As thrilling and as valuable an experience university can be, it can also be a terrifying leap into the unknown - and oftentimes, it can be a stressful transition. If you or someone you know is struggling with your mental health at university, you’re not alone. Those who live, work and study in higher education settings are some of the most susceptible to mental illness, and it comes as no surprise.
Raising awareness for mental health at university and breaking down preconceived ideas of what mentally ill people should and shouldn’t be is the first step towards making university life a little less stressful for students from every walk of life. In this post, we’re detailing exactly why mental health issues are so common at university, what you can do to alleviate the pressures that come hand in hand with student life, and perhaps most importantly, how to seek help.
Why are students so vulnerable?
In a report commissioned by UniHealth, research found that a staggering 82% of participating students suffer from bouts of stress and anxiety, with a further 45% experiencing feelings of depression. But what exactly is it about university life that has the potential to make students more vulnerable?
Your time as student is often referred to as some of the best years of your life, however, that certainly isn’t to say that university life doesn’t come with its fair share of stresses. In fact, attending university places a phenomenal strain on many young students, and there are many reasons why.
Perhaps the most common is the undeniable stress that comes hand-in-hand with having to adapt to new circumstances. Moving away from home for what is likely the first time and having to settle into unfamiliar surroundings with people you have never met before is bound to take a toll on your emotions, whether it be a little or a lot; particularly within the first semester, when you’re also faced with the additional worries of managing your own finances and making new friends. It’s almost as if there is an unspoken pressure to feel like you should be enjoying yourself and appreciating every moment, though feeling such pressure can do nothing but add to the problem.
Not to mention the inevitable academic pressure many students struggle with throughout their time at university. It really goes without saying that the inescapable stresses of studying for exams and meeting assignment deadlines is nothing new to students. However, it is the intensive nature and significant change in learning style that comes as a shock to many new university students. The sudden increase in responsibility to learn independently and to effectively manage one’s time and workload can be overwhelming and often serves as a significant source of stress and anxieties.
All of these reasons and more can account for why university students are some of the most susceptible to suffering from mental illnesses. Though perhaps one of the most worrying finds from the research commissioned by UniHealth was that three quarters of participating students don’t ask for help because they are embarrassed, don’t know where to find it, or think that it is a waste of time. Looking after your mental health whilst at university is crucial, and should never be something that is overlooked or ignored. It is important to understand that you are not alone, and help is out there.
How to spot the signs in yourself and others?
As reflected in research, many students downplay their mental health symptoms - perhaps because they are embarrassed, or more worryingly, because they think it is a waste of time. However, understanding the signs of mental illness is the first step towards making a huge difference in how you feel - or perhaps, in helping a friend who you may be worried about.
Common symptoms of depression include; continuous low moods, feeling irritable and intolerant of others, losing motivation and interest in things, loss of appetite and withdrawing from loved ones, to name but a few. Anxiety sufferers may experience problems sleeping, feelings of panic and uneasiness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, sweating and the inability to stay calm.
If you or a friend are experiencing mild symptoms, there are a number of things you can do to alleviate the stresses of university life. However, if you or someone you know has been feeling depressed or anxious for more than a few weeks and it is beginning to affect your daily life, the best thing to do is reach out for help, and in doing so, being as open and honest as you can.
How to deal with the stresses of university life?
If you find that the stress of university life is getting to you, there are a number of things you can do which can make a huge difference to how you feel. To give you a bit of a helping hand, we’ve put together some small steps you can take to better deal with the stresses of university life.
1. Keep in touch with friends and family back home.
Living away from home for the very first time can be an exceptionally hard lifestyle change, and sometimes all you need is to hear is a comforting voice from back home. Whether it be your closest friends or your family, be sure to check in with them via messenger or Skype/FaceTime as often as you can. It’ll help you feel like you’re staying in the loop with goings on back home, and they may also be able to provide a fresh perspective about your goings on at university.
2. Set yourself routine and structure.
More often than not, you’ll find that setting yourself a routine and having structure to your days will have a drastic effect on your mood. It can help you to feel more productive and motivated, and prevents getting into the dangerous habit of messing up your body clock. That’s not to say you won’t have the occasional all-nighter, because that’s just part and parcel of being a university student. Though giving yourself routine makes these instances the exception rather than the rule.
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3. Enjoy some exercise.
Enjoying regular exercise is one of the simplest and best ways to kick-start your endorphins, helping you to feel more positive and relaxed, and as a result, having a significant positive effect on your mood. Don’t knock it ’til you try it, either - if the gym isn’t the place for you, you could try running, cycling, or you could even try something completely new, like attending yoga sessions.
4. Do something you love.
Student life places a big focus on partying and drinking, and whilst that may be fun for some and an inevitable part of university culture; it’s certainly not going to be ideal for everyone. Not to mention the fact that too much of it can take a toll on not only your mental health, but your physical health, too. And so, if you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed by what is often considered to be the typical student life, why not take a step back and try doing something that you genuinely love instead? Whether it be joining a society or club, or taking up a new creative hobby; immersing yourself in something that interests you can really do wonders for your mood.
5. Take time to relax.
Life at university can often feel fast paced, making you feel as though your mind is never quite switching off. Not only can it have a negative effect on your mood, but it plays havoc with other aspects of your life, including your sleeping pattern. That’s why it’s vitally important to every so often take the time out to relax - and relax properly. Not only will it drastically improve your mood, but also the quality of your sleep - and we all know that a getting a good night's sleep is a simple but extremely powerful way to feel energised and positive on a daily basis.
Perhaps one of the best ways to relax is by practicing mindfulness, which is a simple form of meditation based on deep breathing that has been shown to improve various aspects of physical and mental health. If it sounds like your thing, check out the free app Calm.
Where to get help?
As mentioned before, if you have been experiencing serious symptoms of mental illness for more than a few weeks and it is beginning to affect your day to day life at university, and things you’re doing to alleviate stresses just aren’t helping - it may be time to reach out for help. Understand that you are not alone in how you are feeling, and so there is certainly no shame in asking for help when you need it - suffering in silence should never have to be an option.
There are numerous ways to get help if you feel like you are suffering. One of the most common ways to seek help is to speak with your local GP. They are there to help you with any and all health issues, so if you feel comfortable to do so, certainly don’t hesitate to open up to them.
If for whatever reason you don’t feel comfortable in speaking with your GP, alternatively you can reach out to your university’s counselling and support services. Again, it is their job to help.
If you would rather not approach a stranger, you could always open up to a close loved one, such a family member or close friend. Being open and honest with them may lift a weight off your shoulders, and they may be able to provide the sort of support and comfort that you need and cannot get from a professional.
There is also always services like The Samaritans, who offer a safe place for you to talk, anonymously if you want to, any time you like, in your own way, about whatever is getting to you. They can help to explore your options, understand your problems, or just be there to listen.
The Samaritans are free to call any time, from any phone on 116 123.
How to help others?
If you are concerned that someone you know is suffering from symptoms of mental illness, there are a number of things you can do to help and support them. First and foremost, it’s incredibly important to be patient with them. Let them know how much you care about them and that you are there to listen, and be sure to stay in touch with them by messaging, phoning or meeting up.
If the person you’re worried about expresses suicidal feelings, you or they should contact a local GP or The Samaritans on 116 123 for confidential, 24-hour support. And when offering support to someone else, don’t neglect taking care of yourself, for the sake of your own mental health.