My mental health journey from first to final year

In advance of World Suicide Prevention Day, Mariam shares her experience with destigmatizing help-seeking and navigating stress.

Green trees

YouAlberta is written by students for students.

Mariam is entering her 4th year of her BSc with a specialization in psychology. She was born in Nigeria and grew up in Winnipeg. She is passionate about engaging in intentional conversations and creating safe spaces that promote mental health and well-being. Mariam is currently one of the Days of Action Student Interns, which has allowed her to grow this passion. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, travelling, cooking, and reality shows!

As university students, we often find ourselves in a race of balancing academics, social life and personal growth. This journey can be immensely fulfilling, but it can also be incredibly taxing on our mental health. As a final-year student, I've travelled quite the journey through the academic maze, and I've come to realize the importance of destigmatizing, asking for help, understanding that stress exists on a continuum, and actively caring for my mental health. It's a journey we've all embarked upon, with various challenges and experiences to share.

My journey started in 2020 when I began my undergrad degree at the U of A. Coincidentally, this was also the peak of the pandemic. While moving to a new province and starting my higher education in the middle of a pandemic wasn't ideal, it taught me so much about myself and created a foundation for my mental health journey.

As I navigated the complexities of university life, the prolonged uncertainty, social isolation and academic adjustments, it also led me to evaluate the importance of mental health care for myself. I quickly began to understand that stress is not an all-or-nothing experience. It exists on a continuum, ranging from mild everyday stress to severe distress. At one end of the spectrum, I experienced occasional stressors like upcoming exams or deadlines. These are normal aspects of university life and were even motivating. Meanwhile, other days felt like a never-ending series of hurdles, and as the stress accumulated and intensified, it became hard to function physically, mentally and academically. 

I quickly learned the key was recognizing where I stood on this continuum and acknowledging that it's okay to seek help when needed. Waiting until I reached a breaking point was not the solution. Instead, early intervention and proactive care became my guiding principles.

Realizing when I needed help within myself was the first step, but breaking down the stigma surrounding help-seeking wasn't easy for me. It required a shift in mindset and a commitment to open conversations about mental health. I started by talking more openly with my support system (family, friends and instructors) about my experiences and concerns. I realized that by sharing my own journey, I could help create a culture where seeking help was seen as a natural part of life.

The U of A also offered an array of mental health resources, and I decided to make the most of them. I discovered that these resources were there to help me cope with the challenges of university life, and they played a crucial role in my personal growth.

Once I could care for myself, I realized supporting my peers was also a priority. I made an effort to be an empathetic listener and a source of support for those around me. Sometimes, all it took was being a compassionate friend to encourage someone to reach out for professional assistance. Other times, it was being a caring presence and engaging in mundane activities together, such as eating or going on a walk to help someone care for themselves in that moment. Support looks different for everyone, but don't be afraid to ask how they want you to show up for them. And allow them the space to contemplate it as we're all navigating this together and figuring it out day by day.

From my first to final year, I can proudly say caring for my mental health became an ongoing process. I realized that there was no one-size-fits-all solution. I needed to find what worked best for me. Here are some proactive steps I took:

  • I established a routine that allowed me to balance academics, self-care, social life and relaxation. Adequate sleep, regular exercise and a balanced diet were foundational components of my healthy routine.
  • I embraced mindfulness techniques like meditation and deep breathing, which helped me manage stress and stay present.
  • I recognized that seeking professional help was not a sign of failure but a valuable resource for navigating challenging times.
  • I maintained strong connections with the university staff, friends and family and was never hesitant to reach out when I needed support.
  • I set realistic goals for myself, ensuring that they were achievable and adaptable to my circumstances.

My journey as a university student has taught me the importance of destigmatizing help-seeking, understanding the continuum of stress, and proactively caring for my mental well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic served as a pivotal moment, reshaping my perspective on mental health and help-seeking. I hope that by sharing my experiences, I can encourage all of us to continue fostering a culture of open conversation about mental health and supporting one another on this challenging but rewarding journey through university. Together, we can build a healthier and more resilient university community for all.

If you are interested in joining conversations about various aspects of student mental health, learning tools to support your mental health, and gaining insight from other students, join the Days of Action Committee in a peer-led panel/discussion on September 11 in observance of World Suicide Prevention Day. Learn more. 

Remember, you are not alone. You deserve to ask for help, and you deserve support! Here are some resources to reach out to while navigating your university and mental health journey: 

Complete list of campus resources for mental health.  

If you are in crisis or in need of immediate support, please call the 24-Hour Distress Line at 780-482-4357, ACCESS 24/7 at 780-424-2424 (ext. 2), the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.