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Looking after your mental health and wellbeing at university

Struggling with your mental health at university? ProtectED's Lucy Winrow discusses warning signs to look for, preparing for university and finding help.

There's been a 210% increase in students leaving university early because of ill mental health, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

At every stage of life, we should be mindful of our mental health. It can affect our relationships, physical health, work and studies both positively and negatively.

What can affect mental health at uni?

Many factors, concerns and anxieties can contribute to students' mental health, from everyday relationships and money matters to studies and juggling various commitments.

As part of the Which? University Student Survey 2019, students shared what they had struggled with most at university. The most common struggle was feeling lonely with over half of students saying they had experienced this (52%), while a little less than half said their course and studies (49%) and finance and money issues (45%):

Going back a year, when Which? University asked about students' experience with finance at uni, more than 30% of students said that money issues had actually negatively impacted their mental health:

If you’re struggling check out our student finance advice, including cutting your living costs and extra funding that can help you.

My university were enormously supportive when I was struggling before Christmas. They offered extensions on deadlines, one-to-one support from my tutor, support from the finance team on budgeting, and were even able to offer a £500 hardship payment which saw my family through December. First Year Student | Liverpool John Moores University | 2018

65% of recent graduates also told us that the demands of their course had, on occasion, negatively impacted their mental health or levels of stress.

While it's normal to not feel like your best self at all times, seek help if the way you're feeling is affecting your daily activities.

Worryingly, almost half of students who struggled in some way at university (see student struggles graph above), said that they didn't seek any help (Which? University Student Survey 2019).

However, on a more positive note, almost seven in ten students who did seek help from their university, were seen within two weeks (and 24% said they saw someone immediately). Sixty-two percent who sought and received help were satisfied (and almost a quarter said they were very satisfied).

Watch now: How I met my best mate at uni

Going to uni with an existing mental health condition

The thought of starting university can be daunting, but doing something you enjoy can actually improve your mental wellbeing.

With the right support network in place, your time at university can be rewarding. Mental ill health shouldn't deny you the chance to obtain a degree, make new friends or discover new places. 

The important thing is to recognise when there is a problem and to know what support is available. You can scope out a university’s support services while researching where to study. Knowing there's somewhere to turn if a problem arises can be reassuring.

  • Look on the university or student union website See what support is on offer, including who to contact.
  • Prepare a list of questions to ask You can either ask them at an open day or, if it's easier, privately via email, online chat or phone.
  • Tell the university about your condition You don't have to but, if you do disclose your condition, the university is legally required to take reasonable steps to support you during your studies. In some cases, you'll be allocated a mental health mentor who can create a personal support plan and advocate for you if you experience difficulties  for example, they can help arrange a deadline extension.
  • Register with a GP when you arrive No, it's not the most fun thing you could be doing in freshers' week, but it can save you time if you need help later. Find your nearest GP on the NHS Choices website
  • Get free, confidential counselling throughout university This is something all students are entitled to. Some unis collaborate with local health services and charities to enhance student support. For example, universities in Sheffield work with SYEDA to offer talking therapies to students with eating disorders. A team at Durham University meet regularly with local NHS services.
  • Find out if your university is accredited for its student support Recently launched, ProtectED is the first national accreditation scheme for student safety, security and wellbeing. Only universities judged to meet a certain standard will be awarded accreditation.


What if I begin to struggle at university?

Seek help early if you do experience a problem with your mental health at university. Waiting or trying to handle things alone can make things worse.

Contact student services at your university or speak to a tutor that you get on with. You can also discuss with your GP, or a mental health mentor if you've been allocated one. We've signposted more services below.

Remember, you don't need to have a diagnosed mental health condition to benefit from counselling.

Only recently have I been diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression, but the uni dealt with [it] straight away, referring me to counselling, making sure I have regular check ups and referring me to the support and wellbeing team. Second Year Student | Roehampton University | 2018
[I received] mental health support through university for existing disabilities. [They] continued to be helpful and compassionate. Second Year Student | Bath Spa University | 2018

How to spot the warning signs

The NHS website lists some common signs of depression and anxiety, including 'feeling low or more anxious or agitated than usual, or losing interest in life or motivation'.

While you may still be getting to know the friends you've made at university, look out for those: 

  • not going to lectures
  • looking tired or being unable to sleep
  • putting on or losing weight
  • becoming withdrawn – avoiding social events or being unusually quiet or antisocial
  • not maintaining appearance to the same standard.

This isn't an exhaustive list - but it could offer some early warning signs. Student Minds offer guidance on supporting a friend who is struggling.

Maintaining your wellbeing at university

More universities are recognising the importance of maintaining good mental wellbeing through some simple activities:

  • University of Aberdeen’s ‘pet therapy’ programme helps new students settle in and deal with homesickness.
  • Therapy dogs are a regular feature to help students combat stress at UCL, Aberystwyth, Huddersfield and Sussex universities.
  • Liverpool John Moores University's 'Wellbeing Week' includes free alternative therapy treatments, walking tours and 'Mental Health First Aid' sessions.
  • Recognising that exam time can be especially stressful, Leeds University Union offers relaxation spaces with free refreshments, pottery classes and meditation workshops.

Struggling with revision? Get study tips and learn how to stay calm in exams.

Making friends and socialising can also improve your mental wellbeing at university. Things feel easier if you have people to talk to, share problems with and, importantly, have fun with.

If you're worried about meeting new people, which is a very common concern among new students, join online groups for your course or halls, and introduce yourself before you arrive. It can make your first day at uni less daunting if you've already been chatting.

Bond with others over a common interest, whether that's Harry Potter, rugby or playing music. Freshers' week is the perfect time to find out what's available via the societies and clubs fair


Essential support services

In addition to services offered through your GP and university, there are a number of alternatives to go to for immediate or anonymous support:

  • Nightline is a student-run listening service that offers confidential support by phone, email, online chat or face-to-face.
  • Mind’s online community Elefriends is available to join. Here you can share experiences with fellow members and seek advice from trained forum moderators.
  • Student Minds, the student mental health charity, has a website packed with advice for dealing with a wide range of mental health issues. It can also provide a list of cheap and free alternative counselling services in your area.
  • Students Against Depression can help you create a personalised action plan to work your way out of depression.
  • Papyrus – an organisation dedicated to the prevention of young suicide – can offer phone, email and text support if you experience suicidal thoughts.

Lucy Winrow, ProtectED

About Lucy

The Uni Guide provides guest spots to external contributors. Lucy Winrow is a researcher who works with academics at the University of Salford on the ProtectED project, a new accreditation scheme assessing university support services.

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