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Are you beginning or returning to college? Here’s how to look after your mental health

Expert Tips: Counselling psychologist Treasa Fox shares her advice for third-level students

Counselling psychologist Treasa Fox is head of student counselling at Athlone Institute of Technology and spokeswoman for Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland. Here she shares some advice for students beginning and returning to college.

– I think the biggest thing will be going on to campus, for the first time for second and first years, and back on for others. Everybody is going to be feeling a bit anxious.

– Emerging from the pandemic, it’s not one size fits all. Some young people can’t wait to get in to college; it will be quite challenging for others. Some are going to be uncomfortable with being around people in a way they haven’t been for the last 18 months. Maybe that’s to do with their own mental health, or with losses they have experienced during the pandemic, or with having vulnerable relatives. So, we all need to be aware that everybody’s trajectory is going to be different.

– If this is your first time on campus be compassionate with yourself. Be gentle in your expectations. You are not going to do it the same way as anyone else. Strange new things always cause a bit of nervousness and anxiety for people, because we don’t have a template for them. Feeling nervous, or unsure, or uncertain doesn’t mean that something bad is going to happen. It’s just that we don’t know.


– First and foremost, know that there is a tree of support in all higher-education institutions, including counselling, health and disability services, access offices, students unions. Check out the supports on the college website and at induction.

– Help yourself. Be open to meeting people. If you sit off to one side on your own in a lecture theatre or room, you send a message to people that you don’t want to engage. You might be doing it out of nerves, but the message you communicate is “leave me alone”. So go and sit in the row beside, or the row behind, where others are sitting. You are much more likely to join in a conversation if you position yourself where conversations are happening.

– Be open to experiences. Join as many clubs and societies as you can. Even though it might feel easier to go home, or to your accommodation, when you don’t have lectures, it’s not always the best thing to do. Being around the canteen and social spaces you’re much more likely to meet and engage with people.

– If you are feeling a bit nervous, a bit anxious, avoidance of situations doesn’t help. Remember, many other people will be feeling exactly the same way. However, if anxiety stops you doing things on a continuous basis, you may need specialist help to find the techniques to overcome any difficulties. If it feels like a struggle, remember: within student counselling services there’s no problem that’s too small.

Turn up for lectures. Turn up for tutorials. It sounds obvious, but it's really important

– As psychologists and psychotherapists, we can work with the whole gamut of psychological issues and problems, including suicide risk and self-harm. The two most prevalent issues that we tend to encounter are anxiety, and low mood and depression. Within the realm of anxiety the most common would be social anxiety, where people’s lives are limited by their anxiety and panic in social situations. This can be very challenging for young people. For instance they don’t want to be on crowded corridors when there’s a big move from lectures and classes, so they are missing classes, or coming in late.

– One thing we are seeing an increase of, within the services nationally, would be students in the early stages of developing eating disorders. That has emerged during the pandemic. Loss and grief has also been a big one. So many of our young people have experienced loss in really traumatic ways, and because of the restrictions around hospital visiting and funerals those losses have been very, very complicated.

– Our role is to support a student through their academic journey. A lot of the extra funding we got last year went on shortening wait times. Typically anybody who is in crisis will be seen within 24 hours, but in AIT the normal wait times for first appointments went from four days to three day. An academic year is short, so intervention has to happen very quickly as the consequences can be so big, financially and personally. If the wheels come off in week 10 of a 12 week semester, and exams go askew, for somebody already in difficultly that is going to have a major impact. Speed and responsiveness is of the essence.

– To help yourself, turn up for lectures. Turn up for tutorials. It sounds obvious, but it’s really important. In addition to the social integration, it’s an easier way to take in information, versus having to find it yourself to catch up.

– If lecturers are putting stuff online – notes, lecture material, etc – engage with that. You’re making life much harder for yourself if you don’t. Because there isn’t homework in college, students often think they only have to go to classes. However, classes and lectures are only one part of the education. Sometimes I say to students, if you are doing less work outside of your lectures than you were doing in sixth class in primary school, you’re probably not doing enough. Typically, in the week you should be looking at three to four hours of self-directed learning per module/subject, such as reviewing notes or additional recommended reading.

Have a think about the best iteration of yourself. Have some goals. It will help

– Staying on top of things for continuous assessment is vital. Those first couple of assignments will be part of your end-of-year grades, but the feedback you receive is also an important learning tool. Library staff or academic writing centres can be a great help if you are struggling with how to go about researching, or need to improve your academic writing skills.

– Consider joining or forming study groups. Working with peers can be very motivating and very helpful, not just for social integration, but for the course work.

– Before arriving every student should have a think about who it is they want to be when they get to college. This is a fantastic opportunity to build on that person, that identity you have been developing. Have a think about the best iteration of yourself. Have some goals. It will help. What are your priorities? Good grades; new friends; to live independently? So, what are the steps you need to take to reach those goals?

– Instead of arriving and waiting for stuff to happen, you have to work to maximise your experience.With independence comes responsibility to contribute to, and shape, some of those experiences. Sometimes we need help to do that, and that’s where the counselling service comes in, where there may be a barrier – such as a history of trauma – that is preventing you having the college experience you want. That’s where we can help, to help you be that version of yourself that you want to be, in the experience of college that you want.