Protecting your mental health at UW


Dealing with mental health is always tough, especially at the University of Waterloo where common stress factors include the rigour of academic terms, the added requirement of looking for co-ops, and other responsibilities like part-time work that students may also juggle. However, Maureen Drysdale, professor of psychology at St. Jerome’s University and director of the Well-Link Lab, and Sarah Callaghan, a PhD student in public health at UW and lab manager of Well-Link, want you to know that mental health struggles don’t have to be your downfall. Although it would be impossible and unwise to try and tackle the entire scope of challenges you may encounter while maintaining your mental health as a student, here are several common ones many students face, and — good news — tips that can help you manage them or prevent their negative impacts from becoming too severe.

A deeper look at promotion, prevention and intervention

Before delving into anything else, it’s good to familiarize yourself with a few key terms: promotion, prevention, and intervention. It’s important to distinguish between the three, as the support required can range depending on the severity of the issue. Mental health issues do not necessarily mean clinical depression, anxiety disorders, or suicidal ideation. “[Students] might need just some prevention, some resources and sources,” Drysdale says.

A large part of promotion is mental health literacy. According to Drysdale, promotion of positive mental health comes from “learning what it means to have positive mental health, what it means to have mental ill-being, mental illness, and removing stigma[s].” Callaghan adds that promotion is also a focus on what your environment is – determining where you are in terms of what you’re feeling, what your emotions are, what your coping skills are, and what resources are available if the need arises.

Drysdale says that promotion also involves promoting a safe space, especially after the hate-motivated attack on June 28 that left three people injured.

Prevention involves using the strategies that kick in when things begin feeling a little more chaotic and upsetting: back-up, as Drysdale puts it. “It’s, ‘what can we give them to maintain that positive mental health?’” she says, listing peer support, community support and that sense of belonging, breathing exercises, emotional regulation, yoga, and even low doses of medication as ways to prevent the situation from deteriorating. “That’s prevention, so that you don’t go down to the intervention.”

The problem: isolation

Coming to university can be an isolating experience, something that’s only compounded the farther away you’re moving from home. Adjusting to an entirely new environment is an overwhelming task especially when combined with the schoolwork (and maybe even co-op applications) that you’ll also be adjusting to.

What could help: seek peer support — in unexpected places as well!

Having a group to feel comfortable around is vital to prevent isolation from taking hold, and Drysdale wants to be clear that this doesn’t just mean your classmates. Academic environments can be stressful and competitive, even cut-throat — “in those environments, you’re not really comfortable sharing some of your struggles … so no one wants to display that weakness,” she says.

To find a group that you can feel safe enough in to open up, it’s a good idea to go to the various events hosted for incoming students in the first few weeks of school, even if you’re not going for the stated purpose of the event. The nature of these events means other new students will be there as well, giving you a chance to meet those who are in the same boat. Callaghan stresses the importance of simply going to different places on campus to put yourself in situations where you could meet new people.

Another way to foster peer support is by finding spaces purely for fun. To be able to handle your workload, much less to be creative or innovative with it, requires fun, which Callaghan says allows your mind to “wander, and unpack things.” Playing sports outside with friends or indulging in pleasures as simple as Lego helps create the sense of belonging and foster the peer support necessary to make this strategy work.

The problem: making time for yourself

The balancing act students often have to pull off with the responsibilities that come with a university career at UW, including but not limited to schoolwork, job interviews, and commute time, can mean that “when things get tough, often those self care things get put on the backburner,” Callaghan says. Drysdale points out that students cancelling or missing appointments due to such balancing acts can be interpreted as a message that the issue that was meant to be discussed has become less urgent, and that rescheduling can push appointment dates back even further.

What could help: create balance through promotion and prevention

Though it may feel like time is money, particularly during co-op terms, without breaks, you will be less productive and your efforts less effective. “You don’t need to go constant around the clock. People don’t do that. Even people at work don’t do that. Breaks exist, lunches exist, these breaks exist because we cannot actually focus for eight hours straight,” Callaghan says.

It’s important to prioritize trying new things, as it puts you in situations where you can find new things you enjoy and meet new people doing it, helping you build vital peer support and the prevention strategies that work for you.

The problem: finding and maintaining the right support

Co-op placements might mean you’re in a different location every four months or so, which breaks up the continuity of mental health support. According to Drysdale, October, February, and June tend to be the most difficult months, as students enter a new term and are in the midst of co-op applications and interviews. Callaghan pointed out that students who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ or BIPOC may have an even more difficult time finding spaces in which they feel comfortable enough to discuss their problems.

What could help: check all your resources

If you’re having difficulty finding support on campus, consider looking at the off-campus therapy covered in your WUSA health plan fees. Students who see psychologists from the Studentcare Psychology Network receive a reduction on the cost of a visit in addition to the insured health plan coverage. In order to maintain mental health prevention strategies throughout the year, try things that keep you engaged all year-round, whether that means moving your workout indoors in the winter or finding indoor spaces to gather with close friends.