Mental health at university: signs someone may be struggling and where to go for support

NationalWorld speaks to experts about the signs which show someone may be struggling with mental health at university and where students can go for support

University can be an exciting time, with the opportunity to meet new people, learn new skills and immerse yourself in student life.

But being away from home and studying for a degree can also be difficult at times, with this having the potential to take its toll on mental health.

A National Union of Students survey carried out in November 2020 found over half of students say their mental health is worse than before the Covid-19 pandemic. While the Sutton Trust reported in February this year that 70% of students were concerned about their mental health and wellbeing.

The Sutton Trust report also showed  21% of students are still unaware of what support is available to them.

A 2019 survey carried out by Unite and the Higher Education Policy Institute revealed the situation regarding students’ mental health was already fragile pre-pandemic. It reported that 17% of students said they had a mental health condition, but just over half had told their university.

NationalWorld speaks to experts about the signs which show someone may be struggling and where students can go for mental health support.

‘We all struggle’

Jennifer Russell, COO of mental health support network TalkLife says although there are documented warning signs someone is struggling, “many of us also fail to realise that we’re struggling ourselves or do a great job of hiding it, so it’s not always black and white”.

She advises approaching “everyone with empathy” as “we all struggle and making space to connect with someone, ask them how they’re really doing and taking the time to listen to their response without being distracted is a great place to start”.

Ms Russell notes when meeting a lot of new people, which is common at university, it can be hard to know if someone is behaving out of character and to notice when things aren’t alright.

On the flip side, it’s also hard to open up to new people, explains Ms Russell.

“Making the effort to try and being aware that some people might be finding things hard, even if they don’t show it, is a good place to start,” she says.

“Be honest with yourself too, are you really okay? It’s normal to feel different emotions but if your gut is telling you that you’re not doing so well listen to it and give yourself permission to get some support.”

GP, author and student mental health and well-being expert, Dr. Dominique Thompson has teamed up with, to launch Student well-being: a guide to building better mental health in university.

Although studying and partying seem to go hand in hand for many when at university, Dr Thompson notes it’s important to be able to recognise when drinking habits are becoming problematic.

She said unhealthy drinking patterns “can creep up on you”, especially when surrounded by a culture of drinking.

Dr Thompson explains that with some recent studies suggesting mental health was a key reason for increased alcohol consumption under lockdown, it’s worth “exploring if and why you may be using alcohol to cope with wider mental health issues”.

She said if you feel as though you have become dependent on alcohol, you should “remember that you are not alone,” but speak to your GP or contact organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Dr. Amanda Gummer, psychologist, parenting expert and founder of The Good Play Guide also highlights the impact alcohol can have on mental health, as she notes 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 says.

Where to go for support with mental health

If you are struggling with mental health at university, there are a wide number of places where you can seek support from, including wellbeing and counselling services at your institution, your local GP or health services.

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.

Ms Khan also notes 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.

You can also reach out to the YoungMinds charity text line by texting YM to 85258 for support from their trained volunteers.

You can also look for counselling support privately, with many offering online sessions and discounted rates for students.

TalkLife runs TalkCampus, which provides students at partner universities and colleges a place to connect anonymously online with students from around the world to give and get support.

Ms Russell explains “peer support can be a great way to take those first steps to support seeking and see that you’re really not alone.”

She adds: “Talking to someone that you trust is also something we would encourage anyone who is struggling to do.”

The NHS website also notes 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.