Going to university is an experience that sparks a huge life change. For many, heading to a new city, meeting new people and changing routines is a rite of passage into adulthood. While exciting, this change can also be stressful and overwhelming, having a direct impact on your mental health.
Experiencing mental health issues at university is not uncommon. In fact, it’s becoming an increasingly frequent complaint. A survey by YouGov in 2016 showed that 27% of students reported having a mental health problem of one type or another. Add academic pressure and a global pandemic into the mix, and more students than ever are struggling to cope.
But suffering with mental health problems can be managed, even in times like these. In this article we’ll talk you through the common causes of poor mental health at university, the signs to look out for, and what you can do to keep yourself as mentally healthy as possible. We’ll also explore how the current pandemic is affecting students’ mental health, and what you can do to cope during this difficult time.
If your mental health is suffering, you’re not alone
Starting university can be difficult, and if you’re feeling low, it’s important you know that it’s not unusual. Big changes and increased academic pressure are enough to make anyone feel stressed, which is why as a student, you’re statistically more vulnerable to mental health issues.
Recent studies show that more than a quarter of students suffer with a mental health issue, and this is a trend that’s rising. When surveyed in 2005, only 3,000 first year students reported mental health issues, compared with 15,000 who took part in the same survey just 10 years later. This trend is also mirrored by an increase in demand for university counselling services over the same time period.
If you’re female or part of the LGBT+ community, a study from YouGov shows that you're eleven times more likely to suffer with mental health problems.
Potential contributors to poor mental health
As a student, there are lots of reasons why you’re vulnerable to mental health illnesses. The YouGov report shows that 71% of students find university work the biggest contributor to stress, followed by the pressure and worry of finding a job after university.
There are other contributing factors that might affect you, such as financial worries, concerns around tuition fees and the social aspects of university life. Since the coronavirus outbreak, isolation has also become a larger contributing factor.
First year students and mental health
If you’re a first year student, you’re even more susceptible to mental health issues. A lot of this is due to big change. The change from living at home and going to school or college, to moving to a new city and studying at a more advanced level and one that requires self-motivation is a huge one. It’s normal if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
In fact, a WHO study in 2018 showed that one in three first-year university students report symptoms of a mental health disorder, with the challenging transition from secondary school to university cited as a key reason. High tuition fees leading to “higher stakes” for students was also a key factor among first year students.
Signs that you may need extra support
If you’re feeling lower than normal but you’re not sure if there’s a more serious mental health condition you need to address, there are some key indications you can look out for. Knowing the signs of a mental health condition will help you understand your own mental health or the mental health of fellow students.
Symptoms vary, but there are a number of indicators of poor mental health*. These include:
consistent low mood
feeling easily overwhelmed
finding it hard to make decisions
lack of interest in day-to-day activities
tiredness and lack of energy
sleeping more or less than normal
talking less and avoiding social activities
talking more or talking very fast, jumping between topics and ideas
finding it difficult to control your emotions
drinking or using drugs more
irritability and short temper
being easily distracted
While these symptoms can apply to lots of different conditions, they offer a good way to identify an underlying problem with mental health. It doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re not sure what mental illness you or a friend are suffering from.
If you notice any of the above signs in yourself or in someone else, it might be time to reach out for some support.
If you want more in depth indicators of specific mental health issues, this guide is a great resource to identify symptoms by various conditions.
*This information is provided as guidance and if you are concerned about your mental health, please seek advice from a health professional.
The most common types of mental health issues for students
While there are lots of mental health conditions that affect students, there are some key conditions that are more common. Depression and anxiety are responsible for the majority of student mental health crises, with the YouGov study showing, 77% of students suffer from depression-related problems, and 74% from anxiety related problems. More than often, these two conditions go hand in hand, with 74% of students saying that they suffer from both illnesses at the same time.
Aside from depression and anxiety, eating disorders are also an issue, affecting 14% of students who state they have mental health issues.
Be aware that you’re more susceptible to these conditions. This may help you identify them quicker if you start to present symptoms.
Where to get support for mental illness at university
While there has been an increase in mental health issues within the student community, there has also been an increase in university mental health services offering support.
No matter where you are, it’s likely that your university will have a department for mental health that offers a range of services to choose from. These can vary from counselling, peer support networks or online support.
These services actually have good satisfaction levels across the UK so you should definitely give them a go. The YouGov study showed that the satisfaction levels of university mental health services are relatively high, with 30% saying that they found the service very helpful and a further 45% saying they were somewhat helpful.
There are other options available, too. Student Minds is the UK’s student mental health charity, and offers a wide range of online resources and support for students.
And, if you’re at the University of London, or any other university in London, there are lots of options for you. Firstly, you have Nightline, a support service designed for residential students. It’s an anonymous listening and information service run by students in London, for students in London. You can also head to the Student Counselling & Mental Health Service, a service that offers confidential psychological and practical support to UOL students.
Lastly, for University of London students, there is also TalkCampus. This is designed for flexible learning students or those studying remotely, and is an app-based peer support network for students. All you need to do is head to the 'Wellbeing' tab in your Student Portal for more information.
Managing mental health during a pandemic
On top of the aforementioned stresses and worries that provoke mental health problems in students, we are now living through a global pandemic that can cause very high levels of stress and anxiety. While this is affecting the mental health of many people, students and young people have been particularly affected.
Greater isolation, worrying about the future, less social connection and the mourning of a typical university experience, are just some of the contributors leading to a breakdown in student’s mental health.
A survey by YoungMinds has shown that 83% of young people think that the pandemic has worsened their pre-existing mental health conditions, mainly due to school or university closures, loss of routine, and restricted social connections. So, if you’re feeling worse than you did before, remember: you’re not alone.
But there is support designed specifically to help students through the pandemic. Student Minds has created a guide called, “University and your wellbeing during coronavirus” which is full of resources designed to help you cope with, and make the most of, university life while living through the pandemic.
Tips for students to nurture mental health during the pandemic
Things are tough at the moment. But knowing this can help you be proactive when it comes to protecting your mental health, especially if you know you’re more susceptible to mental illness.
There are lots of ways you can nurture your mental health while at university and living through the pandemic at the same time. While some of them may sound dull, they have been proven to help support consistently good mental health, so try to incorporate them in your day to day routines.
1. Always get enough sleep
As a student, we understand that you're prone to not sleeping very much, but getting enough sleep is crucial to keeping your mental health in check. We’re not saying “no” to late nights, but try to have regular sleeping routines throughout the week at least.
2. Eat well and often
Student budgets don’t mean you can’t eat well, and getting enough a good balanced diet is proven to help your mind stay healthy. Going too long without eating can also impact your mental health, so try to get into a routine of eating three meals a day. And, without sounding too parental: eat your fruit and vegetables!
3. Keep connected to your friends and families
Now more than ever, you need to make sure you keep in contact with your loved ones. While you might not be able to do this in person, it’s important to keep in regular contact via phone, text messages and video calls. This will keep you from feeling too lonely when, and if, times get tougher. Keeping an active emotional support network is key for your wellbeing.
And, when it comes to university life, try forming a small social bubble with fellow students who you can see regularly without having to socially distance. Check in on each other, and offer support to other students. This will help you feel less isolated throughout the pandemic.
4. Keep active
Getting regular exercise is key to maintaining good mental health, and can be done both outdoors and indoors - it’s lockdown proof! Make exercise a part of your routine while at university and you’ll be doing wonders for your mental health.
If you’re at University of London, you can also explore the fitness resources from EnergyBase gym. While they’re closed at the moment, you can follow their online exercise classes on their youtube channel.
5. Learn a new skill
While you’ve got more time on your hands, it’s a great opportunity to take up a hobby or learn a new skill. Crocheting, sewing, drawing, dancing - these are all things that keep your mind active and busy, while also helping you develop confidence and skills to protect you against poor mental health.
6. Be kind to yourself
Things are hard at the moment, so don’t get down on yourself if you’re struggling. The most important thing is to keep talking to people about how you feel, and reach out if it’s all getting too much. And remember, there is always someone who will be able to help you.
Support from the Student Central Team
We know it’s not going to be a normal university year this year, but we’re here to support you in making the most of it by staying healthy and happy.
If you’re at the University of London, remember to head to TalkCampus or Nightline if you’re feeling low - someone will help you.