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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.