Looking after your mental health when starting university

The thought of starting uni, drinking your way through Freshers' Week, and exploring newfound independence can be utterly thrilling, and also super difficult. Especially if you’re struggling with your mental health. To help, we asked Student Minds for some university mental health advice and some tips for managing the stress of university life.

A young woman is on her phone. She is thinking about mental health and starting university. This is a wide-angle image.

Hooray for uni!

You did it! You’ve made it to uni. Well bloody done. You’re probably also feeling a lot of mixed emotions. Excited? Nervous? Curious? Overwhelmed? At this point, we can practically hear you scoff at your screen “Pfft, I don’t know what you’re on about. I’m completely confident and buzzing for student life.” 

Ok, that’s great. But, just in case, we’re gonna give you some advice for if/when times get rough. Just in case. 

Why could starting university affect your mental health?

Periods 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’ll be moving away from your established support networks of friends and family, and whilst this may be refreshing for some, for others it can be pretty challenging.” 

In 2014, Student Minds carried out research into the biggest challenges for students’ mental health, and these are the main areas that got highlighted

  • Independent living: Nobody else to wake you up and having to do everything from cooking to cleaning the toilets on your own
  • Housing: Finding accommodation, living with strangers, dealing with landlords, and paying rent.
  • Classic homesickness: Missing 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, new ways of testing, and getting used to 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 and OH GOD THE STRESS SPIRAL HAS KICKED IN.
  • Student fees: Student Finance, seeking scholarships and grants, budgeting, and that big ol’ debt on your shoulders when you graduate. 

University mental health support and advice

There’s no concrete way to predict and/or control your mental health when you enter higher education, but Rachel has some tips that’ll help with managing the general stress and anxiety of university life, no matter how you’re doing: 

  • Look after your physical health: Yes, freshers year can be full of drinking and greasy kebabs, but you should also try and get a good routine with sleep, water, and some form of fruit and veg.
  • Join societies and take opportunities: Explore hobbies and ‘extracurricular activities’, as your old teachers would say, as soon as you start, to get yourself involved and busy. Just be careful not to stretch yourself too thin.
  • Plan visits home: You might not feel like you need one, but we promise you will eventually. Plus, 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 habit to develop in general, but it’ll also force you to be aware about how you’re doing. 
  • Go all out on self-care: Moving to university can be busy in literally a million different ways. So while it’s good to get stuck in, don’t forget to take time for yourself too. 

Signs of poor mental health at university

Everyone’s mental health is different, meaning that everyone’s version of feeling low will look slightly different. But a good rule of thumb is to keep an eye on any changes in your behaviour that may be negatively affecting your daily life. 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, even things as simple as sitting in the common student space or going to the student union building

I’m struggling with my mental health at university, 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. I’d recommend making 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. One of the ways you can prepare is by signing up with your university or local GP as soon as possible. You can also research your university’s student support services and find out what they offer and where they’re based. If you’re not sure how to go about registering with a GP then read our article on finding a doctor here. Alternatively you can try finding support groups to help you through this tough time.

Remember, you don’t have to go through this on your own. Rachel reminds us that opening up to someone can really help lift the weight off your shoulders. She adds: “ If the first person that you speak to isn’t receptive, others will be.” 

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

No doubt, it can be nerve-wracking to start university with mental health conditions. You have to leave your comforts, routine, and support network. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

“If you feel comfortable, disclose your mental health difficulty to your university,” Rachel suggests. “This will ensure that you can access the appropriate support as soon as you start.” Speak to your new GP surgery beforehand to make sure all records are transferred, and then have a chat with your university’s student services that specialise in supporting you, such as a mental health adviser. Ensure you have a plan in place with your support network back home, too. That way everyone feels comfortable and in control should anything happen.

Extra resources: 

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
  • 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 Nishika Melwani

Updated on 17-Apr-2022