As mental health difficulties among post-secondary students have become increasingly prevalent, universities have begun to acknowledge this critical issue and take steps to address it. However, there is a significant amount of progress that still needs to be made. Mental health discussions which should be ongoing are often relegated to specific days of the year, and topics related to mental health are frequently considered in isolation rather than being incorporated into discussions about other facets of post-secondary education. Those who suffer from mental health problems know that they can affect every aspect of life. Therefore, in addition to general strategies for managing mental health at university, it’s important to discuss ways in which people with mental health problems can tackle specific university requirements which they may find particularly challenging.

One huge component of university that is rarely discussed in terms of mental health is co-operative education. Thousands of Canadian students are enrolled in co-op programs at university, and for good reason–in past posts, we’ve discussed the many benefits that come with co-op, both for engineering students and those who study other disciplines. However, as beneficial as co-op is, it can also be extremely taxing on mental health. A typical co-op student alternates between four-month school and work terms, meaning that they must grapple with the stress that comes with finding a job, finding a place to live, moving in to their new space, getting accustomed to a new work environment, and moving back to school in a never-ending cycle. Additionally, being uprooted every four months and relocating to workplaces that may be located outside the province or even the country means that students are frequently separated from social support systems and may also be forced to suspend regular appointments with therapists or doctors. However, the difficulties of maintaining strong mental health throughout a co-op program should not prohibit anyone from enjoying the advantages which co-op can offer. If you’re concerned about the effects of co-op terms on your mental health, consider some of the strategies below.

  • Keep mental health in mind during the application process. During my round of co-op applications, I made the mistake of excluding mental health from my selection process. Although I was fully aware of my own mental illness and the ways in which it can complicate my life, I failed to factor it in when deciding where to send my resume. As a result, I wound up accepting a job in Alberta, and the resulting stress and social isolation led to four months of rough mental health.
    Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that mental illness should force you to turn down exciting work opportunities, just that you should take mental health into account before pursuing them. During the application process, make sure to ask questions about factors relevant to mental health: for example, will you be working with other co-op students, or in isolation? Does the company offer recreational opportunities to relieve stress throughout the term? Is there a workplace counselling program you can take advantage of? Taking these issues into account will allow you to make an informed choice about which job to accept and ensure that you don’t wind up feeling trapped in a situation that’s damaging to your mental health.
  • After accepting a job, plan ahead. In most co-op programs, you will have at least a month and a half between receiving a job offer and starting your first day of work. Take full advantage of this time to plan how you will take care of your mental health, particularly if your co-op placement is not in the same area as your school. For example, if you are in therapy or meet regularly with a doctor, make sure to schedule an appointment before the academic term ends to discuss your upcoming four-month absence. Your therapist can help you work out a plan for practicing self-care and protecting your mental health during the work term. Additionally, they may be able to refer you to reliable counselling services near your workplace or set up appointments for phone or Skype sessions while you are away. Similarly, your doctor can likely refer you to qualified health professionals so you can continue to have appointments during your work term. If you take medication for mental health problems, they can explain how to continue filling your prescription until you’re able to see them again.
    Getting informed can also be a great tool for stress reduction. If you tend to get overwhelmed and stressed in unfamiliar situations, try researching the place you’ll be living before your move. For example, find out in advance where the nearest grocery store is, what transit you can take to your workplace, and what recreational opportunities will be available in the area. Email your employer contact to get answers to your questions about your new position, and, if possible, arrange an advance tour of the workplace. The fewer unknowns you have to contend with, the less you’ll have to worry about in the weeks before your job begins.
  • During your co-op term, make sure you have someone to talk to. Co-op placements can be unexpectedly isolating. Different jobs vary wildly in terms of the social environment of the workplace; I’ve had a co-op term where I worked closely with several other students from my school and a term where I worked alone in an office building which primarily employed middle-aged real estate professionals. If there are people at your workplace who you get along well with, they can become an incredibly valuable source of companionship during your placement. However, if you have few social opportunities at work, it’s important to find someone to talk to throughout the term. Social isolation and loneliness can be very damaging to your mental health, and being unable to vent about things that are causing you stress can intensify their emotional impact.

There are many ways to ensure that you have a reliable source of social contact during a work term. Consider asking a friend or family member if they’d like to stay in close touch over the term; setting a specific day of the week to call or visit them can prevent these arrangements from falling to the wayside as time goes on. Checking in with classmates who are on different placements can also be a good way to remain connected with the more familiar atmosphere of school, and your peers will likely be just as grateful for the opportunity to catch up. Many schools have resources to help co-op students connect when they’re placed in the same area, so you may have the opportunity to form new friendships which you can carry on after your return to school. Finally, if you want to speak about an issue which you’re not comfortable discussing with people close to you, online services like 7 Cups or telephone help lines can be useful resources; for example, Good2Talk is a free service available to any post-secondary student in Ontario. (However, if you feel that you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, call 911 immediately.) Any way you feel comfortable making social connections can be a helpful approach if it prevents you from feeling isolated during your co-op experience.

Although co-op can pose challenges for students with mental health problems, there’s no reason why you can’t manage these obstacles to have an enriching and enjoyable placement experience. Provided that you develop strategies for protecting your mental health and ensure that you have support networks to call on if necessary, you can gain valuable work experience without any adverse effects.

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