Let us set the scene: Imagine you are one year away from finishing your university degree.
You’ve started building your portfolio to enter your industry head-first, but something stops you; mental illness.
It’s a roadblock that many students face, as young people ages 15 to 24 are the cohort most likely to experience mental illness in Canada, according to Youth Mental Health Canada.
During the COVID era, 55 per cent of surveyed university students in Canada were concerned about their mental health arising from changes and challenges in the pandemic, according to a 2020 study from the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.
The pandemic has resulted in significant increases in mental health concerns due to social isolation and lockdowns, and the conversation around students taking time off has become prevalent.
Mental illness is something that can often sneak up on you and quickly throw you off your expected path on a regular day, let alone during a global pandemic.
As two focused university students that hit this roadblock in the 2020-21 school year — our final year — we’ve learned first-hand that there doesn’t have to be one standard way to complete your educational journey.
We are two friends who coincidentally hit this roadblock at the same time, and came together to navigate taking a hiatus from university at a critical point of our education.
Whether you need a semester or a year like we did, you’re allowed to interrupt your bachelor’s degree to take a break from it all.
That’s not to say it was always easy — the unpredictable ups and downs are a lot to take in, but we stuck with it because we knew we had to put ourselves first and that’s OK.
Here’s what we learned during our hiatus from university.
A break isn’t always a setback
A fear we both had in choosing to withdraw from our studies was that we would be a step behind all of our peers.
Existing in a culture that constantly emphasizes how students’ self-worth is equated with academic success means feeling that any interruption could ultimately lead to failure.
Having anxiety, for instance, takes a toll on time management, with procrastination and fear of starting assignments getting in the way of meeting deadlines.
“Sources of anxiety often lead people to work out strategies to avoid feeling it because it is so unpleasant,” said Dr. Diana Brecher, a clinical psychologist at Ryerson University’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling. “Sometimes the strategy is procrastinating and postponing, and sometimes just complete avoidance.”
Brecher says both strategies work really well in the short term, but in the long term, they can sabotage your future goals.
She explained that while dropping out of university may work for some individuals who are desperate to escape a situation that is causing stress, it is important to acknowledge that for others, remaining in an institution that can help provide support and resources for students with mental illnesses can also be beneficial.
“Some of [this decision making] is timing. How much have you already invested in? If something is truly making your life absolutely miserable, and you’re suffering, of course step away,” she said. “But it should be done not as a reactive thing, but as a really thoughtful thing.”
For us, taking a hiatus allowed the time and opportunity to enter therapy programs and connect with psychologists to work toward solving issues affecting our mental health.
We determined that we could afford to withdraw at the time we did, early on in our academic year, to ensure we did not commit to taking classes and withdrawing at a later time.
This made withdrawing feel less like a setback from the rest of our peers, and more as a decision that would benefit us for the time being, as we would be able to access the opportunities again the following academic year.
You are your own person
It’s easy to get caught up in watching the success of your peers on social media, telling yourself that you should be where they are now.
People tend to compare themselves to others via social media as a way of motivating themselves to do better, according to a 2018 study on social comparisons and social network sites.
Since comparison is largely inescapable, we had to learn to challenge the negativity we felt.
Often such comparisons would lead to self-doubt, frustration in our inability to continue and jealousy towards the success of others.
Even as two friends who were coincidentally facing the same decision, we were on two completely different paths.
Our similarities didn’t mean a shared experience; everyone copes differently and learning to remind yourself that you are your own person is a way to ensure that comparison doesn’t dictate your feelings and choices.
You can still be creative
Once we each did take our breaks, another fear we both had was that we would lose all motivation and creativity.
As two people who enjoy pursuing creative projects as an outlet of expression, we knew that a way to keep us going during a difficult and often painful experience was to keep creating.
“When you leave the structure and sense of purpose and meaning that you get in school, it’s a really good idea to have something that you’re looking forward to doing,” said Brecher. “Even if it’s a volunteer job, or it’s an artistic project … whatever it is, have something that is going to fill your sense of purpose and meaning.”
Having always wanted to collaborate on a creative project, we decided to make a podcast called Mind on Hiatus.
The 12-episode show chronicles our experiences with our mental health journeys to create a relatable conversation for those in similar situations as us.
We now had a platform to not only facilitate the discussion around taking a break from university, but also to use it as a way to cope during our recoveries.
Talking openly and honestly about the steps of mental illness recovery — such as getting medicated, seeking help from professionals and opening up to family members — turned out to be a very therapeutic experience.
It’s not as scary as we thought
While it is completely normal to encounter negative thoughts, feelings of doubt and concerns about failure during your time away from school, don’t let these thoughts take away from your recovery.
Once you take the step to withdraw for the sake of your mental health — if that’s the path you feel you need to take — you will likely thank yourself for having the necessary time to work things out and come back better on the other side.
“If you’re feeling shame but think you’ve made a good choice and you trust that choice, you [should] forgive yourself for being in the mess you’re in,” said Brecher. “Be kind and generous and supportive [to yourself], and then move on.”