Looking after your mental health when starting university

The thought of starting uni, divebombing into Freshers' Week, and exploring newfound independence can be utterly thrilling, but even the most confident students can struggle with their mental health. We spoke to Student Minds to ask why and grab some tips.

three friends sitting down laughing

Keep sharing how you're feeling and you'll find you're not alone.

Hooray for uni!

You did it! You’re going to university. Well bloody done. You’re now either off your face on Wetherspoons wine at 11am, frantically trying to claim your first-choice accommodation, or Googling the nearest Subway that you can crawl into at 3am after finishing an essay the night before the deadline … probably.  

You’re probably also feeling a lot of mixed emotions. Excited? Nervous? Curious? Sad? “Pfft, absolutely not,” you claim. “I am completely confident and buzzing for student life.” 

Ok, that’s great. But university can affect your mental health in numerous ways so it’s best to be prepared. 

Why could starting university affect your mental health? 

“Times of transition and change can be challenging for anyone’s mental health,” Rachel Piper, policy manager at Student Minds, a mental health charity for students, says. “You will be moving away from your established support networks of friends and family, and whilst this may be refreshing for some, for others this may be challenging.” 

In 2014, Student Minds carried out research into the challenges for students’ mental health, and these are the main areas they pinpointed:  

  • Independent living: Nobody else to wake you up and having to be your own PA. 
  • Housing: Finding accommodation, living with strangers, dealing with landlords, and beautiful rent. 
  • Classic homesicknessMissing home and coping with a culture shift depending on where you’ve moved to. 
  • Peer pressure: Drink, drugs, and sex. 
  • Academic pressure: Increase in workload, different ways of learning, various ways of testing, and learning independently.  
  • Life after uni: Getting the best grades for better job prospects, where to even find a job, what kind of job, moving back home, never earning enough money t- OH GOD THE STRESS. 
  • Student fees: Student Finance, seeking scholarships and grants, budgeting, and that big ol’ debt on your shoulders when you graduate. 

Um, is there anything I can do to make sure I’m ok? 

There’s no concrete way to stop a mental health dip from making an appearance, but Rachel has some tips that may help you be kind to your mental health, no matter how you’re doing: 

  • Look after your physical health: Yes, Freshers can be full of drinking and kebabs, but try and get a good routine with sleep, water, and decent food-that-doesn’t-make-you-groggy afterwards.  
  • Join societies and take opportunities: Explore hobbies and ‘extracurricular activities’, as your old teachers would say, when you move down to get yourself involved and busy (but don’t wear yourself out). 
  • Plan visits home: You might not feel like you need one, but putting in plans may subconsciously make you feel more at ease. 
  • Talk about how you’re feeling more than usual: Not only is this good practice anyway, but it will keep you aware and engaged in how you’re doing. 
  • Go full steam on self-care: Moving to university can be busy in every way so while it’s good to get stuck in, make sure you take time for yourself too.  

What unhealthy signs in my behaviour should I look out for? 

Everyone’s mental health is different, but keep an eye on any changes in your behaviour that may be negatively affecting your daily life. 

You might feel: 

  • Persistently down and sad  
  • Consistently anxious  
  • Teary (more than a bit of homesickness) 
  • Irritable  
  • Worthless 

Some behaviours to look out for could be: 

  • Staying in your room all day 
  • Finding it difficult to shower or get dressed 
  • Ignoring friends and family 
  • Changes in eating patterns 
  • Missing lectures and deadlines 
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much 
  • Loss of interest in socialising or your hobbies 

I’m struggling, what should I do? 

“At this stage, it’s not important to know exactly your diagnosis,” Rachel says. “But it is important to seek help – make an appointment to see your GP or university counsellor.”  

It can seem easier said than done, but hopefully by preparing yourself you’ll feel able to tackle anything. When you move to university, sign up with your university or local GP as soon as possible. Research your university’s student support services and find out what they offer and where they’re based. 

Remember, you don’t have to go through this on your own. Rachel reminds us that opening up to someone is often the most relieving step. She adds: “Remember that if the first person that you speak to isn’t receptive, others will be.”  

Don’t give up, you’re being brave even by acknowledging you need support. You champion. 

I think my friend is struggling, what can I do? 

It can be really hard to support a friend, especially if you’re now living far away, but the best thing to do is just be there for them. 

Start with these tips: 

  • Start the conversation for them. Don’t rely on your friend to open up first. Talk about your own feelings and ask how they’re getting on, and hopefully it’ll gently encourage them to open up. 
  • Be extra kind. Send them some flowers to brighten up their room, ask them out for lunch if you’re nearby, or tag them in more Facebook and Insta memes. 
  • Encourage them to seek support. Once they’ve opened up to you, suggest they book a GP appointment and that you can go with them if you’re around. 
  • Distract them. Although talking through struggles is great, it shouldn’t be the only topic of conversation. Schedule in some fun chats and things to do to keep things as normal as possible. 
  • Look after yourself too. It can be exhausting supporting a friend with their mental health, but remember it’s not your responsibility to fix everything and you need looking after too. 

What if I already had a mental health problem before university? 

It can be nerve-wracking going to university with a mental health problem. You have to leave your comforts, routine, and support network. But it can be done, and you’re strong enough to cope with the change. 

“If you feel comfortable, disclose your mental health difficulty to your university,” Rachel suggests. “This will ensure that you can access the appropriate support when you start.” Speak to your new GP surgery before you start to make sure all records are transferred, and speak to your university’s student support services. Ensure you have a plan in place with your support network back home, too, so everyone feels comfortable and in control should anything happen. 

You might totally thrive at university and never struggle but, if you do, hopefully this guide will help. Be kind to yourself, and those around you too. Good luck, and have fun, and remember that The Mix is always here if you need us.

Next Steps

  • Student Minds is the UK's student mental health charity. Search their website for information, research, and to see how you could get involved.
  • Mind offers advice and support to people with mental health problems. Their helpline runs nine to six from Monday to Friday. 0300 123 3393
  • Anyone can contact the Samaritans on their 24-hour helpline to talk things through. 116 123
  • Looking for a mentor to help boost your knowledge and skills? Find a youth zone close to you.
  • Reveal your skills with Define Me and find the right words to tell employers.
  • Download Motimator - an app that helps you get the career you want - by giving you a gentle kick up the ass each day when motivation is running low.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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Updated on 01-Sep-2017