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How to look after your mental health at university

Unfortunately, a lot of students experience mental health problems at university. The good news is there is plenty you can do to manage mental illness should it come your way at university, or if you already experience mental health problems.

This article isn’t meant to frighten you or make you think that mental health problems are an inevitable part of going to uni: they’re not. But the best way to fight mental illness is to make sure you’re prepared if it does come along.

What is mental illness?

Mental illness, also called mental health problems or mental health issues, covers a wide range of conditions and disorders affecting the mind. Mental health isn’t so different from physical health: just as there are many things that can go wrong with the body, there are also a whole load of problems that can affect the mind. Each one has its own symptoms and its own treatment.

Depression and anxiety is the most common mental health problem

The most common mental health problem is depression and anxiety, two problems which often go hand in hand, although these are by no means the only mental health problems faced by students. Some people have depression mainly in this winter months – this is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Others experience eating disorders such as excessive eating or not eating enough. There are lots of other, less common mental illnesses.

This article is mainly about how to deal with depression and anxiety, the two problems which most commonly affect students. One students told the Independent: “At the end of my first year, I was hit by anxiety and depression so hard that I quite simply did not know what was happening. It was like waking up to find yourself alone in the middle of the ocean.” This may sound scary, but the good news is that this student learnt to manage their symptoms and now describes themselves as a “more controlled, happy person”. Learning to cope with mental illness can actually make you a stronger, more resilient person.

Mental health problems and university

A National Union of Students survey found that eight out of 10 respondents had experienced mental health problems in the previous year. Unfortunately, mental illness is on the rise, increasing fivefold between 2006 and 2016. These figures are quite staggering, but they also serve as a reminder that if you start to experience mental health problems at university, you are not alone.

According to students, expectations about what university is supposed to be like is one major cause. One 19-year-old student from University of Manchester told The Guardian: “University was pitched to me as ‘the best years of your life’ and there is definitely an anxiety among young people to live up to that expectation”. Pressure to balance a successful academic career with an active social life can be another factor. 

What do depression and anxiety feel like? 

We all feel a bit low or nervous from time to time, and it’s normal to feel anxiety on entering a new, unfamiliar situation in life – like moving away from home to uni!

Loss of motivation and losing interest in things you are normally interested can be features of depression and anxiety

But if you find yourself feeling low, lose interest in things you usually enjoy, or stop being motivated, and these feelings persist for more than a few weeks, you may be experiencing depression and/or anxiety. Other symptoms you might experience including weight loss or gain, overwork, problems sleeping or sleeping too much, lack of energy, a loss of interest in your personal appearance and/or excessive attention to things like hygiene or cleanliness.

What should I do if I am experiencing mental illness?

If you have symptoms of depression and anxiety that last for more than a few weeks, there is plenty you can do. Remember that there is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about: what you are feeling is not unusual or strange. 

There is plenty of help on offer and the best thing to do is to ask for support instead of bottling up your feelings and trying to carry on as normal. Here are some suggestions from the NHS – remember, you can try more than one of these approaches at the same time:

  1. Start by talking to a trusted friend, family member or tutor. Talking about your mental health can make a big difference to how you feel and the person you are talking to may have personal experience they can share with you.
  2. Go to your university counselling service. They may be able to offer you free counselling sessions with trained counsellors.
  3. Find out what student-led services are on offer. This could include your university or college’s student union. There may be some information on their website – if not talk to your student union officers.
  4. Look at the NHS's mental health pages. The NHS has loads of self-help resources for mental health problems. The websites of mental health charities and organisations such as Mind and Student Minds also have lots of resources.
  5. Speak to your GP. Ask if they can refer you for NHS counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
  6. Make a self-referral for NHS help. Use the NHS Service Search to find NHS counselling and support that you can refer yourself for. Search for “psychological therapy services”.

In this video from Student Minds, students explain why it is important for students to talk about mental health:

Many people with mental health problems say practising “mindfulness” improves their symptoms, and there is some evidence to suggest that mindfulness can with mental illness. You can read more about mindfulness and how to practice it here on the Mind website.

Don’t expect instant results. You may need to work to overcome your problems. But with help from others and commitment from yourself, it’s very likely that you will be able to manage your symptoms and emerge stronger and more resilient. As one student told the Independent newspaper: “As fast as I could, I did everything possible to alleviate the pain, learning to meditate, learning about Buddhism and spirituality, talking to psychologists, friends and family, and the result is that I have become a much more controlled, happy person. But it took a long time.”

Being prepared

“Get ready: acknowledge that we are living in a mental health crisis, do your research, talk to people, meditate, exercise, whatever - just make sure you feel in control.” (Student, Independent newspaper). There are also things you can do to protect your mental health to avoid experiencing problems in the first place.

If you already have a mental health problem, it is wise to prepare for the added pressure that university might bring so you can manage any change in your symptoms when you arrive at university. Students with mental illness may be eligible for Disability Support Allowance (DSA), a payment to help with the cost of anything you need to help you manage your problem. 

Here are some steps you should take:

  1. Make a plan for dealing with mental illness at university, whether or not you have experienced mental health problems before.
  2. Work through the list above. Research provision at your college, find out about local GPs so you know where to register when you arrive at university, take a look at the NHS Service Search.
  3. If you already have a mental health problem, find out if you qualify for Disability Support Allowance or Disabled Students' Allowance.
  4. You can disclose existing mental health problems on your UCAS application, depending on the severity of your condition (check here on the UCAS site for details). Even if you don’t disclose on your UCAS form, you can contact your university or college directly. This will enable them to accommodate any needs you might have as a result of your problem.
  5. Take steps to protect your mental health: structure and limit the hours you spend working and try to be well-organised to make sure you have a study/life balance. Try to have hobbies and spend time with your friends, exercise and eat well.

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