The experiences in this article are the author’s, and the author’s alone; what works for one might not work for another. If you feel upset, apathetic or anxious for a prolonged period, you should consult professional medical advice.

Studying VCE, especially in Year 12, can be one of the biggest obstacles of our young lives. A daunting task for teens all over, VCE can seem a bit like an Olympic sport: you get judged on technicalities, skill comes with an immense amount of practice, and even just getting over that finish line can be absurdly taxing – not just mentally, but physically and emotionally.

So many have made it through to the other side. But that doesn’t change our individual situations; what about those of us who have only just begun?

Mental illness is unique to every person it affects. When doing VCE, HSC, WACE, TAFE, university, any other schooling or life, for that matter, mental illness can have a profound effect on a person’s performance. I should know; I’ve had both anxiety and depression for almost three years. My personal struggle is not something I would typically share with others. However, in the past year or so, I’ve discovered a few tips that have helped me get through tough times. So, here’s a list of five things that have helped me (and will continue to help me) get through schooling.

1. Knowing that my health is first and foremost.

I try not to worry about homework, assignments, or teachers getting mad at me. This can be difficult, but if I have a legitimate issue with my health, or if I’ve just worn myself out one week, I know that it’s okay for me to take a break instead of letting myself spiral into a negative, unproductive mindset.

It’s always good to remember that burning yourself out should not even be an option. After all, it was the tortoise – not the hare – who won the race in the end.

2. Rewarding myself after sticking to my schedule.

Having a study plan has really helped me through the chaotic start to Year 12 and the last term of Year 11, which is when timetables were first recommended to me.

My study schedule keeps me stabilised and organised. When I work through a full week, hour by hour achieving what I need to, I like to give myself a bit of a treat as a ‘well done’. This includes a day of rest – typically a Sunday – and something that I love to do: hiking, drawing, reading a novel back-to-back, candy, music and just dreaming. Finding what I love and placing it aside as a reward for myself once I have done what’s needed is probably one of the best ideas there is.

It’s also helped a lot with my anxiety and self-control. Early last year, I fell into the trap of doing what I felt like – not what I needed. By having a timetable and something to keep me in line, I’ve discovered that doing the work instead of trying to push it all back really reduces the panic and self-hatred I felt when I let my responsibilities build up.

3. Accepting support from family and friends.

It can be hard – even a point of pride – to admit that you’re not okay. For me, it took two years before I finally caved in and went to a doctor. This was extremely detrimental to not only my mental health, but also my physical health and marks in schooling. I began to avoid family and the people who truly cared for me, feeling as if I didn’t deserve their love anyway. As a result, I fell into a really dark place, not doing any work for about three months straight until I almost failed multiple classes.

dealing with Year 12

Getting by on your own is simply not an option, especially in senior levels of schooling, where catching up in mid-year classes can be nigh impossible. So, although it can be difficult to open up, and maybe even difficult to understand exactly what you feel upset about, I’ve found that having a support network is one of the best things to help get me through every day. It helps me to remember that every hour, every test, every class, is one less until I’m free and can begin again with a fresh slate.

4. Breathing exercises and *actual* exercises.

Breathing, especially for anxiety, is a brilliant exercise. Slow breathing exercises are actually recommended when relaxing during and after an anxiety attack. Breath is life, and so when something gets too stressful and I forget to breathe, I can remind myself of my favourite, simple method:

Step 1: Relax your muscles and expel all of the breath in your lunges in one small, steady stream.
Step 2: Draw in a slow, constant breath, filling the bottom of your lungs to the top, focusing on the sensation. Count the seconds you can keep drawing in breath.
Step 3: Hold that breath for four seconds, then let it out, counting to six seconds before all of the air in your lungs is expelled. Once you begin inhaling again, try to extend the time it takes for you to take a breath by a little bit more every time, and do the same when you exhale.

It doesn’t take long, and the ‘eye of the storm’ feeling you get is extremely useful – especially during assessments and exams.

However, it’s not just breathing exercises that help; real exercise does, too.

I discovered hiking and mountaineering when I was in Year 7, and since then my love of wildlife, nature and walking long, isolated trails and untamed lands has not been extinguished. Exercise doesn’t have to include a gym subscription and expensive equipment; it can be something simple, something to enjoy. Whether that is hiking, biking, playing golf, archery, footy, cricket, gymnastics in the backyard with friends, or just a small walk through the local streets, exercise shouldn’t be something anyone feels obligated to do. It’s something we should want to do.

Exercise feels like an achievement and, as a result, makes a person happier. And personally, I feel like everybody needs all the happiness and sense of achievement they can get when studying VCE!

5. Having a really good outlet

Whether talking with someone I trust, giving myself times to take a break, just drawing or dancing with myself (don’t tell anyone I do that – it’s a secret), it is vital for everybody to let out whatever is being bottled up inside them.

dealing with Year 12

As a bottler myself, I remember not having an outlet, and those were some of the darkest parts of my experience with mental illness. So, I came up with a few ways I could let out how I was feeling:

•  Writing out my feelings, or just the events of my day, can feel like such a huge relief because it’s no longer just festering in my gut.
•  Simple doodles can be really calming and extremely helpful in conveying to others, as well as yourself, the mood you’re in. In my experience as an average artist, I’ve discovered that I can just do a quick sketch of something I feel, or something I’m inspired by. An idea I’ve had. This is a lot like the journal, just in a visual sense. They don’t need to be masterpieces – just something that means something to you personally.
•  From a young age, reading old poetry has been something that has soothed me. So, I began to write my own. It’s not really poetry, but I tie it into things I feel that day, or images I’ve drawn. This is an outlet for more linguistically-minded people, but if you think you suck at English, it’s better to try and ‘fail’ (‘failure’ is not a word in my vocabulary) than to never have tried. Go for it!
•  Talking to myself. The latest NAB campaign is about “talking to yourself more”, and I believe in it. Instead of getting bogged down by the constant negative thoughts spiralling around in my head, I make a conscious effort to pull myself up with positive thoughts and comments about the small things. This has probably been one of the most helpful options.

Five simple skills, five easy habits to acquire. Ones that never take long, but can help a whole lot.

Remember that the work you do to build a better you is always valid. If it works for me, it could work for you, too. You are worth it – always.

No matter who you are, I hope the things I have discovered in my schooling journey will help you in turn, and those around you. Getting through VCE may be a lot like an Olympic sport, yes, but winning a medal isn’t the only achievement out there. Getting to the Olympics itself – just making it through the race – is the most important.

So farewell, and good luck!

With love,

Nina, Class of ’18.