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How to look after your mental health at university

Thousands of students are affected by mental health problems in the UK but it's important not to suffer in silence. Here's where you can find the help you need. 

student mental health

Trigger warning: This article contains references to mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, bipolar, OCD, eating disorders, PTSD, psychosis, schizophrenia, self-harm and suicide.

Reports have shown that a huge one in four students experience mental health problems while at university – and numbers are only increasing. With rising tuition fees, insufficient maintenance loans and the pressure to succeed, students are under more stress than ever before.

We've spoken to hundreds of students who have experienced mental health issues as a result of the financial strain they're put under at university, and we want you all to know you're not alone.

While most students know that support is out there, it can be difficult to know where to turn, or what to expect if you do. Here's everything you need to know, all in one place. 

Money troubles getting you down? Take a look at our guide to dealing with a cash crisis for advice on getting the support you need when times are tough.

 

What is mental health?

Everyone has mental health. It determines how we feel about ourselves, they way we interact with those around us and form relationships, and how we overcome the challenges life throws our way.

However, when mental health starts to interfere with everyday life and the ability of someone to function normally, it becomes a mental health problem. Mental health is affected by biological factors and family history, as well as life experiences such as stress and trauma, and just like any physical illness, it should be treated by a medical professional when something isn't right.

For a long time, mental health issues have been stigmatised and rarely discussed openly, but thanks to a number of national campaigns such as Time to Change and Heads Together (to name just a couple), mental heath is finally on the national agenda, with more and more people bravely speaking out about it.

Different types of mental illness

types of mental illness

We talk of mental health, but often don’t define what mental illness actually is, or what it looks like in real life. If you're suffering from mental health issues, but you're unsure what this could actually mean, here are some of the most common mental health problems.

We’re not trained medical professionals here at Save the Student, so please seek advice from your local GP for a professional diagnosis.

Anxiety and panic attacks – Anxiety is a normal emotion that everyone experiences, but if it occurs too often or prevents someone from functioning normally, it becomes an issue. It manifests itself in extreme stress or worry, and this can develop into panic attacks with symptoms including shortness of breath, increased heart rate, sweating and blurry vision.

Bipolar disorder – This is the diagnosis given to someone who suffers from fluctuating emotions, such as extreme low and high moods.

Depression – Symptoms of depression include perpetually feeling low and finding it difficult to have fun.

Eating disorders – Someone with unhealthy thoughts, habits or behaviours surrounding their diet and body.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder – Also known as OCD, this is someone who experiences obsessive thoughts, patterns or behaviours.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – A certain set of symptoms experienced by someone following a traumatic event.

Psychosis and schizophrenia – A diagnosis given to someone who suffers hallucinations, delusions and paranoia, which can lead to further negative symptoms such as withdrawal.

Self-harm – When someone hurts themselves deliberately in order to cope with emotional distress.

Suicidal feelings – When someone contemplates taking their own life.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all mental health conditions, and we would advise you to visit Mind or speak to a health professional for more detailed advice.

Mental health at university

student mental health

While mental health problems can occur at any stage of life, the statistics for university students are particularly alarming. Research has shown that one in every four students experience mental health issues at some point during their time at university, with nearly half of those saying they struggle to complete daily tasks as a result.

Anxiety and depression are the most common types of mental illness reported, and studying is the primary cause of stress – 71% said workload had the biggest impact on their mental health. But friendship groups and employability were other major concerns.

With one in five students now making use of their university mental health support service, it's clear that if you're struggling with your mental health at university, you're certainly not alone. And there are great charities out there to help too, such as Student Minds who run support groups for students struggling with their mental health, and campaign to improve the state of student mental health as a whole.

Mental health and money

Here at Save the Student we've been investigating the effect of money on mental health. In our annual Student Money Survey, 46% of you said your mental health suffers as a result of money problems, and 27% said your grades suffered as a result.

With rising rent prices now taking up huge chunks of maintenance loans, it's no surprise that students are feeling the pressure. Financial anxiety is becoming more common as students are forced to juggle part time jobs with their studies or rely on parental contributions to make up the difference. One respondent commented:

All my money goes on rent, I have no money to socialise or even sometimes eat. It's not just a little bit of money I have to pay toward rent it's as much as £700 each payment along with my maintenance loan

What causes mental health issues?

what causes mental health problems

Mental health problems can be caused by a huge range of issues, and will vary greatly from person to person.

However, university places students under a unique set of circumstances that can be particularly damaging to mental health.

Things like living away from home for the first time, coping with exams and deadlines, the pressure to succeed, uncertainty about graduate employment prospects and financial hardship can all add up to affect your mental health in one way or another .

What are the signs of mental illness?

Again, mental illness is a very personal experience, and symptoms vary greatly. It can be difficult to spot the signs, both in yourself and a friend, so here are a few things to look out for.

Remember though, this is NOT a checklist of symptoms you must have to be suffering from mental health issues – if you’re struggling, seek help immediately, regardless of what symptoms you do or do not have.

  • Feelings of listlessness, sadness or a lack of energy
  • Inability to concentrate or focus on work
  • Excessive worrying
  • Major changes to your eating or sleeping habits
  • Extreme highs and lows of emotion
  • Withdrawal from social activity and hobbies
  • Inability to cope with stress or problems
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts or self-harm

Mental health issues can sometimes manifest themselves in physical symptoms as well, such as headaches, back pain or stomach cramps.

Do mental health problems class as mitigating circumstances?

If the state of your mental health has impacted your ability to complete your work on time, or to the same standard as usual, then you should be able to apply for mitigating or extenuating circumstances for any exams or coursework you think could be affected.

Each university has its own policy on what classes as ‘mitigating circumstances' and they usually assess applications on a case-by-case basis, so it's difficult to know for certain whether your case will be accepted.

However, reports have shown that more students are applying for special circumstances as a result of mental health problems than ever before – in 2016, 218 Cambridge University students had special arrangements put in place because of their mental health. These can include extended deadlines and sitting exams outside the exam hall.

A note from your GP or counsellor explaining your mental health problems and the effect they have on your daily life should strengthen your case, but even if you haven't sought professional advice yet, your claim is still valid. Speak to someone from your subject department, or the student advice centre in your student union, for the best guidance on how to apply and what evidence you might need.

Can you apply for the Disabled Students' Allowance?

The Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA) is an extra grant from Student Finance that helps pay for technology and support you might need as a result of your disability. Importantly, that disability can be an ongoing health condition, sensory impairment, a specific learning difficulty or a mental health condition.

It's worth contacting a Disability Advisor at school or university first for advice on whether you're eligible, or whether you might be able to apply for other types of support instead. You'll need evidence from a GP or psychiatrist to prove you have a mental health condition and you'll have to fill in an application form.

If it's approved you'll have a DSA Needs Assessment, which is basically an informal meeting to discuss the kind of extra support you need as a result of your specific mental health problems. The funding can only be used to pay for equipment or support you need to fuflfil your academic potential, such as a laptop, software, Dictaphone, transport, mentor or note taker. For more information, visit Your DSA.

Want to find out more about funding? This guide covers all there is to know about grants, bursaries and scholarships.

Where to find mental health support

mental health support

Talking to someone about your mental health struggles can be a scary prospect, but it’s important to remember that help is always out there if and when you feel ready to talk. As nerve wracking as it might seem, opening up is far better than suffering in silence.

Your first port of call might be a friend or family member who you trust. If you would rather speak to a professional, however, there are a whole range of different support services out there, so we’ve tried to simplify it into a few different avenues.

University

Each university will have its own student mental health and counselling service, so we’d advise you to check your university website or ask at an information desk for exact details. Also don't forget that your personal tutor is often a good starting place if you want to discuss any issues you're having, and receive direction to the right support services.

What to expect

Unfortunately, due to the increasing number of students seeking mental health support, and a lack of funding and resources being dedicated to student mental health services, you could be put on a waiting list when seeking help from your university. If this happens, please don’t continue to suffer in silence, try seeking help via one of the routes below.

Most sessions will be a one-to-one, hour-long appointment with a trained adviser who will provide a confidential, non-judgmental space for you to explore and understand your emotions. They’ll listen to you and offer advice, but it’s the process of talking through your feelings and learning to understand what might be causing you to feel a certain way which is most helpful.

If you’re nervous about explaining what you’ve been experiencing, try writing it down before your session and using that as a prompt to help you.

Your GP

Mental health problems are just like any other physical illness, and should never be ignored. If you’re suffering, make an appointment with your local GP.

If you’re not registered, use the NHS directory to find your nearest, or do some research to see if any practices near you offer more specialist mental health treatment.

What to expect

During your appointment your GP will ask about your symptoms, point you towards relevant services and resources, and may proscribe some medication. If you’re unsure about what medication you could be proscribed, and what effect this might have, check out Headmeds for more information.

They might refer you to an Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, where you'll receive tailored therapy from trained practitioners and work towards set goals.

Again, don’t be afraid to write your symptoms down before you go, take a friend with you or ask for a GP of a specific gender.

Your student union

Alongside your university, your union is also likely to offer advice and support for student mental health issues. Most unions will have a student advice centre, which is a great starting point if you’re not sure where to turn. They’ll give you more information about university services, and other resources you can use.

If you have identified an area of your life which is causing you particular stress or anxiety, such as your accommodation or finances, your student advice centre will be able to offer guidance in these areas too.

Don’t forget to check whether your union has a mental health society! Speaking to students going through a similar experience to yourself can be a great way to get to grips with your emotions and talk more openly about your experiences.

Helplines

mental health helplines

Don't forget that there will always be someone at the other end of the phone waiting to talk to you, no matter what time of day or night – you’re never alone. Here are some of the main helplines:

The Samaritans – Their support line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 116 123. If you prefer to write down your feelings, or you’re worried about being overheard, you can email them to [email protected]

Nightline – All universities have a nightline, which typically runs from around 8pm-8am during term time. They offer a completely confidential and anonymous service, where they listen to you and offer advice but allow you to make your own decisions on any further action. Head to the Nightline website to search the phone number for your university.

PAPYRUS – This suicide prevention charity run a HOPEline Monday-Friday 10am-5pm & 7-10pm, 2-5pm on the weekends.

Mind – Mind is the UK's leading mental health charity, and you can call their infoline 9am-6pm, Monday-Friday, for further information about the mental health support in your local area.

SANE – Another leading mental health charity, SANE, run an out-of-hours helpline 4.30pm-10.30pm every day of the year on 0300 304 7000.

If you need urgent medical help, call 999 or visit your local A&E department. The NHS non-emergency number, 111, will also offer free medical advice whenever you need it.

Other online support services

As well as the main helplines listed above, there are a wide range of helplines, websites and support services dedicated to specific groups or types of mental illness.

  • OCD UK, Anxiety UK and Bipolar UK all offer specific advice and support for people suffering from those mental health problems, while No Panic offers a website and helpline for those suffering from OCD and panic attacks.
  • Men aged 15-35 can contact CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, which works to prevent male suicide and provides a helpline 5pm-midnight every day.
  • Relate is the leading couselling service for relationship support, whether that be with your partner, family or friends.
  • If your mental health is suffering as a the result of a bereavement, Cruse Bereavement Care will offer support and counselling.
  • Black Mental Health UK contains lots of news and research relating to how mental health policy affects the black community.
  • Stonewall offer lots of advice and support groups for LGBT+ people seeking mental health guidance.
  • Those who have been affected by crime can contact Victim Support on their free supportline for confidential help.

How to look after your mental health

how to improve your mental health

The best way to look after your mental wellbeing will vary from person to person, so always make sure to focus on what suits you best. Don’t force yourself to do anything that makes you uncomfortable or unhappy, as you’ll only make your symptoms worse.

That being said, we’ve scoured the internet for some of the most common top tips for you to try if you’re struggling with your mental health.

  1. Set aside some ‘Me’ time

    University is a fast-based busy lifestyle, and especially when you’re living with friends, it can be difficult to find time to relax by yourself. Stop feeling pressured to go along to every single social activity you’re invited to, and instead take some time to do something you enjoy – watch your favourite TV show, draw or listen to music.

    You can also try exercises such as meditating or mindfulness if they’re up your street. Apps such as Headspace are great for this, and will teach you how to calm your mind and breathing for a while.

  2. Exercise

    This one might sound dreadful, but some light, gentle exercise, even just for 20-30 minutes, will release endorphins in your brain that will help you to feel happier, sleep better and concentrate more.

    Don’t fancy the gym? We get it, it can be expensive and feel quite judgmental. Buy a fitness DVD or track down some videos on YouTube to do some exercise from the comfort of your room instead.

Want to get fit but don't have the budget for a fancy gym membership? Get it cheaper with these nifty tips.
  1. Eat healthy

    We’re not saying if you’re feeling down you can’t indulge in a bit of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (or whatever your comfort food of choice is). But try and cut out things like coffee, energy drinks and alcohol (which a lot of students don’t realise is actually a depressant).

    It can be difficult, but try and squeeze in those five fruit and veg a day too – frozen veggies are a life saver. You might not notice results immediately, but in the long-term you’ll have more energy and feel stronger.

  2. Sleep

    With nights out and deadlines, it can be easy to neglect sleep when you’re at uni but finding yourself a sleeping pattern will get rid of the sluggish feeling you experience when you wake up. Science has shown that a consistent sleep pattern is more important than getting more sleep, so focus on going to bed and getting up at the same time every day.

  3. Clean your room

    Opening up the windows, tidying away the mess and giving your room a quick spring clean will help sweep the cobwebs away and leave you feeling calmer. Get rid of all the clutter from your life, both physically and mentally, and you’ll be able to focus more.

    Even better, get out of your room and get back to nature by taking a walk in the park or surrounding area – a bit of fresh air does wonders to clear the mind.

  4. Set small goals

    Mental illness can make a task as simple as getting out of bed in the morning seem impossible. Don’t try and push yourself too hard, and set yourself goals that are achievable for you – no matter how small they seem.

    Make them realistic and time specific, and perhaps think about creating a wellbeing journal to track your success. Whether you cleaned your room or contributed to a seminar discussion, make a note of the small wins and look back on them when you’re feeling down.

  5. Reassess your situation

    This is a scary one, but take a step back to think about any specific aspects of your life which are seriously affecting your mental health. If your living arrangements, flatmates, course or university are getting you down, the best option might be to make a change.

    Even if you're already halfway through the year, you're never trapped – you can always move accommodation or change courses and university. Head to your student advice centre for guidance on how to do this, but remember there's no point struggling through the year doing something you hate.

  6. Value yourself

    Being so plugged in to social media all the time can mean that we’re always comparing ourselves to others. Through the lens of Facebook and Instagram it always seems like your friends are living picture perfect lives.

    Try and switch off for a while by putting your phone away more, or using apps like Moment to track how much time you’re spending online and slowly cut down. Focus on your own goals and successes, disable those pesky notifications and remember just how amazing you are.

University is tough and everyone faces their own battles as they go through it. Good grades are important, but nowhere near as important as your wellbeing, so make sure you look after yourself and seek help where you need it.

Have you struggled with mental health problems at university? Got any top tips that we missed? Get in touch and let us know! 

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