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Prioritizing mental well-being: Strategies for a fresh start to the academic year

With the start of the 2023-24 academic year, faculty member Marisa Marraccini and school psychology doctoral student Lauren Delgaty provide students with tips to help them maintain their mental well-being.

Marisa Marraccini, Ph.D., an associate professor and Donald & Justeen Tarbet Distinguished Scholar, specializes in promoting the mental health and well-being of students and preventing health risk behaviors, specifically suicide. Her research is focused on preventing suicide and supporting adolescents with mental health challenges by developing and evaluating novel interventions that leverage adolescent context (e.g., school, social media).

Working alongside Marraccini, Lauren Delgaty, a doctoral student in the School Psychology program, focuses on participatory research and the involvement of students in educational and treatment planning.

Marraccini and Delgaty provide students with insights to prioritize their mental health and well-being and to help their friends who might struggle during the school year.

The start of a new school year often comes with mixed emotions for students at every level. Starting new classes, seeing old friends, and making new ones can be exciting. It can also be overwhelming. 

Students can and should prioritize their mental health during the back-to-school season and familiarize themselves with the mental health resources available in their schools and on their campuses to help ensure a successful semester.  

Below is a set of essential tips and resources aimed at assisting Carolina students, which can also serve as a foundation for students at other schools and universities, in making their mental health a priority throughout the academic year and beyond — while emphasizing the importance of maintaining a healthy balance between academic responsibilities and personal well-being.  

Common challenges students face with their mental health during the back-to-school season  

The pressure to overcommit: It is ok to say “no” and prioritize what is most important. College is full of opportunities, and no one can do it all. Remember that it is alright to politely turn down opportunities that aren’t a good fit for you or your schedule. It’s important to prioritize the experiences and opportunities that will most benefit you, while also keeping in mind your mental health and capacity for commitments.  

Forgetting to take care of yourself: We can get swept away by the many social and academic opportunities and demands of college, and forget to monitor how our decisions affect our physical and mental health. Prioritize high-quality sleep, healthy choices, and positive, supportive relationships.  

Tips and strategies students can use to prioritize their mental health amidst balancing classes and other responsibilities   

When possible, schedule time for rest. Students may overly focus on homework, reading, and other responsibilities, without taking breaks, when juggling a busy semester. Remember that rest is not a reward that needs to be earned; rather, it is necessary for your mental health and long-term success. Try to schedule regular times throughout the week for activities that help you recharge.  

Make time for social and recreational activities. Connecting with friends and family, and spending time doing things that you enjoy, are important components of your mental health. What you do can impact how you feel – so if you spend time doing more things you enjoy, you may feel a little bit better.  

Look ahead into the semester to set a plan. Using each syllabus as your guide, try to break-up large projects into workable steps to reduce burn out. Often, courses have similar due dates for midterms and final projects. If you can create a plan to stagger your work, you’ll have more room for unexpected events, and feel less overwhelmed during the more hectic times of the semester.  

Prioritize your physical health, too. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep as often as possible, eat healthy snacks and meals, and exercise. Your physical health has a big impact on your mental health. At Carolina, UNC Campus Recreation is a beneficial resource to students and is committed to helping Tar Heels lead to a healthy and active lifestyle outside of the classroom. For more information about UNC Campus Recreation, visit 

Create a plan for difficult times. Don’t wait for things to become difficult. Set a plan for how you will handle challenges before they arise. You might identify individuals you can go to in times of distress, and what you can do when things become challenging.  

Get involved. Be proactive about your health by connecting with your college community and getting involved with activities and events that you care about. UNC Heel Life is a valuable resource for staying in the know of activities and events occurring on campus. To learn more about Heel Life, visit 

Take advantage of campus resources. At Carolina, there are a variety of resources available to students to support their social-emotional health, physical health, and overall well-being.  

Additional resources for UNC-Chapel Hill students: 

How to establish a support system and seek help if you face a mental health challenge 

Identify healthy coping strategies that work for you – and use them! Everyone faces challenges at some point, so figure out what skills work best for you during a difficult experience. These might be anything from watching a funny movie to practicing deep breathing.  

Reach out to professors for support. You may not always think to reach out to professors, but they care about you and are eager to support your learning and success. If you are struggling to learn course material or keep up with course content or if you just need clarification on assignments or due dates, set up a time to talk with your professor. 

Connect with families and friends. On- and off-campus, staying connected with your friends and families can help you day to day and help you establish a group of people to go to when you are in need. Be sure to balance social connections that are virtual or online, with in-person interactions and activities. 

Seek help. UNC’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is available for all current students and post-doctoral fellows. They offer a number of cost-free services and accept walk-in appointments.  

For additional support, UNC’s Heels Care Network offers a hub of mental health resources to support students and members of the greater Carolina community.  

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with serious mental health concerns or having suicidal thoughts, call 988. 

How to recognize mental health challenges among your peers  

Keep an eye out for your friends or other people you know. It can be hard to ask for support when struggling with mental health challenges. Signs of mental health concerns vary widely, but sometimes include behaviors like social withdrawal, losing interest in fun activities, reduced motivation, increased or decreased sleep, skipping class and assignments more frequently, over- or under-eating, and increased substance use.  

People struggling with mental health can also have depressed moods, irritability, angry outbursts, increased crying, and persistent anxiety. Click here to learn more about the peer support services available to Carolina students. 

Strategies or approaches to support your peers during mental health challenges 

Be proactive and tell your friends that you care about them. It can be easier to share struggles with friends when both people are more open with their feelings. Reminding your friends that you care about them helps set the stage for an open and supportive relationship, and they may feel safer to reach out to you when they face a challenge.  

Remind your friends of your support. When you notice a friend may be struggling, check in on them and ask if they might like to get together for coffee, lunch, or to study. Let them know you are there if they need someone to talk through things with.  

Listen to them. Instead of trying to solve your friend’s problem, spend time simply listening to them, and acknowledging their feelings and experiences. By giving your friend a safe space to share their feelings, they may feel a little bit better. 

Get help from a professional. If you are worried about a friend or peer, check in with them; but remember, it’s not your job to handle a mental health crisis, so reach out to professionals (CAPS, 988) when a friend or peer shares something that is concerning. 

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By Marisa Marraccini, Ph.D. and Lauren Delgaty, MA