Depression at university

Student life taking its toll, or is it something more serious? Becoming depressed at university is common, but that doesn’t make it any less scary if it happens to you.

Uni can be the best time of your life – it can also be one of the hardest. Being away from home, with a heavy workload, and feeling lonely and homesick can leave students feeling down occasionally. But if those feelings persist it could be a sign of depression.

Will depression affect my degree?

Some symptoms, like a lack of concentration, can have a real impact on your ability to study. Try and let your tutors know early on about any problems, as it’s easier to work out a solution and could help prevent a work crisis. Tutors can often extend deadlines, offer extra support in problem areas, or even give you a break from studying while you recover.

Leaving work to pile up can exacerbate your symptoms – universities will be experienced in dealing with students with mental health problems, so don’t feel embarrassed about talking to your personal tutor or course leader.

“It’s important not to get into ‘all or nothing’ thinking,” says Alan Percy, head of counselling at Oxford University counselling service. “So if you can’t manage all your work, it’s better to try and do some rather than give up altogether. Instead of thinking you should study for eight hours, which could be impossible, it’s better to do two or three hours, which might feel more manageable.”

Should I tell my uni friends I have depression?

Worrying how friends will react is understandable. It’s especially scary if depression hits during your first year when you might still be forming your friendship group.

“There’s still some stigma surrounding mental health problems, so we could never tell you that you won’t be judged,” says Hannah Paterson, NUS Disabled Students Officer. “However, your friends and family know you as you, not as your mental health problem. They’re your friends because they like you. Those who truly care will not change their opinion.”

According to Alan, it’s important not to withdraw from your social life and become isolated, as locking yourself away won’t help your symptoms. “Encourage yourself to see friends and do social things,” he says. “However, only do what you feel you can. Go out for a couple of hours if that feels manageable, or see a few close friends, rather than feeling pressurised to go clubbing all night.”

But am I actually depressed, or just a bit fed up?

University can be a stressful time, so feeling sad sometimes is normal. Depression, however, is longer-lasting. The NHS has a tool that can help you assess your symptoms, which might include:

  • feeling persistently sad for weeks or even months
  • lacking energy
  • low self-esteem
  • difficulty sleeping

So I’m depressed, now what?

Initially, if you’re feeling mildly low it may cheer you up just to have a chat about it with your friends, or ring a family member. However, if you feel it’s something more serious, Alan recommends speaking to your doctor.

“They’ll assess whether your symptoms indicate a more serious level of clinical depression, which may need treatment with talking therapies or medication,” he explains.

Most universities have links with a GP surgery, or their own student health centre; your student union will have the details. You’ll have to register with the new practice, but this doesn’t take much time. Alternatively, you may feel more comfortable going back to your home GP – either way, getting in touch with a doctor is an important step.

Is there anyone else I can talk to?

“Talking to a trusted friend can ease the burden in itself, however, if you don’t feel comfortable opening up to someone you know there are also local charities and support services within your community, such as The Samaritans or HopeLineUK,” says Hannah.

Every university offers free and confidential counselling services that are a great resource if you need someone to talk to. At night, Nightline offers an anonymous listening service run by students, for students.

What else could improve my mood?

Chris Leaman from the charity Young Minds recommends a few things that can be incorporated into your everyday life. “Try and get some fresh air most days, and some regular exercise – there’s a proven link between exercise and better mental health. And do things you enjoy, whether it’s skateboarding, hanging out with friends or reading. Also, try to eat regularly – even just small meals – and write a diary about how you’re feeling.”

Read our article on how to cope if you feel like you hate your life.


Next Steps

  • Mind offers advice and support to people with mental health problems. Their helpline runs nine to six from Monday to Friday. 0300 123 3393
  • 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.

By Helen Pye

Updated on 29-Sep-2015