- 07 Oct 21
With another academic year underway, it’s understandable that many young people will be feeling the pressure – particularly as they adapt to the changing Covid-19 restrictions. We spoke to Clare O’Reilly, a clinical manager at Jigsaw, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, who shared some handy advice….
Whether you’re entering the college gates for the first time, returning to campus, or embarking on an online learning journey, it’s perfectly natural to have mixed emotions about the academic year ahead.
The past 18 months have been tough for everyone – but the social impact of lockdown has been particularly tough on teenagers and young adults. As Clare O’Reilly, a clinical manager at Jigsaw’s Dublin 15 service, notes, “young people have demonstrated incredible resilience.”
“There have been challenges in terms of being in and out of school,” she remarks. “And the uncertainty around whether the Leaving Cert was going to happen, and all that sort of stuff.
“For some people it suited them more, to be in their home environment, and to be able to manage their own study time more effectively. For other young people, they really missed their friends, as well as the sports groups and other things they would have done. When that was absent, they didn’t have the same social outlet, or opportunity to connect with people who were important to them.”
A PARTICULAR CHALLENGE
Through her work with Jigsaw – where they aim to ensure that every young person’s mental health is valued and supported – Clare has also seen people struggling to adapt to the unique circumstances of attending college in 2021.
“It’s been a particular challenge for young people who are beginning college,” she nods. “Especially the social aspect. Normally, you’d be meeting new people in-person – and instead they’ve been in large Zoom classrooms, and not having the same opportunities to meet with people.
“If you’re starting college or university, there’s also going to be a change in expectations in terms of academic requirements,” she continues. “You might have to be more critical in terms of the assignments that you’re submitting, which will be different to how you managed the Leaving Cert – where maybe you just had to reproduce information. There are new academic skills that are required.
“The structure is also different,” she adds. “When you were in school, it was Monday to Friday. Now, as part of college, you have to look at adapting to timetables. Perhaps there are some days that are more full than others, and you have to run between lectures. You have to learn to organise your time.”
THE FIRST STEP
Despite these challenges, Clare says that there are useful steps that can help students who find themselves struggling…
“The first step is to just acknowledge that they’re finding it challenging,” she begins. “Sometimes, when we face a new challenge or go into a new situation, we start asking ourselves, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ But it’s not that you can’t do it – it’s just that you’re finding it difficult. It’s understandable that you’d find it difficult, because there’s a lot of challenges facing you at the moment, and a lot of things to get used to. That can be a really helpful first step, to just say, ‘I am finding it hard.’ Acknowledge it. And then validate yourself, and say ‘That’s understandable. There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s a lot for me to get my head around, and it’s understandable that I would find it hard.’
“We also might be tempted to look around and compare ourselves to other people and say, ‘Everybody else can do it – what’s wrong with me?’ That’s really unhelpful. The alternative is to focus on how you’re doing yourself, and say, ‘Look, I am doing my best in this situation.’ You have to look at the things you’re doing, and the challenges you’ve overcome. Look at all the things you have achieved, and identify them.”
TALK TO SOMEONE
It’s equally important to remember that you’re probably not the only person who is struggling.
“When we compare ourselves to other people, we assume that everybody else is managing fine,” says Clare. “When, in fact, it’s highly likely that the vast majority of people in your class will be experiencing some, if not many, of the same thoughts, feelings, challenges and difficulties that you are. It does involve being brave, but you can reach out and say, ‘I’m finding this hard, is anyone else confused by the library system?’ Or, ‘Is anyone else not entirely sure what we’re supposed to do for this assignment?’
“And of course, you can log onto Jigsaw.ie for some practical support,” she adds. “If you actually need to come and talk to someone about how you’re managing, that can be really useful too.”
ACKNOWLEDGING THE SITUATION
As Clare notes, just talking about the difficulty you’re experiencing out loud can be a big help.
“Once you’re able to put it into words, and get it out there, it doesn’t actually feel so big,” she resumes. “Whereas, when you’re thinking things over in your head, it can make a situation feel enormous. If you’re able to name it, that can automatically improve the situation. If you’re also able to name the emotion that you’re having – for example, ‘I feel overwhelmed’, ‘I feel anxious’, or ‘I feel worried’ – that can also be really really helpful.
“All that is part of accepting the situation, and bringing your mind around to saying, ‘Okay, this is not how I want it to be, but I will manage it.’ And when I say ‘accepting’, I don’t mean that it’s okay, or that you approve of it. Acceptance just means that you’re acknowledging that it is what it is. Acknowledging the situation, accepting it and verbalising your emotions around the situation – these things can be really helpful, in supporting your emotional wellbeing.”
Mental health can affect every aspect of a young person’s life – and there are many different supports available, depending on what’s right for them, and what they’re going through. In addition to Jigsaw’s work influencing change and strengthening communities, they deliver services for young people across the country. Although they felt the impact of the pandemic, Jigsaw were able to maintain access to their services during lockdown.
“At the moment, we provide what we call a blended approach,” Clare explains. “And we’ve actually found that the rate of attendance at our sessions has improved. Fewer people are missing sessions now, than they would’ve done before the pandemic. Some people still come in face-to-face, but for other people, it works really well that they can access a clinician via video session, or on the phone. There’s no decrease in the quality of the service – it’s just delivered in a different way.
“We also have a lot of support online, at jigsaw.ie, where you have access to a live chat function, online resources and webinars, and email support. So you can have access to a Jigsaw professional online. That’s a fantastic resource developed in the last 18 months, which has been really valuable during the pandemic.”
For more information, visit jigsaw.ie