For many students university offers independence, but it isn't without its challenges. If you're struggling with your mental health at university learn more about what help is available

Why is it important for me to look after my mental health at university?

'Good mental health is vital for students. In short, happy and healthy students are successful students,' explains Sarah Richardson, head of student services at the University of Derby.

Our mental health and wellbeing effect every part of our lives. They impact our ability to engage with the world around us, the way we think and feel, as well as how we behave.

Students are particularly vulnerable to mental health struggles as they're often living away from home and dealing with the stresses of adult life for the first time.

'Good mental health allows students to cope with this period of change,' adds Sarah. 'Research also shows that good mental health is associated with increased learning, creativity and productivity, more positive social interactions and relationships and improved physical health.'

A report by The Insight Network and student organisation Dig-In, 'University Student Mental Health Survey 2020' found that one in five students has a current mental health diagnosis.

The survey also found that:

  • almost half of the 21,000 students surveyed have experienced a serious psychological issue for which they needed professional help
  • students in the second and third year of university were at significantly higher risk than first years for feelings of worry, loneliness, substance misuse and thoughts of self-harm
  • almost half of students reported thoughts of self-harm
  • more than three quarters have concealed their symptoms due to fears of stigma.

University students are at a high risk of developing mental health problems, are less likely to seek help, and even if they do they face challenges due to the lack of available support.

A more recent 2022 report found that as many as four in five students are impacted by mental health. 'Student Mental Health Study 2022' conducted by Cibyl in partnership with Accenture, Clyde & Co, Imperial College London and Universities UK surveyed over 12,000 students and discovered that 81% had been affected by mental health difficulties.

The study also found:

  • 91% of LGBTQ+ students experienced mental health challenges
  • 27% of students surveyed said they don't have any friends at university and identified loneliness as a significant issue
  • Almost half (46%) of students felt their university supported those with mental health challenges, while two thirds (63%) said they prioritised mental health provision when choosing a university.

What are the most common mental health difficulties among students?

Students can struggle with all aspects of emotional and mental health, with the transition to independent living and study often acting as a trigger. 'Some of the most common mental health struggles that students face are anxiety, stress, low mood and depression,' explain Neal Davis, wellbeing service manager and Rob Heyes, wellbeing promotion and induction team leader at the University of Bath. Eating disorders, psychosis, self-harm and suicide are also often reported.

This isn't an exhaustive list of mental health conditions and while the internet can be a great source of advice, the Mind website for example explains more about the different types of mental health conditions, we strongly advise that you visit your GP for a professional diagnosis.

More students than ever before are disclosing mental illnesses to their universities, and students report higher levels of mental distress than their non-student peers. Triggers include study and work pressures, relationship trouble, homesickness and loneliness, money worries and bullying.

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What are the warning signs?

There's lots of help out there, both inside and outside your university, so you should never suffer in silence. The first step to accessing this help is admitting that you're struggling.

These are some of the signs to look out for:

  • Disengaging from university and other activities and commitments - you may struggle to engage academically with your work, peers and tutors.
  • Socially withdrawing - becoming more isolated and not looking after yourself.
  • Problems with motivation and concentration.  
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns.
  • Indulging in addictive behaviours or taking unnecessary risks - such as using drugs or alcohol.
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive issues and physical pain - there's a strong connection between the mind and body.
  • Low mood or increased irritability.
  • Lack of energy and motivation.
  • Constantly feeling tearful, angry or on edge.
  • Avoiding certain situations.

Bear in mind that no two people behave the same way when they're unwell and while these are all common signs of mental ill health, it isn't a checklist of symptoms. Students with mental health difficulties may experience all, some or none of the above. If you feel low, regardless of your symptoms reach out and seek professional help.

What help is available?

Your university's wellbeing service is an excellent place to start.

Wellbeing teams provide a listening ear and can signpost you to the most appropriate services, such as appointments with dedicated mental health advisers, drop-in counseling or mindfulness sessions and support groups. Some institutions even provide animal therapy sessions.

'Support for students has never been as accessible as it is now. With increasing demand for services, universities have had to be responsive to ensure support is available for students when they need it,' say Neal and Rob. 'As well as the traditional wellbeing, counselling and mental health services many universities now have access to 24-hour helplines and online chats where students can speak to someone instantly, at any time of the day, wherever they are in the world.

'Students can take part in programmes to support their own wellbeing, from courses and workshops to better their mental health, to wellbeing activities such as cooking classes or gardening. 

'There are also support groups to enable students to meet like-minded people in a safe space, whether that is a group for those who have experienced a bereavement or those who are LGBTQ+, for example.'

To find out what support is available at your university contact student services or look on their website.       

Discover where to find help at university.

Outside of university try:

  • Your GP - if you're worried about your mental health it's essential that you visit your GP. They can give you a medical diagnosis and refer you to appropriate services.
  • The Samaritans - if you need immediate help, call 116 123, any time of day.
  • Family and friends - talking about your struggles can be a huge relief. Don't feel like a burden, your family and friends want to help.
  • Charities - organisations such as the Mental Health FoundationMindPapyrusSane and Student Minds provide excellent advice and support.

How do I look after my mental health at university?

There are plenty of things you can do to look after your mental health while studying. Here are some things to try:

  • Eat as healthily as possible and exercise regularly - healthy eating doesn't have to be expensive and just 20 to 30 minutes of exercise a day can help.
  • Make sure you're getting enough sleep - with impending deadlines and nights out it's unlikely you'll get the recommended eight hours but where possible try to establish a sleeping pattern.
  • Keep your living space tidy - it's hard to focus when you're living in a jumble so de-clutter, tidy away mess and open windows to let the fresh air in.
  • Don't take too much on - you don't have to say yes to every social activity or study group. Make time to relax and do something you enjoy.
  • Set achievable goals - mental health struggles can make simple tasks feel overwhelming so don't overload yourself.
  • Keep in touch - you might not always feel like it but maintaining social connections is vital. Don't isolate yourself.
  • Drink sensibly - alcohol is a depressant so keep a check on your consumption levels.
  • Join a club or society - spending time with like-mined people doing something you enjoy can be a great mood-booster. It can also provide a sense of community and friendship, which is great if you're feeling lonely or homesick.
  • Download some apps - there are lots of apps that can help with your mental health such as Headspace, Calm, Calm Harm, Student Health App, Stress and Anxiety Companion and WorryTree.
  • Find outlets that work for you - be it running, baking, crafts, colouring or Lego - whatever takes your mind off things and makes you feel better.
  • Seek support early - don't suffer in silence or ignore the situation until you hit crisis point.

'A key message we give to students is balance. As well as your academic pursuits take part in the community, join a student group or sport, practice some arts, or just make time to socialise,' advise Neal and Rob.

How do I help a friend who is struggling?

Neal and Rob explain that often 'noticing that something is wrong and taking the time to ask if they're ok can make all the difference. Encouraging your friend to talk can really help.'

‘Be there for them and make sure they know what support is available and how they can access it.' If you're aware of resources that they are not, then point them in the right direction.

Sarah echo's this advice 'provide a listening ear, be patient and reassuring. Avoid any judgement. Offer practical acts of kindness, such as offering to make them a drink, helping with their shopping or accompanying them to their first appointment.'

When supporting a friend, it can be easy to neglect your own wellbeing. 'It's important to recognise your boundaries and when it might be time to refer your friend to specialist services. Remember, those doing the supporting will also need to get help if they’re struggling,' add Neal and Rob.

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