Depression at university

Uni can be the best time of your life – but it can also be one of the hardest. Being away from home, with a heavy workload, and feeling lonely or homesick can leave students feeling isolated and overwhelmed. Serious problems like depression at university are sadly pretty common. The Mix explains hope to cope.

A young woman is leaning on a gate. She is experiencing depression at university. This is a wide-angle image.

Will having depression at university affect my degree?

We’ll be honest. Some symptoms, like a lack of concentration, can have a real impact on your ability to study. That’s why it’s important to let your tutors know early on about any problems. That way they’ll be able to work out a solution and could help prevent a work crisis. For instance, 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 also exacerbate your symptoms. Remember, unis are fairly experienced when it comes to students developing mental health problems. So don’t feel embarrassed and/or ashamed about talking to your personal tutor or course leader. They’re there to support you, regardless of the circumstances.

Try your best not to get into an ‘all or nothing’ mindset,” says Alan Percy, head of counselling at Oxford University counselling service. “If you can’t manage all your work, it’s always better to try and do some rather than give up altogether. And instead of thinking you should study for eight hours (which is practically impossible), it’s better to aim for two or three hour chunks.”

Should I tell my friends I’m depressed at uni?

Worrying how friends will react is understandable. Especially if depression hits during your first year while you’re trying to get to know people.

Unfortunately, there’s still some stigma surrounding mental illness. So we could never tell you with 100% certainty that you won’t be judged,” says Hannah Paterson, NUS Disabled Students Officer. “However, we can say that you are not defined by your mental health condition. Your friends and family love you for who you are. And those who truly care won’t change their opinion based on a medical diagnosis.” If you feel able to open up to your friends, you might even find out that they’ve been going through the same thing. Knowing you’re not alone can help.

According to Alan, it’s vital not to withdraw from your social life and isolate yourself. In fact, this is probably the worst thing you can do for your depression. “I know dealing with uni and depression is incredibly difficult but try to encourage yourself to see friends and do social things,” he says. “Just make sure to take it at your own pace. Start by going out for a couple of hours if that feels manageable, or see a few close friends, and see how you cope.

Is it depression or just being fed up with life?

University can be a stressful time, so feeling sad or unmotivated from time to time is pretty standard. Depression, on the other hand, is usually chronic. If you’re still unsure, the NHS has a quiz that can help you assess your symptoms. These might include (but are not limited to):

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

Support for depression at university

Initially, if you’re feeling a bit down you might find that just having a chat about it with your friends, or family does the trick. But, if you’re constantly fed up with life, depression might be the cause. In which case, Alan recommends speaking to your doctor.

“They’ll assess whether your symptoms indicate a more serious level of clinical depression. If that’s the case then you may need treatment in the form of talking therapies or medication,” he explains.

The good news is that a doctor’s visit is relatively easy to arrange. Most universities have links with a GP surgery, or their own student health centre; your student union will have the details. The catch is that you’ll have to register with the new practice, but this doesn’t take much time. Plus you can always just stick with your GP back home if that feels more comfortable to you. Either way, getting in touch with a doctor is an important step toward improving your mental health.

Who else can I talk to about depression at university?

“Talking to a trusted friend can help lift the weight off your shoulders. But 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.

Not to mention, every university offers free and confidential counselling services that are a great resource if you need someone to talk to. And at night, Nightline offers an anonymous listening service run by students, for students.

You can also read this true story about how to get through uni with depression.

How to improve your mood when experiencing depression

Chris Leaman from the charity Young Minds recommends a few things that can easily be incorporated into your everyday life. “Try to get some fresh air most days, and some regular exercise – I know, a bit cliché, but there’s actually a proven link between exercise and better mental health. And make time to do things you enjoy as well. Whether it’s skateboarding, hanging out with friends or reading. You should 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. And check out the rest of The Mix’s mental health resources here and our student life resources here.

And, if all that isn’t enough, watch this video:


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.

By Helen Pye

Updated on 07-May-2022