Dealing with depression at university
While moving to university has always meant a period of adjustment, more students than ever are struggling at university, particularly with depression
- Why students become depressed – factors and causes
- How depression can affect students – common symptoms and student stories
- What to do if you're depressed at university – support available
It’s normal to have ups and downs in life. And uni brings its own challenges, with students juggling studies, part-time jobs, internships, relationships – and more – all in new surroundings, away from their network of family and friends back home.
But depression is different, defined by the NHS as a persistent low mood that lasts for at least two weeks.
The number of young people experiencing mental illness is on the rise. One in five 16-to-24-year-olds reported a mental health problem in 2017 (source: Institute for Public Policy Research).
One in five university students had a mental health diagnosis, with depression being the most common condition (source: University Student Mental Health Survey 2018, published by The Insight Network).
Mild depression can make everyday routines – like going to lectures and socialising – a struggle, but severe cases can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
Why students become depressedWhat affects one person won't necessarily affect someone else in the same way. Biological factors, such as brain chemistry or genetics, and past experiences can all play a part, which makes mental health a complicated and personal matter.
This can be aggravated by social media, where it's all too easy to slip into comparing yourself against others. And when we're browsing the likes of Snapchat or Instagram for two hours and 22 minutes on average each day (source: Globalwebindex), the steady flood of status updates and filtered photos might come at a price: social media use has been linked to sleep disturbances, and feelings of isolation and inadequacy in some young people.
Meanwhile, two thirds of students worry about their finances ‘all the time or very often' (source: National Union of Students Insight, on behalf of Future Finance). Around a third of students surveyed by Which? University in 2018 said that money issues had negatively affected their mental health.
But money and social media aren’t the only triggers for student depression. ProtectED found that a quarter of students ‘always or often’ felt depressed, citing the following top five causes of their depression:
- social pressures and fitting in
- personal, family or relationship problems
- balancing study with other commitments
- coursework deadlines.
These social and academic concerns reflect some of the experiences students have shared with us. University of Keele student Sophie was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety:
While Ellie, a student at Cardiff University, recalls:
Which? University's student survey in 2019 found that over half of students had struggled with loneliess at university – see the full list below:
How depression can affect studentsStudents Against Depression (SAD) highlights that depression can cause:
- poor concentration
- memory loss
- sleep disturbances
- low confidence.
Mental health issues such as depression can also affect students differently over time. Below are two key moments when students may feel overwhelmed:
1. Busy periods on your courseThe symptoms of depression can be particularly difficult to manage. Some people can be triggered when the demands of their course increase, such as leading up to and during assessments. Second-year and third-year students reported the highest rates of anxiety, loneliness, substance misuse, and thoughts of self-harm (source: University Student Mental Health Survey 2018).
Sophie emphasises the importance of speaking to your university, whenever you begin to struggle:
A University of Surrey student said they turned to the university’s dedicated support services when struggling with exam preparation:
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Check out our full revision and exam advice area.
2. Missing homeEllie’s experience above is common: the National Union of Students (NUS) says that 50-70% of new students feel homesick at some point, with symptoms being self-doubt, difficulty sleeping and frequent crying.
This passes for most students, as Ellie found:
Cardiff University’s #LetsShare campaign encourages students to speak out if they are struggling and lets them know where to get help:
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But remember….Everyone’s mental health fluctuates and can be impacted negatively by circumstances we can all face, such as stress, heartbreak and bereavement.
Natasha Devon MBE, a writer and campaigner who was formerly a government mental health champion, says:
However, if a dip in mental health continues for a long period of time, or has no outlet, then it may lead to symptoms of mental illness. For example, long-term stress can lead to panic attacks and irrational fear of everyday events, both of which are symptoms of anxiety disorder.
You may have had a period where it seems impossible that things will ever feel 'right' or 'OK'. The key thing is to seek support if things do persist...
What to do if you're depressed at university
Understanding the possible trigger points for mental ill health at university helps you realise that other students have experienced and overcome these feelings.
You’ll also be better prepared for these situations and able to seek help early, if needed.
Lisa Banks, director of student services at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), says:
Lily Green, vice president for welfare at the UCLan students' union, observes that there is a huge pressure for students to be 'perfect', and to have an 'all rounder CV'. She urges you to find out what independent support is also available at your students' union:
Telephone and online services are also available if you don’t want to speak to someone face to face. Many universities run a confidential, student-run Nightline phone service, while others – like the University of Reading – have launched a free online mental health service for students.
Lisa Banks tells us that at UCLan:
Learn more about mental health services available for students.
Prospective studentsThere are a few things you can do if you're going to uni with an existing mental health condition. Knowing in advance how the things above might exasperate how you feel along with what support is available to you, can make a positive difference. This way, if a problem does arise it's less of a shock (and asking for help might feel a little less daunting).
Support varies between universities, so it’s important to ask about these services at open days and find out what might work for you.
Alternatively, if you feel self-conscious about talking about this openly, get in touch with a university you're considering applying to via email, online chat or over the phone. A staff member will be able to tell you more and answer any questions you have.
When you arrive in freshers' week, support services should be signposted to you too at freshers' fairs, orientation sessions, social events and similar events. So make a note of what's available.
Remember to register with a GP when you start university too, so there are fewer barriers if you need advice for any health issues, mental or physical.
You can also consider living at home and going to a university that is nearby.
Learn more about a university, including student comments, satisfaction scores and graduate stats – search now
Knowing that this support exists on campus can be comforting and save you time searching for it later.
Emily, a recent Plymouth Marjon University graduate, explains why it's so important to use these services if you need them:
Check out our full guide to student mental health and wellbeing, including warning signs to spot, free services and support, and more.