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Looking after your mental health as a postgraduate student

20 June 2018

We’ve put together a list of ways you can prioritise your mental health as a postgraduate student with a focus on developing self-care, coping and resilience strategies.

What is Mental Health?

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises their potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to their community.”

Build your support network

A crucial part of well-being is a support network, and friends and family are an integral part of this – in addition to your GP and other health professionals too. If you are looking to build your support network, you can reach out to friends, family, colleagues, study and sporting groups.

Another way to extend your support network as a postgraduate student at SCU is to reach out to your Student Success Advisor. They provide invaluable support to students during their studies– and are only ever a phone call or email away.

Schedule exercise & eat well

A bowl of pumpkin soup.

The positive effects of regular physical activity on reducing stress has been well documented – even a walk in the park can be refreshing. Eating a well-balanced diet helps you feel your best, and gives you the energy you need to be productive in your busy life. Everyone is different and has unique circumstances, but some tips to incorporate healthier choices for food and eating include:

  • Plan your meals – with the bonus of helping you stick to a budget
  • Avoid grocery shopping when you are hungry
  • Eat your food at the dinner table – instead of in front of the television at home
  • Build a list of cook once, but 'eat often' meals
  • Freeze leftovers of healthy, homecooked meals – great for busy weeks when there is little time to cook.

Check out these recipes for healthy eating on a budget, and healthy meal and snack ideas.

Challenge negative thinking patterns

Whether it’s worrying the worst will happen – or always jumping to the worst conclusion – negative thinking behaviours can impact mood, productivity and concentration. Some negative thinking behaviours include:

  • Negative rumination – excessive, repetitive negative self-reflection;
  • Overthinking – going over and over different choices in your mind to control what is uncontrollable;
  • Judging thoughts – such as ‘everyone is mistrustful.’

If you notice any of these negative thinking behaviours, learning how to change these into more adaptive, helpful behaviours with the help of a mental health professional is a significant first step to change your negative thinking behaviours from a hindrance to help.

Make time for yourself

Making time to do something for yourself has many positive effects. Reading a chapter of a book or calling a friend to catch up, playing a sport or taking an hour to grab a coffee as a study break on a Sunday afternoon can help you recharge during busy times. Self-care is a term that gets brandished around a lot – but it means different things for everyone. It might mean blocking out Friday evenings for time with loved ones – putting away laptops and phones to spend time together and reset after a busy week of work, study and other life commitments. For some, it’s taking two hours to go a gym class, or walk the dogs.

Most of us will seep 5 – 8 hours each night, which leaves us 1000 minutes in the day to get stuff done. One way to make the most of that time is by planning. You can use apps to plan or simple pen and paper to jot things down in a physical planner. Some favourites of productivity enthusiasts include:

  • Trello
  • Evernote
  • One Note

Screen grab of the time tracking app Trello.

Mental illness is real

Feeling tense or anxious during stressful times is normal (ask any postgraduate student in the middle of an assessment) – but if you start to notice these feelings are lasting a long time, they may be part of a mental health problem. Talking to someone about how you feel is essential, and there is support available. It is important to note that mental illness is an illness like any other, like heart disease, asthma or diabetes. In fact, 3 million Australians are living with anxiety or depression - the most prevalent mental illnesses and one in five Australians may develop a mental illness in their lifetime.

Challenging stigma around mental health

According to a report in the World Psychiatry journal, Australia has seen considerable growth in the resources allocated to psychiatric health care – increasing by a substantial 178% between 1992-93 and 2010-11. There has also been a 35% increase within the mental health workforce. There’s been a significant movement towards campaigns that encourage Australians to talk about their mental health, like R U OK? Day.


Despite this, mental illness still faces stigma, and proactive steps can be taken by everyone to help tackle this stigma in society. Talking openly about mental health is essential, and having a positive and hopeful attitude is key to supporting people living with a mental illness.

There are many ways to challenge mental health stigma, and the evidence suggests two main approaches:

  • Educational approaches;
  • Contact approaches.

Educational approaches include information resources that challenge stereotypes, and contact approaches refer to interpersonal contact with those who live with a mental illness.

The importance of emotional intelligence for overall wellbeing

In a recent study, ‘Promoting regional student nurse well-being, resilience, and retention through an emotional intelligence intervention’ findings include a significant increase in psychological well-being with emotional intelligence interventions. Dr Desirée Kozlowski, Professor John Hurley and Associate Professor Maire Hutchinson undertook this study at Southern Cross University’s School of Health and Human Sciences.

“We know that increasing your emotional intelligence is incredibly helpful for university students. We have studies that show increased wellbeing and better resilience against stress after even brief EI enhancement interventions. Other studies have shown it is linked to lower levels of attrition and even better GPA scores,” explains Professor John Hurley.

Some core emotional intelligence skills are self-awareness, awareness of others, authenticity, emotional reasoning, self-management and positive influence.

“A starting point is to pay more attention to what you are feeling throughout the day and to let others know as well. Questioning if these emotions are helping you reach your goals and if they are working with your cognitive knowledge is another important question to ask,” explains Professor John Hurley.

Where to go to for help with your mental health

  • Talk to your GP or health professional.
  • For immediate counselling assistance, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. They can also supply you with contacts, further information and help.

Other useful sources of information: SANE Australia Helpline 1800 18 SANE (7263)

Working as a mental health professional

At SCU Online, we offer a Master of Mental Health and a Master of Mental Health Nursing. Call us on 1300 863 819 if you have questions about studying these courses.