top of page
  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

Unlocking Wellness: Navigating Mental Health in Your Gap Year

Get ready for a deep dive into all things mental health 🙌 Majority of gappers choose to take an intentional pause to improve and support their mental health, but how do you do that?

Look no further because Michelle, gap year expert and coach spills the secrets on navigating this journey. Brace yourself for a rollercoaster of do's and don'ts, packed with invaluable tips and tricks. Whether mental health is the heartbeat of your gap year or just a sidekick, Michelle's insights are a game-changer. Tune in now! 

Topics Discussed

  1. Mindful Gap Year Exploration: Michelle sheds light on how a gap year can be a powerful tool for improving mental health, offering a mindful approach to navigate the stresses of high school and transitions.

  2. Structuring Success: The episode emphasizes the importance of structuring your gap year intentionally to avoid the pitfalls of stagnancy. Michelle shares cautionary tales and provides a roadmap for ensuring your gap year has a positive impact on mental well-being.

  3. Building a Mental Health Toolkit: Listeners gain valuable insights into crafting a personalized mental health toolkit. Michelle advocates for routines, journaling, nutrition, physical activity, and self-care as essential components for a fulfilling gap year and beyond.

  4. Small Steps, Big Wins: The concept of 'wading in' is introduced, advocating for gradual exposure to challenges like social anxiety. Michelle encourages small, manageable steps to build confidence, showcasing a personalized approach for tackling mental health obstacles.

  5. Preparing for the Next Chapter: The episode wraps up with practical tips for future success, urging listeners to research mental health supports at potential post-secondary institutions. It empowers individuals to proactively set up a supportive environment as they transition beyond their gap year.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode


Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

Today is a hot topic on the pod. We're talking about mental health and with so many young people choosing to take a gap year to support their mental health, how do you do that?

We're going to be diving in into the do's and don'ts to make sure that this year is positive and so many tips and tricks inside so whether this is the core focus of your gap year or something that we can all use whether you're on a gap year or not hopefully everything in here will be super helpful for you so go ahead and take a listen.

Michelle Dittmer - 01:18

Hey there and welcome to the Gap Year Podcast. My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and Gap Year expert, today we are chatting about mental health. 

Now full disclosure, I am not a mental health professional. I just work with youth who self-identify as having challenges with their mental health on a daily basis. Now if you are experiencing challenges with your mental health, If it is extremely intense I recommend that you reach out to professional support.

This podcast is here to give you tips and tricks but we are not mental health professionals so if you do need that support please seek it out. This podcast will just help you on your journey.

Michelle Dittmer - 02:08

So with that being said, let's jump right into the episode and talk about some of the really important factors that you need to consider if you are taking your gap year for mental health reasons, or at least that's part of it.

I would estimate that probably about 90% of the gappers have identified at some point that they want to improve their mental health as a goal for their gap year.

So it's a huge percentage that are identifying it. Not everybody is at like a crisis level, not everyone is clinically depressed, but there is some form of stress or anxiety or something at them that is really causing them to want to pause and take care of that because they recognize either they are in that position or they are on their way for that mental health to not be optimal. So absolutely 100% a gap year can be a tool for addressing mental health.

So let's be honest here, high school is super stressful. There are tons of pressures that exist from the social side of things, from the academic side of things, from just the life side of things. And these pressures are very real and we know that young people now more than ever are coming out of high school with a sense of burnout. A lot of them feel increased anxiety about their future. So these things are very real and very, very present. So I think it's good to understand that exists and that is a common feeling, but I think it's also important to recognize that at every stage of our life when we feel overwhelmed and in over our heads really taking a break or pushing pause on the things that are really stressful for you or taking things off your plate, it makes sense.

And that's why the gap year is a tool that makes sense when people are looking to improve their mental health. It's very difficult to feel stable or feel like you have capacity to address your mental health when you are in points of transition, when you are entering into new situations.

Those new situations by default put us into a constant state of fight, flight or freeze.

Where we are just in survival mode and entering into post-secondary, moving out of the house, new academic stress, this is that situation and it is very real. So pushing pause on that will allow everybody, no matter what situation you're in, to spend more time to address what's going on. 

Michelle Dittmer - 05:09 

When people come to talk to us about taking a gap year, often we hear the language, I'm not ready.

And in a lot of cases, that's their anxiety talking, that's that additional stress.

That is the indication sometimes that there is some sort of work that needs to be done in order to address that and to feel more prepared and feel more ready and take care of that mental health. So definitely pushing pause can definitely make sense and by default taking a gap year can make sense for people who want to take care of their mental health.

Now but, and this is a really big but, the gap year must be structured around improving mental health otherwise the gap year can have the opposite effect of what you are hoping. Now this is a common fear for just about everyone who's entering into a gap year or who has a young person thinking about a gap year. That idea of stagnancy or not doing anything is very a real fear but especially for folks who are struggling with their mental health we really want to make sure that this gapper doesn't sit around doing nothing.

So let me paint you a picture of what this could look like. Now I promise while this is not going to be the prettiest picture, I will paint you that nice picture afterwards. But I want to walk you through those big fears and as a cautionary tale, I want you to hear what can happen if the gap year is not structured properly for improving mental health.

So let's say a young person is maybe depressed or socially anxious. They have this sensation or this feeling that they can't do anything and so what happens is the young person ends up cocooning in their room, starting to isolate from their friends and family and really stepping away from everything that they enjoy, which is something that happens with anxiety and depression organically.

But when we don't have that structure of having school to go to every day or a job to go to every day, it can really dig that trench of mental illness even deeper. And we don't want our young person to stay at home and not interact with anyone and just ruminate on all of the challenges that they're experiencing. That's not ideal. And that's everybody's worst nightmare.

So with that ugly picture painted, how do we actually avoid this? Like Michelle, you just said that gap years are a good tool for mental health and then you're going to tell us this horror story and really it's just a cautionary tale. Let's paint the opposite picture.

Michelle Dittmer - 8:29

Let's paint the other side of the coin and look at what it might look like to have a very positive experience in improving your mental health while on a gap year. So we'll take the same gapper. Potentially struggling with depression and social anxiety and let's walk through what this could look like in terms of creating a positive experience.

Now while I'm walking through this, these are my tips that are going to be interlaced into this story that I'm telling because I want you to be able to see and feel What those things might look like and it will look different for every single person based on their interests, based on the challenges they're facing, based on their environment.

So just take this story, don't take the story literally. Think about the ways that this might apply to you or your young person as you are setting up that support for that gap year. So let's go back, our gapper may be dealing with some depression and some social anxiety. That's going to be our model person for this little story here. So in order to have a successful gap year, definitely I think a lot of people will default into setting up routine with a professional, a therapist or a counsellor of some kind, and that is probably where most people should start, is identifying and spending the time to find a counsellor or therapist that has availability and that is a good fit for the young person because right now we know there are long lines to get support, we know that not every counselor is the right fit, we don't always gel with them, so having that increased capacity and availability to source that out and find that person that's going to be a routine support that you're going to check in with over the course of your gap year, who has expertise in supporting that mental illness, that is gold.

So instead of just rushing through it and picking up the first person that has availability, being able to structure and find somebody that you resonate with is a gift.

The next thing that I would recommend for this young person is to be intentional with creating some sort of journal or tracking system. That allows the young person to start to identify what are those points of trigger or what are those elements that relieve the symptoms of what's happening for them.

Michelle Dittmer - 11:17

Really, sometimes when we are living a busy life, we are just going through the motions and our mental health goes up and down like a roller coaster, but we don't necessarily have the awareness or the capacity to be aware of what the things are specifically that are going to cause it to be better or worse. So being able to have that time to reflect on, hey, today was a great day.

What did I do today? Or what did I experience today that made it a good day? Or the opposite, today was terrible. What was it that factored into the fact that I had a really challenging day today? So keeping some sort of tracking system, a journal, a spreadsheet, again this is personal choice but having that time and space and a new routine of including that can be so helpful because it's going to give insight Into how you design a lifestyle that will support your better mental health. 

Michelle Dittmer - 12:20

So things like looking at nutrition, spending some time looking at what does proper nutrition look like, what does it mean to nourish your body in a way that makes sense for it, looking and learning on how to create recipes, what are Lunches that you can create on the go when you're busy, so spending time to identify that and to create knowledge and experience that will be something you can carry with you.

Maybe in the experience of understanding your triggers and releases maybe finding physical activity or exercise that is really helpful. Maybe every day you're having a good day you went for a walk and you can correlate feeling better with more physical activity.

So taking the gap year to identify different forms of physical activity That are going to be motivating and something that the young person enjoys is key. So maybe you really like walking but if you live in Canada and it's going to snow for six months of the year, you don't want to not get physical activity during the winter months because that's not going to support your mental health, so identifying other things.

Hey, maybe I'm going to take up indoor pickleball or I'm going to go to the local pool and swim during the winter months. So really discovering different types of physical activity that they enjoy, that motivate them and that they want to get out and do can really, really be helpful.

Michelle Dittmer - 14:00 

Other things that they can be observing and looking at and testing out over the course of their gap year is different options or different ideas of self-care. Find something that works. So when we think of self-care often people are thinking oh they need to go to the spa or they need to get a massage but perhaps that self-care is speaking with a friend that they trust and having a really great conversation.

Maybe self-care is having alone time to read a fiction book that they really are into.

Maybe self-care is discovering something new. Maybe self-care is spending time in nature. So again, spending this time creating and discovering all of these things is such a good use of this gap time.

Michelle Dittmer - 14:27

Other things to note while you're observing what Makes it better or worse? Looking at sleep and looking at sleep hygiene, which is a really neat term, talking about what is your sleep schedule? What is your bedtime routine? What does that look like for you?

Because so often we as teenagers get into bad habits when it comes to our sleep and so being able to reset on that and to spend some time developing something that works for you that is relevant to what you noticed about yourself like hey when I'm up till two in the morning my next day is really rough or if I wake up too early in the morning I'm grumpy all day. So really thinking and observing that but then also spending time practising a routine that's going to serve you in the long run.

Michelle Dittmer - 15:51

Other things to observe: Looking at screen time, with all the young people that I work with, 100% of them mentioned that they want to have a healthier relationship with social media and screen time and they identify that it's not necessarily there, it's not where they want it to be.

So figuring out what are those patterns, what are those tools that exist in order To better manage that time and to better use it as a positive tool instead of spending your time doom scrolling or hours and hours on TikTok or looking at images that make you feel worse about yourself. What are those tools that are going to limit that or help you to use it in a very positive way?

Michelle Dittmer - 16:38 

So these are all lifestyle things that definitely take time and energy to figure out.

But when we're in the hustle and bustle of student life or working life, it's really challenging to be able to have that capacity to intentionally focus on this.

So the gap time is really, really important. Because what you're doing is you are building a toolkit that you are going to take with you for the rest of your life.

It's something that you're going to be able to tap into every time in life when you start adding back in those complicating things. So after your gap year when you return to post-secondary and you hit midterm time, And things are feeling really stressful and you feel that anxiety creeping up, you go back to your list and you go back to the things that you know help relieve those feelings of anxiety. Oh, you know what?

I haven't been as active as I wanted or I'm not sleeping enough and go back and reinstitute and refresh yourself on all the things that might have fallen off.

But having this toolkit is something to definitely carry with you the rest of your life and maybe the best takeaway from a mental health gap year.

Michelle Dittmer - 18:06

Now when it comes to other things that you could be doing that are very productive and helpful for your mental health on your gap year, this kind of comes up is linked to the last point about post-secondary. When you are on your gap year you can actually take the time to look into what mental health supports exist at the various schools that you're looking at, because not all schools have great support systems.

Some of them are overrun and you can never get an appointment with one of the counselors. Some of them are known to have incredible supports. So if mental health is something that's going to be an ongoing thing that you need support with, spending the time to research Is going to set you up for success when it comes to that next chapter. So not only what supports exist on campus, but what other options are there at post-secondary that are going to be there to allow you to be successful. So it could be things that you want to explore in terms of counseling and the professionals on campus for sure, but also identifying what might it look like or is it possible to take a reduced course load. So instead of taking four courses a semester, five courses a semester, maybe two courses per semester would be something that would be more manageable and in support of your mental health and allow you to be more successful. So talking to the schools and figuring out what does that look like?

How does that impact your financial aid? How does that impact your ability to live in residence? All of those questions you can figure out so you're actually setting a really good path forward for you to be successful and navigate life with mental health challenges. Other things at the post-secondary level you can be looking at is it possible to have a single room in residence if you're going to be living there or even evaluating should you be living at home or should you be living at school in residence because each of those options come with strengths and with drawbacks and it's up to you to decide but having that capacity to think critically about it Instead of in your grade 12 year everybody's going into residence therefore I should go into residence or everybody's staying home therefore I should stay home.

It allows you to be a lot more subjective and think about it and make the best choice for yourself.

Michelle Dittmer - 20:48

Now the last recom:mendation that I'm going to put forth is going to be very unique to each gapper, but the concept is very much the same. So depending on the challenges that you're experiencing, depending on the goals you have for yourself, the concept is universal. And apply it to wherever you are in life. But the concept here is to wade in.

Now conventional transitions are often approached as the jump in with both feet kind of attitude where you've got to just rip off the band-aid, jump in with both feet, don't be afraid, go for it. But while that can serve some people, it's not necessarily the best approach for many people, especially those who are working on their mental health.

So instead of jumping in with both feet, we need to wade in. We need to find those beach entries where you can go inch by inch and take baby steps and move forward in small increments so that you do feel good and you do see success.

So for the sake of this podcast we're going to use the example of social anxiety and I'll show you what wading in could look like but really it can apply to any form of stress that is really triggering for a gapper.

So in education we call this scaffolding which means we're building in incremental challenges And removing some of those supports as they build confidence and as they are able to handle a greater degree of challenge. So when we're dealing with social anxiety, we want to go in small steps. And it may seem trivial, it may seem silly, but we want to set them up for success.

So starting at the very, very basic, starting with something small. Instead of using Uber Eats, call in an order for pizza. Or instead of using the online tool to make a dentist appointment, call in and talk to somebody on the phone.

These are very low risk opportunities, but when you can do them successfully, when you can get out of your comfort zone and then realize that you are capable of doing those things, that is one of the first steps. Then you can move it up a notch, instead of doing it on the phone, go out to a restaurant and have them order their own food, speaking with the server face to face. Again, very transactional, very fact based, but we're taking it from a phone call into something that is in person. Again, baby steps, check, I can handle that, I did that, I was successful, it was stressful, but I did it. Then, move up the ladder a bit. Go maybe join a small group, a club or a team.

So if they're into Dungeons and Dragons, maybe find a new group and start a new session with them. Or if you're into volleyball, go join a volleyball opportunity. Something else that can be really helpful in these small steps is find a volunteer opportunity. Find a volunteer opportunity with a population that is non intimidating.

So for a lot of people working with the elderly or working with children in volunteer capacities is something that's less scary than working with peers or working with kind of middle-aged grown-ups. So finding those small groups again to just grow and work on that social anxiety a little bit. Level up again.

I can handle those small groups, it worked really well. Go to a large event, so something where you can just be a participant. You don't need to interact, you're just going to be around a lot of people. So this could be a concert or a festival or a fair, something where there is not a lot of interaction happening but being there around people. Great, I can handle that. What about going to a family party?So it's a small gathering of people who are familiar but it's still social and set some goals in this situation. I'm going to talk to four different people or I'm going to tell four different stories or whatever that is but again building up that ability to feel a little bit more comfortable in social situations. 

When you're feeling ready, take it to the next level. Go to a networking event that is completely unrelated to anything that you want to do. So this is going out and I use this same recommendation for people who are looking for a job. Find something that isn't critical to you. Get out there and trysomething where there's going to be no blowback, no repercussions from being there.

And then from there you can just continue to grow the types of experiences. So I want you to think about how you can look at something that is very overwhelming and scary and brings out those feelings of anxiety and anxiety. And scale it back to small challenges that allow for the gapper to become acclimatised, to be able to take on these challenges by their choice.

They're not being forced into it but they're saying I'm ready for the next step, I'm ready to get out of my comfort zone and tackle that next thing because I've built up confidence and I'm pretty sure that I can take this to the next level. Really the most important thing about this whole series of events is we want that person to see success and to build confidence over time so that they are being able to feel that they have the power, they have the ability to tackle those things that are still scary but you know what I can handle that.

Michelle Dittmer - 27:40

Really with all mental health gap years, we really want to see that success. We want to see progress and forward movement and that's going to look different for everyone, a different pace, but it does not look like sitting in your room by yourself just talking to people through text. We really want them to engage with the world around them. And to be able to have that forward movement in finding those systems, finding those supports, and finding a way to live a happy and fulfilling life.

Whether you are improving your mental health or you're learning how to live with some of the challenges that exist for you, that is so valuable and perhaps the biggest gift that a gap year can give to a young person is moving forward past the gap year With so many young people identifying that they need time to improve their mental health, And that becomes a major reason for taking a gap year. It is really, really important that this gap time is used appropriately because we really want it to be used and we want it to have the desired effect.

We want it to be a time to address those challenges and to improve mental health Rather than digging that trench deeper and becoming a recluse and having those bigger challenges. So if this is your situation, if you're a young person looking to create a gap year plan that helps you with your mental health, or you are a parent and hearing that this might be something that's helpful for your young person, I want you to take the advice in here.

In this podcast in this episode and I want you to see if you can apply it to the plans that you're putting in place for that upcoming gap year or for the remainder of the gap year. If you found this halfway through your gap year, how can you apply these tips and these ideas to what you are going to do on your gap year or the rest of your gap year? Now as always, this is just a podcast and your situation might look a little bit different and we are here to help you. Do not hesitate to reach out and book a free call with us. We want to see you be  successful.

We want to help and support you. So please, the link is in the show notes or you can go to the website and book a call with us. We want to be able to help you make sure that this gap year is going to be so successful and that at the end of the gap year you can see the progress and see how your mental health has improved and what that toolkit looks like moving forward.

So my friends, I hope this was helpful and until next time, keep on adventuring!

15 views0 comments
bottom of page