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One silver lining of 2020 was that it helped people become more open to practicing self-care. According to a recent survey, two-thirds of people agreed that the personal self-care routines they developed during the pandemic have become a permanent part of their daily lives. While that’s true of the general population, higher education leaders need to understand why self-care is important for college students and how to help them develop a self-care plan.
What is self-care?
Included in the World Health Organization’s definition of self-care is “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.” At its core, self-care is simply the practice of looking after your own well-being in ways that prevent poor physical and mental health. Everyone’s self-care needs are different and should be based on determinants specific to their life, such as hereditary health and environment, schedule, habits, interests, stress levels, and more.
Of course, if college students are eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep, they’re already practicing self-care. But sometimes these essential habits are not enough for the physical and mental well-being demands of student life. Given the compounding stress of politics, COVID-19 and its variants, war abroad, violence, and tragedies at home, it’s no wonder mental health is suffering in America — and rampantly among college students.
Why is self-care important for college students?
The ups and downs of life — college life in particular — can have a huge impact on the health and well-being of students. A self-care routine can equip students to better navigate the inevitable stressors of college life and beyond. Engaging in a self-care routine is clinically proven to reduce or eliminate anxiety and depression, reduce stress, increase happiness, and more. It can help students adapt to change, build strong relationships, and recover from setbacks. Respondents in a national survey cited the benefits of self-care as enhanced self-confidence (64%), increased productivity (67%), and higher levels of happiness (71%). And from a physical health perspective, self-care is clinically proven to reduce heart disease, stroke, and cancer, contributing to better overall well-being.
“College students are taught that the next four years [of college] are the ones to look forward to and will someday be the ones they wish to return to,” said Dr. Sharia Hays, Ed.D., Associate Dean at George Fox University. However, by encouraging students to view the college experience with rose-colored glasses, we are setting them up for failure. As students transition to college, prepare them for the struggles as much as for the joys.” To equip students, Hays lists four elements to include in a self-care plan:
1. Body self-care
These are things we do to take care of our bodies in healthy ways. Students can do key activities to manage their physical well-being. Students need to develop a regular sleep routine, aim for a healthy diet, limit the number of late-night fast-food runs, schedule frequent breaks, and exercise as part of their weekly routines.
2. Mind self-care
3. Spiritual self-care
4. Support system
Mental health experts at Johns Hopkins University suggest trying these self-care tips for college students to maintain their physical and emotional well-being:
- Maintain connections: If a student gets sick and has to be isolated, social distance doesn’t have to mean social isolation. It’s essential for students to have a strong support system they can turn to when they’re sick and struggling. Setting up virtual get-togethers, phone calls, or group texts with friends or family can significantly improve mental health and help students feel less alone.
- Take care of your body: Maintaining physical health is a crucial factor in keeping students’ minds healthy. Eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet can boost the immune system, lowering the effects of stress on the body. Incorporating exercise with a healthy diet will also help improve their mood by producing endorphins.
- Take a break from news and social media: The news is often filled with negativity and stressful information that can affect young adults. It’s important for students to know when to unplug. They can stay informed by checking in from time to time, but shouldn’t overdo it by continuously refreshing social media throughout the day. This can increase feelings of fear and anxiety.
- Get outdoors: Not getting enough sunlight can result in a drop in serotonin levels, which directly affects mood. Low levels of serotonin can also lead to symptoms of depression. Going outdoors for at least an hour every day allows students to get fresh air and improve their mental well-being.
- Stick with daily meditation practices: The physical benefits of meditation include decreased blood pressure, reduced stress and anxiety, regulated negative thinking, and a healthier immune system. Meditation also helps students practice mindfulness and develop relaxation techniques. Various free apps, podcasts, and YouTube videos can help students get started.
- Give yourself permission to cry: At some point, students may feel sad, disheartened, or even hopeless. At a time of heightened stress and anxiety, it’s common for them to develop burnout or to experience an emotional breakdown. Students should give themselves permission to feel these emotions fully, to release any pain, and to help them see the sun through the clouds once again.
- Take deep breaths: Deep breathing techniques are proven to reduce anxiety and relieve stress. Taking deep breaths allows students to stay present in the moment and provides peace of mind.
- Prioritize sleep: Getting enough sleep is a significant part of maintaining physical and mental health. Not only does sleep help boost the immune system, but it also lowers the effects of stress on the body. Experts suggest that young adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night to recharge their bodies and brain. Sleep deprivation can cause irritability, inability to focus, overreactions, increased stress, and make students more prone to illnesses.
- Avoid self-medicating: College students struggling with mental illness are at a higher risk of developing problems with drugs or alcohol. To cope with symptoms, some young adults turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. Abusing substances can exacerbate mental health symptoms. Urge students to not be afraid to ask for help from a mental health professional to find healthy coping strategies and a treatment plan that works best for them.
- Create a support system: College is a time when many young adults need guidance and support. According to a study by the American Psychological Association (APA), having quality relationships is associated with better physical health and well-being. Supportive relationships have many benefits — not only physically, but mentally as well. A strong support system helps students when they feel down or stressed, provides guidance when they fail, and celebrates when they succeed.
- Listen to music: One of the most convenient ways to relieve stress is to listen to music. Music has many therapeutic benefits: it helps lower anxiety and depression levels, eases muscle tension, and enhances your mood. Encourage students to make a playlist with their favorite songs that help them de-stress, and to start their mornings playing them.
- Find a hobby: Instead of using all their free time to binge-watch a Netflix show, encourage students to find a hobby, as they promote better mental and physical health by lowering the risk of depression, dementia, and high blood pressure. They also provide a mental break from everyday stressors and improve efficiency in time management. Whether it’s journaling, drawing, or playing an instrument, students should try to add a hobby to their daily routines.
- Set goals: Setting goals can help define priorities and improve self-confidence and motivation. Students should write down their goals and how they want to accomplish them. Not only will this help them stay organized, but it will also allow them to keep track of their progress towards achieving the goals.
- Try online, remote therapy options: According to a recent survey from BestColleges, 95% of college students experienced negative mental health symptoms during COVID-19. When you encounter struggling students, encourage them to consider online therapy. It’s essential for students to take care of their mental well-being not just in difficult circumstances, but all the time. Find out if your school has online mental health resources, like TimelyCare, that enable students to connect with mental health professionals anytime, anywhere.
Support students when they need it most
How can colleges and universities provide students with opportunities for self-care?
Demands for mental health support in college typically exceed resources. To help address that gap, the Greater Good Magazine outlines how colleges and universities can address student well-being in and out the classroom, making mental health part of students’ normal dialogue. Consider the emerging programs, new online resources, and innovative approaches to classroom teaching described below as a jumping-off point for further exploration.
Increase awareness from the start
Colleges provide orientation sessions on drug and alcohol use, sexual violence prevention, and other student health and lifestyle topics. So why not address mental health more directly? Many colleges are beginning to proactively share mental health information with students during face-to-face orientation sessions. Approaches vary from traditional presentations and panel discussions to role plays, short videos, and student testimonials followed by small group discussions.
Free mental health screenings
Another way to counter the stigma is to encourage students to monitor their mental health the same way they monitor their physical health. Some universities are normalizing mental health checkups by offering free, readily accessible screenings for their students. For example, Drexel University’s Recreation Center has a mental health kiosk where students can stop by to answer a quick series of questions on a private screen. At the end of the screening, students receive information regarding additional mental health resources and support, as needed. Also, take a look at this guide for creating a college student mental health plan.
Campus-wide courses, programs, and initiatives
Programs like This Way Up, designed by Professor Gavin Andrews and his team at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, help students understand the emotions they experience (e.g., fear, anxiety, stress, sadness), connect with a clinician who can supervise their progress, and take free self-help courses online like “Coping with Stress,” “Intro to Mindfulness,” or “Managing Insomnia.” As universities also note a decline in student resilience — the ability to bounce back from negative experiences — Florida State University recently launched an online trauma resilience training tool developed through the Institute of Family Violence Studies and their College of Social Work. Other programs in the U.S. take a more preventive approach to mental health challenges by promoting student resilience throughout the school year. For example, Stanford’s Resilience Project features personal storytelling as well as academic skills coaching.
Talk about it
Approximately 350 colleges now utilize an online simulation program called Kognito that helps students learn how to talk to friends who may be suffering emotionally, directing them to appropriate resources. When students enter Kognito’s virtual campus, they learn more about mental health from a handful of virtual students, and they talk with a virtual student in distress. After trying out several different approaches, they learn the most effective ways to respond to their virtual peer. On a much larger scale, Active Minds is a national organization dedicated to mental health advocacy that currently hosts more than 450 campus chapters. With a Speaker’s Bureau sharing personal stories of hope, a “Send Silence Packing” traveling exhibit to increase awareness and prevent suicide, as well as peer-run mental health clubs and support networks, Active Minds is opening up the conversation around mental health and leveraging the power of peer-to-peer outreach to change campus culture.
To learn more about other student well-being programs and resources, check out Greater Good Magazine.
What is the role of virtual care in self-care for college students?
Given the growing concern for students’ mental health, it’s important to note the value and availability of telehealth as part of the solution for supporting student health and well-being. Stress, anxiety, depression, and other conditions can all be treated remotely with virtual care, helping thousands of students struggling with mental health. Here are just a few benefits of telemedicine for college students:
- Virtual care is affordable: Telehealth is more cost-efficient than in-person consultations, making it a perfect solution for students. It can also complement existing on-campus health resources that may be overwhelmed by demand for care.
- Students can receive mental health support regularly: With telehealth, students can access sessions weekly. This is especially advantageous for those struggling with mental problems like anxiety, depression, or OCD.
- Telehealth is convenient: Students can receive professional medical assistance at any place and at any time. They can keep in touch with a doctor from a tablet, phone, or computer and get extensive consultation, receive prescriptions, and even obtain advice on specialized care.
- Fast and professional advice: Many students turn to influencers on TikTok for mental health advice and diagnosis, as wait times for appointments may be too long or too inconvenient to access. As a result, mental health treatments based on internet guesswork often result in poor health outcomes due to misinterpretation and misdiagnosis. Rather than entrusting their health and well-being to social media influencers and self-diagnosis, telehealth enables students to connect with a professional healthcare provider remotely and receive detailed, sensible, and personalized medical advice.
- Continuity of care: With most telehealth platforms, all students’ medical histories are stored in a patient records database online, so they can have access to them at any time — as long as the student stays with the same telemedicine provider.
Simply put, care delivered through telehealth and virtual care options is fast, easy, and efficient. It eliminates wait times, reduces the stigma of seeking mental and medical care, and is available the moment a student needs care. When students don’t have to wait days or weeks for a counseling center or clinic appointment, there will be a positive effect on-campus health and wellness. And prospective students are evaluating mental health services at schools as a differentiator more now than ever, which impacts enrollment and retention.
Contact TimelyCare to learn more about the importance of self-care for college students and how telehealth can make a difference in the lives of your students.