fun things to do even in the town you’re in – go to a mall, see a movie, take a walk in a park, or anything that you want to do, really.
Some of you may be thinking that this is too neurotypical. Even I think that about some of these things. When I am depressed, I don’t want to leave my house let alone go on a trip or eat healthy food. However, once I started doing these things more often, I felt a lot better. I hope some or all of these things can work for you, too. If you think you have a more serious mental health issue that you need to deal with, I recommend looking up mental health organizations in the area and talking to a counselor or psychiatrist. In any mental health emergency, you can call 911 or a distress centre in your area. There are people out there for you, and the first step to wellness is to talk about it.