Mental health at university: ‘Don’t be afraid to reach out’

Going to University can be a nerve-wracking experience for many, with some students worrying about their course, making friends and settling into a new environment

Young adults across the UK will be preparing to embark on the next stage of their lives over the upcoming weeks, packing their bags and heading off to university.

But with many students about to head away from home for the first time, how might this big change impact their mental health - and what support is in place?

‘Moving away to study is a really big deal on so many fronts’

Packing up your childhood home, buying new pots and pans and textbooks ready to begin university can be an exciting time.

But it will also be a nerve-wracking experience for many, with students worrying about their course, making friends and settling into a new environment.

Dr. Amanda Gummer, psychologist, parenting expert and founder of The Good Play Guide says that although you may be worried about starting university and making new friends, this isn’t unusual as “there are thousands of people of all different shapes and sizes to meet who are all in the same boat as you”.

But she notes having a social support network “is really important for our mental health and wellbeing,” so making an effort to talk to people, whether this is while waiting outside lecture rooms, with your new flatmates or by joining any clubs and societies you’re interested in, can help with this.

Keeping in touch with friends and family can also help keep that support network in place.

Physical health can also have a big impact on mental health and Dr Gummer explains it’s  important to take care of this.

She says: “When you move out by yourself for the first time it is oh-so tempting to live off of instant noodles and coffee, pull all-nighters, and sit in your room gaming or working without screen breaks.”

However, you should “do your best to eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of water, and get lots of exercise,” explains Dr Gummer.

She also said if you find yourself struggling with anxiety or depression you should be aware of drinking alcohol.

“This can feel like a key part of university life but it’s also a depressant that can really bring you down over time,” she adds.

Jennifer Russell, COO of mental health support network TalkLife, also reiterates the impact such a big change can have on new students, especially while still in the midst of the pandemic.

She says: “Moving away to study is a really big deal on so many fronts. Not only are students this year contending with the challenges and excitement of living a student life, they are doing it with a global pandemic still very much impacting the world.

“The pressures of feeling like you need to succeed and have the time of your life are real but the reality is often a little different and that can be hard to manage.

“Likewise, when you first move away you might also be leaving behind your traditional support structure and routine and that can have an impact on mental health.”

GP, author and student mental health and well-being expert, Dr. Dominique Thompson, who has teamed up with to launch a Student well-being: a guide to building better mental health in university, also builds on Ms Russell’s points about the pressures new university students can face.

Dr Thompson says this can include financial worries and “the pressures that arise from the performative nature of social media”, both of which can have a negative impact on mental health.

In regards to the latter, she says “the pressure to be seen to be making the most of your university experience, especially for ‘freshers’, can lead to students making harmful or negative comparisons between their lives and the lives of other students they see online”.

“After a year of social isolation for many, there is huge potential for these feelings to be sharper than ever,” Dr Thompson adds.

‘Don’t be afraid to reach out and seek support for your mental health if you need it’

If you are struggling with mental health at university, there are a wide number of places where you can seek support from.

Sara Khan, NUS’ Vice President for Liberation and Equality, says students who need support at university can usually speak to their students’ unions, especially if they run a student advice service, where specially trained advisors can help you out and direct you to the right place.

She also said many people find support from the activity they get involved in, which “can make such a positive impact on your mental health to connect with people that share your experiences and be part of a community,” especially through “joining liberation campaigns such as those for students of colour, LGBT+ students, Disabled students, Women students and Trans students”.

Some campuses also have counselling services which students can access for mental health support, but Ms Khan notes this often centres around issues such as exam stress, so “while we would certainly encourage students to access this service we would also encourage them to make use of their local NHS mental health services”.

Ms Khan also said if students experience mental illness and are registered with a local GP, then they should be able to register with their university’s disability services in order to access tailored support with study and assessment that meets their needs.

Stevie Goulding, parents helpline manager at YoungMinds says their advice to young people who are struggling at university “is to stay connected with the people you trust”.

She adds: “If you’re worried about what’s going on, contact your university and see if they can offer you any reassurance.

“Going to university can be overwhelming, so don’t be afraid to reach out and seek support for your mental health if you need it. If you’re struggling you can also reach out to the YoungMinds textline by texting YM to 85258 for support from our trained volunteers.”

The NHS website also highlights a wide range of services offering help with mental health issues.

Anyone can also contact the Samaritans for free at any time from any phone on 116 123, even a mobile without credit. This number won’t show up on your phone bill. Or you can email [email protected] or visit the Samaritans website.