Something to consider which I hadn’t, really, is the effect of your placement on your health. I’m writing a blog post on this from my placement in an acute psychiatric hospital, and so I am surrounded by the topic of mental health every day. It’s SO important, and whilst developing issues with your mental health are at times very very hard to avoid, there are a lot of pretty simple things which you can do to look after yourself, and stop things getting bad before they do. The phrase “self-care” conjures images in my mind of a lush bath bomb, a candle and a face mask, but in reality if you’re not doing great then those things are not going to be top of the priority list. I love my placement and I’m SO glad that I did it, but there have been times so far when my mental health has not been its best. This isn’t because of any aspect of my placement at all, but simply just circumstantial, but I wanted to share this for anyone who might be struggling themselves, whether on placement or not, to remind you that that’s totally fine and normal, and also to share some advice which might help you over time to cope a bit better.
Working in an NHS trust means that most people are above graduate level and age, and so I tend to be closer in age to some of the patients than the staff I work with. Whilst everyone is very nice and friendly, and helped to make the classic small talk during my first couple of weeks, I have always found entering a situation as someone new pretty intimidating, and my role is quite solitary, so I tend to only really talk to my supervisor and a couple of other staff members. No one ever really talked about this side of placement to me! Sometimes I’ll get home from a day of not much social interaction to an empty house if my parents are still out and now, ironically, I wish there was someone in the kitchen to have a chat with! Humans are social animals, and we thrive when we are regularly having meaningful human contact.
How to deal with this? Well, it is definitely important to start your placement confidently, and I think I did! I’m not naturally a massively chatty person, especially not with new people, but I was determined to make a real effort to be confident from the start. This wasn’t easy when I was largely working in an office alone; going hours with speaking to, or even seeing, another person. A lot of my colleagues are in their 30s or above, so lunch time can mean I am either pretending to understand the struggles of finding a primary school for their offspring, or sometimes just opting to eat my lunch alone in my office. It’s not that I’m incapable of speaking to older people, no, I have a lot of friends at my other job who are in their 30s or 40s, and I love to chat to the older customers that I serve. I think it’s more that people are very much in established social groups at work, and being new can be tough.
I’ve definitely become more confident as time as gone on; just making an effort to show an interest in people’s lives goes such a long way. Someone once mentioned a holiday they were going on, so next time I saw them I asked how it was, that kinda thing. Really, people love to talk about themselves, and if they think you’re showing an interest in their life they’re going to be flattered. Even if you don’t end up inseparable best friends, just knowing someone enough to say hi in the corridor can be a great comfort. This has definitely got easier as my placement has progressed and I have begun to recognise and remember more people and they have done the same to me. But it’s highly unlikely that your placement will involve something like fresher’s week where you get a super easy situation set up for making friends, unfortunately!
Most of the time at uni I have a couple of contact hours a day and then it’s all down to me what else I do. It’s a very different world to a placement; having always worked shifts I find the 9-5 placement life a little strange! I miss the freedom of going to gym classes in the middle of the day, or having a relaxing morning before a 4pm start. That said, my supervisor is very flexible and lets me work my 30 hours a week over 4 or 5 days, with whatever start or finish time I want, though I do often have 9am meetings. This works really well for me as I can work longer days Monday-Thursday and have Friday as a full day off for myself. This does mean that some days I do my 8 hour placement day and then go almost straight to a 5 hour shift waitressing, which is a bit intense. Because of this, making sure I’m still making time to socialise is super important! Getting over tired makes you more susceptible to both physical and mental health problems, so if I’m not winding down and getting my full 8 hours of sleep I’m not happy. This means that I have to turn down a lot of my friends’ invitations for drinks or going out late at night- heading home from the pub at half 10 when they’re out til 3 can make me look a little boring, but hey. I know how grumpy and unproductive I become when I’m tired, and so I choose to prioritise sleeping a lot of the time.
Being socially isolated can make you more prone to feeling depressed, so I try to at least go out and have some fun even if I can’t commit to the whole night. A few weeks ago I was stuck in a period of feeling a bit down, and I kept turning down socialising because I just didn’t fancy it. When I finally accepted something and went out I realised how much I enjoyed it, and how most of the time forcing yourself to go to something is so worth it. If you’re not enjoying it you can always leave, and there truly is nothing worse than FOMO. I also make sure to always have some plans to look forward to. I’m lucky enough that one of my closest friends from uni is on placement in the same town as me, so we meet up regularly which is so nice. I’ve also managed to meet up with other uni friends and have plans to see some in the new year. It’s so nice to catch up and actually setting a date gives me something to look forward to when I am feeling a bit isolated!
Something else which I hadn’t considered was the fact that I wasn’t registered at a GP back home. I don’t use the university one too often so thought I’d just risk it rather than going through the effort of finding a new doctors… what a mistake that was. Not long into placement I woke up in excruciating pain, and after a hurried 111 call I got seen at a local doctors surgery and diagnosed with a kidney stone of all things. It was definitely not a standard Friday, but from that point I’ve realised the importance of being registered with a GP where you’re living, and also feel even more grateful for the NHS that I could be seen so quickly!
Physical health wise as well I find exercise SO beneficial for my wellbeing. At uni I am often at the gym 5 days a week and so one of the first things I did when I moved home was sort out a gym membership. Rather than seeing it as a chore I like to book a different class for most days and it’s something I really look forward to. I never feel more productive than walking into placement having already worked out, and although on a cold rainy day it can feel really unappealing I always feel better after going to the gym or for a run or a cycle. It doesn’t have to be a big event; no one’s expecting you to run a marathon. Even just following a 10 minute YouTube abs workout a couple of times a week can help to get your endorphins flowing and make you feel great!
Make sure you’re taking plenty of time to relax. For me, this often means doing some baking or cooking which I’ve always found really therapeutic. I love having homemade lunches and snacks to take in with me, so that’s a bonus too, but there’s nothing better than the smell of freshly baked cookies after a long day. Netflix has also been a big part of my placement experience. An evening’s not really complete until I’ve watched at least a bit of an episode, and I’ve got so much better at actually taking time to relax than I do at uni. Without constantly having deadlines to work on I have time to do simple things like reading for pleasure! It’s such a great way to wind down before bed and helps me to sleep- not that I need much assistance to be honest!
If sleep is something you struggle with, make sure you’re giving yourself plenty of time to wind down before bed. A shower or hot bath an hour before sleeping helps to lower your body temperature ready for sleep, and avoiding your phone and other screens help you to start switching off before bed. Try to keep your room just for sleep, too, so that you don’t associate it with other things, and you should be able to drop off a little more easily! If you find you’re stressed or worried and that’s why you’re not sleeping, the best thing to do is talk it through with someone, but if that’s not an option, it can be really helpful to write down a list of what is worrying you and then put it away- making a physical separation between yourself and the worries and telling yourself that you will not be dealing with it until tomorrow.
Finally, if you’re really struggling and need some support, as a student you are still able to use the university’s wellbeing services. You can contact your supervisor on placement or your placements officer back at Bath, or even another member of staff within your department such as your personal tutor. The SU’s wellbeing service is still available for students on placement, which includes both the Advice and Support centre and Students’ Services centre. They’re able to offer help from topics such as housing and finance to health and wellbeing or mitigating circumstances. If you’d feel more comfortable talking to a student, the university’s Nighline is open every night of the semester from 8pm-8am and acts as a student run listening service. The number is on the back of your library card, but they also offer instant messenger and email, too. Your supervisor and placements officer should ideally be your first contacts, though; they will be able to offer quick help whether you could benefit from a bit of time off, need to adjust your hours or just want to find some different tasks to do on placement! You are definitely not alone, and speaking to your other friends on placement can be so reassuring as you’re reminded that you’re all going through the same thing! Hope this is useful!