University offers a fantastic opportunity for you to gain independence, collect new experiences and make friends but the truth is, for some students, it's not a positive experience 100% of the time
Why is it important for me to look after my mental health at university?
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 us to adapt and effectively manage the changes and stresses that come, not only with university life, but day-to-day life,' explains Emma Carpenter, wellbeing manager and Lynsey Gray, mental health adviser at the University of Huddersfield.
'Mental health and wellbeing impacts on our ability to engage with the world around us. It affects the way we think and feel, as well as how we behave. Therefore, looking after your mental health and wellbeing is of primary importance.'
A recent 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.
'More than half of adults who have experienced a mental health problem, say that it started before turning 24,' explains Marwah El-Murad, project manager for higher education at the Mental Health Foundation. '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.'
What are the most common mental health difficulties among students?
'Students can experience struggles with all aspects of emotional and mental health. These range from difficulties in managing stress, change and pressure, right through to more serious mental ill health such as psychosis and mood disorders,' say Emma and Lynsey.
'The transition to independent living and study can be a huge trigger for mental health problems. Rates of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm and suicide are high among the student and recent-graduate population,' adds Marwah.
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.
This isn't a checklist of symptoms and students with mental health difficulties may experience all, some or none of the above. 'There is no simple way of knowing if someone is suffering with their mental health. No two people behave the same way when they're unwell,' says Marwah. If you feel low, regardless of your symptoms reach out and seek help.
What help is available?
Your universities wellbeing service is an excellent place to start.
Wellbeing teams can 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. To find out what support is available at your university contact student services or look on their website.
While all universities take the mental health and wellbeing of their students seriously more needs to be done to raise awareness of student mental health and improve the support on offer. 'Universities need to build wellbeing education into curriculum content so that students are better equipped to recognise the importance of wellbeing and mental health and feel able to take steps towards looking after themselves,' explain Emma and Lynsey.
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 can refer you to appropriate services.
- The Samaritans - if you feel 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 Foundation, Mind, Papyrus, Sane 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. 'Try and maintain balance in all aspects of what you do; work hard but also find time to play and relax,' advise Emma and Lynsey.
- Set achievable goals - mental health struggles can make simple tasks feel overwhelming so don't overload yourself.
- Keep in touch - 'this may feel hard but it is important to maintain social connections,' say Emma and Lynsey.
- 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 - 'this could be running, baking, arts and crafts or writing - whatever makes you feel better,' says Marwah.
- Seek support early - 'don't leave it until you're at crisis point,' add Emma and Lynsey.
How can I take care of my mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Coronavirus has affected how students learn, with universities incorporating more online elements into their teaching methods as a result of social distancing restrictions. The pandemic has also had a significant impact on student mental health.
Papyrus, a leading charity for the prevention of young suicide, has reported that approximately 90% of contacts using it's text, call and email service HOPELINEUK mention the pandemic in some way.
According to the charity, people have been sharing their fears about loss of income, potential job losses and students have been reporting their concerns over exam cancellations and uncertainties about their academic future. The loneliness of being separated from family, friends and partners is also having a huge impact on feelings of suicide.
Despite of the disruption caused by COVID-19 help is available. You're still able to contact your GP and charities, like Papyrus, urge you to get in touch with their helpline services.
Emma and Lynsey also want to remind you that wellbeing services remain open to all students.
If you're suffering with your mental health, processing and dealing with the rules and restrictions put in place to control the virus can feel a little overwhelming. Emma and Lynsey suggest finding a routine that works for you. 'Keep physically active and spend as much time outside as you can. Use technology to connect with people if you still can't see them in person and take up a new hobby or interest that provides some structure or routine.'
Marwah suggests a few things you can do to ease the stresses of these unprecedented times:
- Find your news and social media diet - staying informed and connected is important, but it can also make you feel overwhelmed, so find a balance that works for you.
- Try studying with others - you could do this on video chat, or if you prefer, there are study-with-me vloggers. Read our 5 tips for studying at home.
- Get out into nature - connecting with nature and getting out into green spaces has huge benefits on our mental and physical health.
- Focus on what you can control - there's a lot that's up in the air at the moment. Acknowledge what you can't control and try not to worry about it.
- Be realistic, productivity is not your identity - it's probably not realistic to expect the same level of productivity you had before the pandemic. Do what you can in manageable chunks, and don't force yourself to sit at a laptop for eight hours a day.
- Ease yourself back into your pre-lockdown life - restrictions permitting take a step-by-step approach to getting back to normal.
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