Illustration Credit: Rel Ryann

There are many ways to describe what depression feels like. It has been described to me by friends as being a pit, a cavernous hole of darkness into which something pulls you deeper and deeper.  

As an incoming student, you ought to know that you will have this feeling once—the feeling of being overwhelmed. 

You’re going to wake up one morning and everything is going to feel heavier. Your backpack is going to burn into your shoulders, your legs will drag and your mind will wander to a thousand different destinations, never settling. 

I’m now entering my fourth year of university, but merely two years ago, I felt this pull. It’s hard to describe what it felt like, because no words, arranged in any order, will be able to aptly capture how it felt. The only way I have attempted to describe it is as though you are lost at sea and in the faint horizon, you can see the shoreline. Beautiful green trees, brown peaks sticking out above the waves and you keep on swimming as best you can towards the shore— towards safety. 

But something pulls you under.

You put off your school work and say it isn’t important, or that it can wait, or that you’ll get to it. The stress adds up and eventually, the house of cards comes crashing down. You start alienating yourself from your friends and significant other, and you meander through the school year in a cocktail of self-loathing and self-pity. 

But remember that university is physical as much as it is mental.

You’re going to spend many hours hunched over in the dark, dank libraries of the University of Toronto. Whether it be the behemoth that is Robarts, the sleek Bora Laskin Law Library or perhaps Gerstein Science Laboratories—wherever you may be huddled over the blue glow of your laptop or a stack of books, it’s going to take a toll on your body. And if your body doesn’t feel good, then how do you expect your mind to feel good? Therefore, to keep your mind healthy, we’re going to have to keep your body healthy.   

So first, get out of your mind and get into your body.

Often times the depression that I had was mental, meaning it was built up in my head. Small situations would be built up into some gigantic monolith in my head, an immovable rock that I could not push. What helped me overcome this mental blockade was rigorous exercise first thing in the morning. I know it’s going to be hard getting up early in the morning when it’s cold outside and your bed is warm, but what’s worse: slipping into a depressive episode that you might not be able to get out of, or spending 30 minutes to 45 minutes sweating? The short term will feel dreadful, but in the long term you’re going to have a stronger, more resilient mind. 

Second, get out of your mind and onto paper.

Write about how you feel, and if you’re self conscious about writing, then remember: only you are going to read it. The things you will write in this journal are for your eyes only, so pour out your soul onto the page. This doesn’t have to be a novella or several paragraphs—just jot down how you feel and why you think you feel that way. If there’s a nagging thought in your head, write it down. Now it doesn’t have to be in your head anymore, and it goes from being out there in the ether into something tangible, something you can grapple with and defeat. 

If you can’t get started or if you feel like the words are hard to put on paper, then put the pen down and think. Remember, I’m not asking you to write a book, just jot down how you feel. That’s more than enough to get the ball rolling.

Third, organize.

Your mind is a complex web of interwoven thoughts that seem sporadic and often times erratic. To add onto the stress of remembering homework, lectures, assignments and all the other responsibilities a student has will only make your life more erratic and unstable. Organize everything. Use whatever method you like to organize your thoughts and your days. I personally used the Bullet Journal Method and the Five-Minute Journal (both of which can be found online). However, I later developed my own organization system that fit my needs.

There are many tools at your disposal: whiteboards, calendars, post-its and notifications. I use a three-step method for organization:

First, I sit down on Sunday night and write down all the tasks, events and goals I have for the upcoming week. 

Second, I organize these into three different categories defined by coloured post-it notes (pink for tasks, green for events, red for goals), and I place it on my whiteboard. My whiteboard is divided into three rows, where each row stands for one day out of that upcoming week. This way I can compartmentalize the whole week into the first three days, and after those three days are done I can review what tasks were completed and not completed and recalibrate for the second half of the week. 

Third, when I complete a task, I rip that post-it note and stack them together. After ‘x’ number of tasks have been completed, I reward myself with the dirty things in life: pizza, alcohol and endless episodes of The Office. 

Fourth, eat well.

Being a university student means you’re going to eat some less-than-good food, often coming in the forms of burgers, fries and other foods that are not optimal for maximum brain function. Junk food is going to make you feel like junk, and sometimes it is going to be an outlet for your anxiety or depression. But, if you eat well you are going to feel good.

A study done by the United States Library of Medicine and National Institute of Health found that individuals who consume more fruits and vegetables will, on average, be happier individuals. So, eat well. For an easy fix of vegetables, visit the Howard Ferguson Dining Hall for lunch. They have an extensive salad bar that charges $1.50 per 100g of vegetables, and you can easily get a ton of fresh veggies at a great, student-friendly price.

Fifth, discipline equals freedom.

This saying was introduced to me by ex-Navy Seal and all-around badass Jocko Willink. If you have the discipline to get up in the morning, put in the effort to exercise, organize your day and smash your tasks, then you’re going to have mental, physical and spiritual freedom.

I’m going to have to admit that these solutions are superficial and are based on my own experiences with combatting depression. Sometimes depression can’t be fixed by simple exercise. Sometimes you don’t know why you’re depressed. I certainly didn’t know why I was depressed until I talked to someone.

As a University of Toronto student, you are immensely lucky to have institutions that are designed to help you combat depression and greater mental health issues. If you do feel depressed or anxious during the school year, you can visit the Health and Wellness Centre’s website, where all information pertaining to workshops and services are available.

I hope that all you incoming first year students—and upper year students—have a great year, and I hope that if you do feel down or depressed you’ll remember these words. Get up, dust yourselves off and get after it.

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