Seven Ways to Look After Your Mental Health at University: A Guide for Students and Parents

Six weeks into the beginning of his first year at university, Christopher* started struggling. His mood was plummeting, his motivation disappeared, his feeling of isolation grew, and he started missing lectures. He approached me - his Guidance Tutor -  and I referred him to both his GP and the university counselling service. His pattern of behaviour– low mood, crushing anxiety, lack of concentration and difficulty sleeping–led to a diagnosis of General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Depression.

 REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

Although a little anxious before arriving at university, he didn’t have any previous serious mental health symptoms. However, in the changing circumstances he found himself struggling as his anxiety spiralled out of control. I couldn’t help thinking if he had come to see me sooner, we may have avoided his later severe symptoms.

The sport science student, who successfully overcame his diagnosis and completed his degree, had help from the students’ union, local NHS Trust, and university department, which gave him allowed time off from the course: “They did everything in their power to help me, I just wish I had talked to someone about it sooner, before it got out of control. "

 

University Students and Mental Health

Struggling with mental health at university is not uncommon.  A report issued by The Higher Education Policy think-tank outlined that some universities need to treble how much they spend on mental health support, and that one in 10 students has a “diagnosable mental illness”. It’s estimated that 75% of mental health problems start before the age of 24, so getting help as early as possible is crucial, particularly before minor symptoms deteriorate into more serious clinical problems. Early intervention can change a young person’s experience of university and have a positive impact on the rest of their life.  

The report calls for more support for students with problems such as depression, anxiety and loneliness, warning that the number of student suicides has risen. Universities struggle to cope with the scale of the rising problem while at the same time providing inadequate funding for counselling and mental health services.


Why Are Students Vulnerable?

While starting university can be very exciting, there are a number of issues that can contribute to mental health problems, especially for new students — they move to a new part of the country, lose the established support networks of friends and family, start sharing living space with strangers, have to deal with higher academic standards,  and take on large debt — all at the same time.

When seeking help with problems, students can find it difficult to access support as universities often underfund their counselling services and, in the U.K., the NHS does not recognise how vulnerable students are. Then there is the added problem of inconsistent care between term-time and holidays as students move between two different areas and different GPs and health authorities.

Figures from a leading US university suggest that demand for counselling there was even higher. Among students starting university at Harvard, almost one in five had already received counselling. The US figures suggested the likelihood of counselling increased among students from wealthier families.

Much of the burden of responsibility for duty of care towards students often falls upon academic staff. These lecturers and researchers are, more often than not, not qualified to deal with mental health problems (and neither should they be), but find that support for the students is lacking elsewhere due to underfunded resources and a failure of universities to recognise the scale of the problem.

It’s not just universities that need to look at the funding and structures of their mental health support, the U.K government also needs to look at how it has created a perfect storm of financial and academic pressure on our young people, while also underfunding and stripping away healthcare and mental health resources. Universities are now starting to take note and invest more in their wellbeing services as a link between mental health and drop-out rates are becoming apparent.

However, there are a number of strategies that you can put in place to help protect your mental health when you move away to university.

 

Seven Ways to Look after Your Mental Health at University

  • If you are struggling with your mental health, or have a diagnosed condition before you start university, it would be advisable to register with a GP local to the university and give the university permission to contact a nominated parent or guardian that university can talk to if needed.

  • If you develop a mental health issues after you start your course, you should contact your GP and also the university’s wellbeing service or your personal tutor. All students are allocated a tutor that is responsible for pastoral support. The sooner you ask for support the better the possible outcome. Don’t delay in telling someone responsible about how you feel - only then can homesickness, workload issues, and other personal difficulties be addressed. Talking is essential, and talking early is key.

  • Your personal tutor will be able to help you with practical things like arranging extensions for coursework. Don’t be afraid to contact them, one of the biggest complaints amongst staff I worked with was that students don’t contact them early on when they need help.

  • Make friends, but don’t panic if this doesn’t happen straight away. You won’t necessarily make friends in the first week. Attend student societies and activities where you’ll meet like-minded people. After a few weeks on your course you should also find some friends as faces start to become familiar as the weeks go by.

  • Talk to others about how you’re feeling, including friends and personal tutors – don’t bottle it all up. Ask your friends, too, how they’re feeling. You’ll be surprised how many other students are feeling the same way as you but are too afraid to raise the subject. Try to develop a culture of openness.

  • Take an occasional break from the university campus. There’s no harm in going home at weekends if you’re missing your family, or discovering other parts of your new town or city.

  • Build a strong foundation and make sure the building blocks for good mental health are in place. Self-care is very important. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and are eating proper meals, rather than just fast food and energy drinks. Don’t drink too much alcohol, this can exacerbate mental health problems.

 

Useful External Resources

Nightline - If you’d like support from your peers, you can contact Nightline, a night-time telephone support service staffed by student volunteers.

Student Minds - A UK student mental health charity with numerous online resources.

Samaritans - Provide around the clock support and can be contacted in the UK on 116 123 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org.

Mind - A charity that provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. Call them on 0300 123 3393 or visit mind.org.uk

*Name has been changed.

Books image for blog.png

My books: Overcome Anxiety and Overcome Social Anxiety and Shyness are available on Amazon in the U.K. and the U.S.A.

My Online Course: Overcome Anxiety and Panic Attacks — A Self Help Workbook Course for Anxiety Relief and Panic Attacks is available at a discounted price on Udemy by using this link

 

 

4 Practical Exercises to Help Manage Uncomfortable Thoughts and Anxious Thinking

One of the most effective ways we can manage unhelpful thoughts and feelings is by using a psychological tool called ‘defusion’, a technique from a mindfulness based approach to helping anxiety called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  In this article I will describe what defusion is and then outline four practical defusion exercises that can help you to manage anxiety, and more specifically anxious thoughts.

Read More

How to Use Intentions to Change Your Life

When working with individuals who want to improve their confidence or stop anxiety from holding them back, I often talk about the power of intentions. Although often overlooked, the intentions we choose at the start of the day can lead to major changes, forming or reinforcing mental habits that impact on our lives. We can use intentions to change the way others perceive us, decide how we will treat others, and shape our actions in specific situations.

In this post I will explain two different types of intentions and take you through an exercise that can dramatically change the way others see you. This exercise can bring positive results for everyone, but will be particularly helpful for those who struggle with social anxiety.

Read More

Lessons in Kindness and Humanity from a Legal Sex Worker

I often talk about the power of setting daily intentions to help shape our attitudes and behaviour for the day ahead. Although often overlooked, the intentions we choose at the start of the day can lead to major changes, forming or reinforcing mental habits that positively impact on our lives over time. We can use intentions to change the way others perceive us, decide how we are going to treat others, and shape our actions in specific situations. 

One of the daily intentions that I set is to be present and kind with the people I meet. I don’t always succeed with everyone everyday, but I have found that it’s opened up life in ways that I never expected and also helps to reduce my stress and anxiety. I also keep in mind that not everyone I meet will be kind towards me. I’m not living in cloud-cuckoo-land. When people are rude, angry, or selfish, I remind myself that I have no idea what is happening in their world, let it go, and silently wish them well anyway. When this happens I’ve taught myself to pause and ask myself, “What happened to this person?" We are all a sum of our genetics and experiences. The small gap of awareness this gives you is enough to appreciate that we can’t control how other people react to us and makes it easier to let it go. 

So what has this got to do with a legal sex worker?

Read More

Trying to 'Fix' Your Social Anxiety? You Could Be Making It Worse

When we’re looking to overcome our social anxiety, we often focus intensely on ourselves as we try to find a solution. This is understandable as anxiety is an individual state. When feeling anxious it seems reasonable to think we should focus our attention inwards in order to ‘work’ on ourselves and assess how effective the strategies and exercises are in helping us. However, while some self-evaluation is necessary — we do need to know what’s working after all — intense self-focus has also been shown to be harmful to wellbeing.

Read More

How to Influence the Way Other People See You

This is an exercise that I used to regularly do with students entering their first year of university, but it can work for people of all ages.

Students often worry about how they are perceived by the large numbers of new people they meet when they first arrive. Indeed, a large part of their self-identity is wrapped up in the the way they think others view them and this can cause considerable social anxiety.

Read More

Coping with Anxiety Caused by a Terror Attack

Western Europe has again been hit by a major terror attack, and in the ever shrinking global village that we live in, the ripples of fear spread far and wide. Even when the attack does not happen in their local area or country, many people still find that the events leave them feeling anxious. So, how should we cope with our feelings in the days and weeks following a terror attack that we didn’t personally experience?

Read More

How to Stop the News Making You Anxious While Staying Informed

Our human negativity bias, a survival strategy inherited from our early ancestors, who lived in very dangerous environments, naturally draws our attention to negative news stories. This is why negative stories dominate the media and why we feel compelled to watch, listen and read. So it’s natural to want to follow updates of political turmoil, terrorist events, violence, shootings, and war, both on television and social media. However, repeated exposure to trauma by the media can have as similar an impact as experiencing the event first-hand. So what do we need to be aware about when assessing our media diet?

Read More

Panicking About Panic: How to reduce the power of panic attacks and eliminate future episodes

Panic attacks can last from anywhere between thirty seconds to thirty minutes and can be so distressing sufferers sometimes have the feeling they are losing control or about to die. The experience can be one of extreme agitation, terror, fury, or immobilisation, accompanied by extreme symptoms of the fight, flight, or freeze response; racing heart, rapid breathing, trembling, shaking, nausea, numbness, tight chest, difficulty swallowing, and hot flushes or chills. Episodes can return in waves, are frightening and often exhausting.

Read More

Feeling Anxious? Don’t Calm Down, Get Excited

The student sitting outside my office was shaking like a leaf, breathing quickly, and stuttering over her words. She was due to make a presentation in 15 minutes to lecture theatre packed with students. To add to the pressure, the presentation was being assessed and marked by her tutor, and would contribute to her final degree grade.

She was surrounded by a number of well meaning friends who were telling her to ‘calm down.’ Unfortunately, telling someone to ‘calm down’ when they are feeling anxious is about the worst thing you can say to them. It just reminds them of how calm they are not, which can escalate their anxiety even further.

Read More

How To Make Meditation a Daily Habit When You’ve Failed Before

There are very few people I know of who manage to meditate on a regular basis. This even includes people who teach and write about meditation. I had the same problem, I’d have days, and sometimes weeks, when I didn’t meditate, despite wanting to and being all too aware of the benefits.

So how do you make the practice of meditation so compelling that it is self-sustaining? I’d suggest that every day you plan to do less than you can. So do less formal practice than you are capable of.

Read More

The Most Popular Exercise I Taught at University

As part of a health psychology module in the undergraduate degree at the university where I taught, we covered positive psychology, mindfulness and acceptance. One of the most powerful workshops we used to do with the students was the experiential practice of meditating on others.

I‘m routinely met with cynicism from students about meditation and in particular this type of loving kindness meditation. They were mainly sports students, predominantly interested in what they could gain for their own performances from the more traditional types of sport psychology like mental toughness, confidence and a cultivating a winning mindset (don’t worry we taught them about that too!). However, I used to get more response from students about the following practice than I did from any other exercise that we taught, many of them surprised by the difference it has made to their lives.

Read More

Don't Let Anxiety Stop You Doing The Things You Value

A lecture theatre of around 200 students were staring at me in awkward silence. They’d stopped mumbling to each other and were no longer taking sneaky glances at their phones hidden away from view. I was standing before them in the middle of a panic attack.

It had been a busy day and I’d taken a glance at my lecture notes earlier, feeling reasonably confident about the lecture I was going to deliver. I’d done it a few times before, and I thought I had a good handle on the new research that I’d added to this semester’s session.

Read More

Why Well-Being Programmes Often Don’t Work in Big Business

I walked on the ground floor of the eight story building and watched banks of human beings wearing headsets, glued to their chairs, staring at computer screens, answering call after call.

“Good morning, you’re speaking to Adam. How can I help you?”

“Good morning, you’re speaking to Sarah. How can I help you?”

“Good morning, you’re speaking to Melissa. How can I help you?”

“Good morning, you’re speaking to Mark. How can I help you?”

“Good morning, you’re speaking to Amy. How can I help you?”

The room was well lit but almost completely devoid of natural light. “The problem”, one of the managers told me, “is that they are taking calls from stressed, angry, upset, and often aggressive people all day long. We’re finding that after a while they become anxious, stressed, unhappy and then leave. Our turnover rate is just too high. We have good facilities, drinks and snack machines, kitchens on each floor, and a staff canteen, but it doesn’t make any difference. We need to increase their resilience, help them to become mentally stronger, and stop them from leaving. That’s where you come in.”

Read More

Medicating Anxiety: Should I take Anxiety Pills? Pros, Cons, Side Effects, and Consequences

Medication can play an important role in overcoming anxiety, particularly in helping to cope with the symptoms of anxiety. The approach this book has suggested is that we should face our anxiety and fears in order to change the structure and function of the brain, along with our thinking and behaviour. Build a solid foundation, calm the mind, deal with action thoughts and feelings, and take action.  Avoiding situations or tasks that make us anxious keeps us stuck in old patterns. When we do this life can become a vicious circle of anxiety-based thinking behaviour.  Medication can help us to cope at times, but it isn’t designed to change our brain, the way we think, or what actions we take. It is normally used to remove or reduce severe suffering in the short-term.  

Read More

My Love / Hate Relationship with Meditation (and how I do it)

I really struggled with the image of meditation. I still do. The meditation pose, those images of meditation stones stacked up on top of each other, normally on a beach. The way guided meditations tend to start and end with one of those meditation bells. How audio mediations always seem have panpipe music playing in the background. I didn’t like how it was marketed to businesses as a way of increasing performance and shifting the bottom line, and particularly when used on corporate well-being programmes in an attempt to make up for bad business practises and structures, and poor treatment of staff.

Read More

Not all Snowflakes: Student Mental Health is a Real Issue for British and American Universities

A report issued today by The Higher Education Policy think-tank outlined that some universities need to treble how much they spend on mental health support, and that one in 10 students has a “diagnosable mental illness”. The report calls for more support for students who have problems such as depression, anxiety and loneliness, warning that the number of student suicides has risen. Universities struggle to cope with the scale of the rising problem, while at the same time providing inadequate funding for counselling and mental health services.

Read More

Without This Key Ingredient Life Will Never Be Good

Getting enough sleep is crucial to both our physical and mental health. We can implement every other mental and physical health strategy to perfection, but if we’re not getting enough sleep we will never be at our best.

Research indicates that sufficient sleep has a large positive effect on a whole host of physical and mental aspects of our health, including: emotion regulation, cognitive thinking, decision making, attention, memory, and it also plays a large role in protecting the immune system. Until recently we have known very little about what happens in the brain when we sleep, and although we still have much to learn, we are starting to understand more about what happens when we go to bed at night.

Read More