Mental Health: Setting Up for Success this Semester

By Jocelyn Gardner '17
Webmaster & Mental Health Columnist

Welcome to Scripps (or welcome back!) Hopefully everyone had a great summer and the beginning of this semester is going well. For some, the start of a new semester is a slow ease into school. Others have had to hit the ground running — or even sprinting. As the mental health columnist, the obvious thing to do would be to tell the first group to be wary of the semester suddenly picking up and getting intense and to tell the others to slow down if possible and be careful. But, I would be a blazing hypocrite to say either. Instead, I want to explore ways that a student can try to maintain their pace in a healthy way.

First, a student should think about this pace: it is easy to fall into a rhythm, and this rhythm is not always the correct one. So, let’s take a deeper look at the pace we’ve been following. Think about the last few weeks — take inventory of stressed/relaxed moments and the positives and negatives since coming to Scripps in August. This will help you reflect on your pace, and this also brings us to the next question. Does this pace or rhythm feel ‘off’ to you? Is this a significant change to how you’ve worked in the past? If it is significant, it still might not be a problem. Maybe you’ve become more productive and can work longer after discovering a great spot in the library. Maybe you found a new organization method. Maybe you just really love your classes! These all sound good. But, it’s possible that you do not feel good about this semester’s pace. You might have a “precarious” or “suffocated” feeling (not always to a large extent—it might be a small nagging at the back of your mind). For example, I’m doing something I’ve never done before (taking five classes) and I feel very wary about this.
This brings us to an important assessment:

Is this feeling okay for you?

That’s a hard question to answer, even for me as a senior. First, I’ll break it down using myself as an example:

I've never taken more than four classes in a semester!

Yes, but I’ve been feeling increasingly comfortable with each semester of four classes, so I don’t think that I’ve gotten myself into an impossible situation. I won’t take five next semester, and then I probably won’t be in school later on anyway.

I'm busier than I've ever been! Am I okay?

As long as I keep checking in with myself and not getting stuck in a draining routine, I will be okay. I know my support systems and how to ask for what I need. I know how I work and how to stay organized. (I should note here that these last three things only became true recently, so don’t feel bad if you haven’t gotten there yet. It took me until probably spring of junior year)

But I'm in two thesis seminars!

That’s true, but I’m ready for it. As long as I stick to my schedule, stay organized, and keep in communication with my advisers/professors, I can do these classes and set myself up for success. Just think of them as normal classes (with a lot of work).

What if I burnout?

I know what burnout is, and I’ve experienced it before. I will know if I’m heading toward burnout, and I know how to put my work on pause and unwind. I don’t have a risk of long-term burnout as much because I’m graduating relatively soon and my spring should be less hectic.

(Long-term burnout is harder to see coming. It can occur months after a lot of heavy work, like overloading in the fall and burning out in the spring. Another example that happens frequently is pushing through senior year of high school only to be exhausted in every way for the first semester of college. For more information, see the article I wrote on burnout, found on thescrippsvoice.com and in The Unofficial Scripps College Survival Guide)

So, it seems that I'm doing something hard, but I have the tools I need.
I know how to intervene if I start to feel buried. However, what would I do if my answers to myself were “Oh god, what have I gotten myself into??? What have I done?!?” If this had been the case (i.e. if I/you are not confident in how this semester’s going), I then should have figured out why I felt that way. For example, I could have been feeling overwhelmed by having five classes. Then, assess your options. In my example, this could look like dropping the fifth class, talking to my professors, practicing better self-care and balance, or knocking out work early. If you need help finding these options or choosing the one(s) right for you, consider talking to any of the people listed in the first two bullet points in the “tools” section below. Next, act early on your choice to ensure that you get to a better place as soon as possible. It might also be your instinct to wait and see if the situation clears up on its own—after all, the semester is still fairly young. If you wait, make sure that you continue to assess the situation instead of putting off a decision. Once you’ve acted on your decision or chosen to wait, make sure that you keep an eye on the situation to see if it improves. If it doesn’t, repeat all these steps and consider asking for advice or help. Remember that it is okay to take on fewer responsibilities if that’s what the situation calls for. You’re not inferior in any way for doing this: you’re setting yourself up for success and showing self-awareness and maturity. Go, you! And, often the pressure and expectations you feel come from within rather than from others in your life.

 Moving on, I’ve mentioned tools a lot in this article, but I haven’t gone over what they are. Although they vary greatly from person to person, I can give some examples:

  • on-campus resources like your peer mentor, RAs, primary contact dean, adviser, Dean of Students office, student mentors, Tiernan Field House, SCORE, hall supervisors (Jill, Kim, Erica), professors, Monsour and health center, etc.
  • your friends and classmates; your family and friends from home; organization methods like calendars, written lists, online tools (trello, evernote, etc.)
  • self-care things like watching TV, walking, sitting in Margaret Fowler, going to the pool, having a night out with friends, cleaning up your room, doing art/crafts, reading articles, going out for boba, looking at pictures of cute dogs…
  • being proactive by communicating early, finding your resources, scheduling in “me time,” knocking out assignments early
  • knowing yourself—knowing your individual signs of stress and burnout, accounting for things like tendencies to start things at the last minute or being an early-bird
  • taking care of your other needs (drink water, get sleep, go to the dining halls, take a walk, go to a fitness class at TFH, socialize, shower, get on a schedule)
  • validation: whether from yourself, friends, professors, parents, or anyone, feeling good about what you do is important. Spend time with people who validate you, whatever that means to you specifically.
  • Academic accommodations
  • Keeping things in perspective: remind yourself that missing one homework assignment isn’t the end of the world. Your wellbeing is always most important, so don’t compromise it. Sometimes, it helps to think outside of the “Claremont bubble.” (Or, this might be stressful for some people. Do what feels right for you.)

 To recap, if you’re feeling good, make sure you have what you need to continue feeling confident. Know about burnout and how to avoid it. Take an inventory of your tools and even write it down if that helps you remember. If you aren’t feeling good, try to find out why. Then, take steps to improve the situation—this might involve using some of the tools or taking on less—you don’t need to take six classes and have three jobs to be worthy of something. While you do not have to obsessively keep track of the semester, it’s still a good idea to occasionally see how you’re doing. In my experience, following all of this advice has led me to do things otherwise impossible.

I’m very glad to be writing this column for you for this final year, and although you’ll hear from me in the next issue, I still want to wish you the best of luck this semester!