How to look after your mental health at university
Thousands of students are affected by mental health issues in the UK, but it's important not to suffer in silence. Here's where you can find the help you need.
Sensitive content: 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 around one in four students experience mental health issues while at university. With tuition fees higher than ever, 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.
What's in this guide?
What is mental health?
Everyone has mental health. It determines how we feel about ourselves, the 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 our abilities to relax, socialise and work effectively, it becomes a mental health issue.
Mental health is affected by biological factors and family history, as well as life experiences such as stress and trauma. Just like any physical issue, it should be treated by a medical professional when something isn't right.
Difference between mental health and mental illness
The terms 'mental health' and 'mental illness' often get used interchangeably, but they actually mean slightly different things.
Regardless of whether you think you may have a mental illness or a mental health issue, if you are finding things difficult, please seek help.
It can, however, help you to understand the way you're feeling and the types of support you may get offered, to know the difference between what is generally meant by mental health and mental illness.
As we mentioned above, mental health refers to our general mental wellbeing, like how we're feeling emotionally, psychologically and socially. We all have mental health, and it's common to experience issues with our wellbeing from time to time.
Mental illnesses are clinically diagnosable conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia and eating disorders. You may experience poor mental health without necessarily having a diagnosable mental illness.
For example, if you're feeling low or anxious, it's still important to talk about how you're feeling, but it's worth bearing in mind that you may not be diagnosed as having depression or anxiety as mental illnesses.
This in no way discredits how you're feeling – it may just be that a doctor, counsellor or anyone else you talk to could take a slightly different approach to how they help you, depending on the level and type of support you need.
Examples of mental health issues and illnesses
If you're suffering from mental ill-health, but you're unsure what this could actually mean, we go through some of the most common mental health issues below.
We're not trained medical professionals here at Save the Student, so please seek advice from your local GP for a professional diagnosis.
Common mental health conditions and issues
- Anxiety and panic attacks – Anxiety is an emotion that everyone experiences, but if it occurs too often or prevents someone from functioning healthily, it becomes an issue. It can manifest itself in extreme stress or worry, and could develop into panic attacks with symptoms including shortness of breath, increased heart rate, sweating and blurry vision.
- Bipolar disorder – This is a condition that affects your moods and can cause them to swing from one extreme to another, from feeling very low and lethargic to feeling elated and overactive.
- Clinical depression – Symptoms of clinical depression include having lasting feelings of unhappiness or despair for long periods of time, rather than just a few days, as well as often feeling on the brink of tears and having difficultly sleeping and completing basic daily tasks.
- Eating disorders – Someone with unhealthy thoughts, habits or behaviours surrounding their diet and body.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – This is a condition that leads someone to have obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. An obsession is an unwanted and unpleasant thought or urge that repeatedly enters your mind, causing feelings of distress. A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act that you feel you need to do to stop the obsession.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – An anxiety disorder caused by very stressful or frightening events which the person often relives through nightmares and/or flashbacks and severely impacts daily life.
- 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 the Mind website or speak to a health professional for more detailed advice.
What are the signs of mental illness?
Again, mental health is a very personal experience and symptoms of mental illnesses vary greatly. It can sometimes be difficult to spot the signs, both in yourself and a friend or family member.
Common symptoms of mental illness
This is not a checklist of symptoms you must have to be suffering from mental illnesses or mental health issues – if you're struggling, seek help immediately, regardless of what symptoms you do or do not have.
If you think that you or someone you know may be struggling with a mental illness or mental health issues, here are some signs to look out for:
- Feelings of listlessness (having little interest in doing anything), sadness or a lack of energy
- Inability to concentrate or focus on work
- Excessive worrying
- Major changes to eating or sleeping habits
- Loss of interest in sex
- Feeling constantly on the brink of tears
- Extreme highs and lows of emotion
- Withdrawal from social activities and hobbies
- Feeling an impending sense of doom
- Struggles with important daily tasks like showering and eating
- Inability to cope with stress or problems
- Addictive behaviours around alcohol, drugs, sex, food or exercise
- Suicidal thoughts or self-harm.
Mental health issues can sometimes manifest themselves in physical symptoms as well, such as headaches, back pain, a tight chest or stomach cramps.
Mental health at university
One in four students are said to experience mental health issues at some point during their time at university, with many finding it difficult to complete daily tasks as a result.
While mental health issues can occur at any stage of life, 75% of mental illnesses are established by the age of 24. This, combined with the pressures of degrees, makes uni a crucial time to look after your mental health.
Anxiety and depression are the most common types of mental illness reported among students. Factors such as workload, relationships and employability can all affect your mental health at uni.
Research has found that the rate of suicide among university students in England and Wales in recent years has been significantly lower compared with people of similar ages in the general population, but it is still a hugely concerning issue. If you are struggling with suicidal feelings, please have a look at advice from Mind or see the helplines below if you need someone to talk to.
Remember that you don't have to face your struggles alone – there will always be someone you can turn to and there is so much help available.
You can also get in touch with your university to find out about their counselling services and see what other schemes they have in place to help students' wellbeing. Maybe they have dog therapy sessions, or mindfulness courses – have a chat with student services to find out more.
And charities like Student Minds 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 looking into the effects of money on mental health. In our annual Student Money Survey, 58% of you said your mental health suffers as a result of money problems, while 32% said your grades were negatively affected.
With high rent prices now taking up a substantial chunk 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:
It's crap and really hard and I've considered dropping out many times as I'm constantly broke and tired!
Do mental health problems class as mitigating circumstances?
If poor 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 qualifies 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.
As a result of extenuating circumstances, you could be offered adjustments such as extended deadlines and the option of sitting exams outside the exam hall.
A note from your GP or counsellor explaining your mental health issues and the effect they have on your daily life should help your case, but even if you haven't sought professional advice yet, your claim is still valid.
Does the DSA cover mental health conditions?
The Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA) is an extra grant from Student Finance that helps pay for any technology and support you might need as a result of your disability. Importantly, that disability can be a physical or 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 that can affect your ability to study, and you'll have to fill in an application form.
If it's approved, you'll have a DSA Needs Assessment, which is an informal meeting to discuss the kind of extra support you need as a result of your specific mental health issues.
The funding can only be used to pay for equipment or support you need to fulfil your academic potential, such as laptop software, a dictaphone, transport, a mentor or a note-taker. For more advice, check out our guide to DSA.
Where to find 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 when you feel ready to talk. As daunting 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.
Each university will have its own student mental health and counselling service, so we'd recommend checking your university website, emailing student services or asking at an information desk for exact details.
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
Hopefully, you will be able to quickly access your universities counselling services.
It's important to note, though, that due to the increasing number of students seeking mental health support, there's a chance you'll 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.
Mental health issues are just like any physical illness, and should never be ignored. If you're suffering, make an appointment with your local GP.
If you're not yet registered, use the NHS directory to find your nearest surgery, or do some research to see if any practices near you offer more specialist mental health treatment.
What to expect
At your appointment, your GP will ask about your symptoms, point you towards relevant services and resources, and may prescribe medication such as anti-anxiety medication or anti-depressants (also known as SSRIs and SNRIs). For more info about mental health medication, check out YoungMinds' Medications page.
Your doctor 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 SU 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 for mental health help. They'll give you more information about student mental health services, and other resources available at university.
If you've identified an area of your life which is causing you particular stress or anxiety, such as your student accommodation or financial situation, your student advice centre will be able to offer guidance in these areas too.
Plus, don't forget to check whether your union has a mental health society. Speaking to students going through similar things can be a great way to get to grips with your emotions and talk more openly about your experiences.
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 send an email [email protected]
- Nightline – A lot of 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 HOPELINEUK every weekday from 9am–10pm, and 2pm–10pm on weekends and bank holidays. The helpline is for children and young people under 35, and you can call them on 0800 068 4141, text 07860039967 or email [email protected]
- Mind – For information about the mental health support in your local area, you can call Mind's Infoline on 0300 123 3393 from 9am–6pm every weekday (except bank holiday).
- SANE – Another leading mental health charity, SANE, run an out-of-hours helpline from 4.30pm–10.30pm every day of the year on 0300 304 7000.
- CALM – CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) has a specific focus on reducing suicide rates among men, but offers general mental health advice too. You can reach their nationwide helpline on 0800 58 58 58, and their London one on 0808 802 58 58. Their webchat is also open 5pm–midnight every day of the year.
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 is a wide range of helplines, websites and support services dedicated to specific groups or mental illnesses.
- OCD UK, Anxiety UK and Bipolar UK all offer specific advice and support for people suffering from those mental health issues, while No Panic offers a website and helpline for those suffering from panic attacks and anxiety-based disorders like OCD and phobias.
- Relate are the leading counselling service for relationship support, whether that be with your partner, family or friends.
- If your mental health is suffering as the result of a bereavement, Cruse Bereavement Care can offer support, advice and info.
- 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 support line for confidential help.
How to look after your mental health
The best way to look after your mental wellbeing is different for everyone. Don't force yourself to do anything that makes you uncomfortable, and try not to be too hard on yourself on days where things that you'd usually enjoy feel harder.
Do what's best for you, and focus on taking care of yourself.
If you're looking for things to do to improve your mental health, these are some of the best self-care activities to try:
Set aside time to rest
Uni life is fast-paced and busy, so it can be difficult to find time to relax by yourself – especially when you're living with friends.
Try to relieve yourself of the pressure 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 (which you can get for free with Spotify Premium) are great for this, and will teach you how to calm your mind and breathing for a while.
This one might not sound fun at first, but some light, gentle exercise (even just for 20 or 30 minutes) will release endorphins in your brain that will help you to feel happier, sleep better and concentrate more.
We're not saying you can't indulge in a bit of Ben & Jerry's ice cream (or whatever your comfort food of choice is) if you're feeling down. But try and cut out things like coffee, energy drinks and alcohol (which a lot of people 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 lifesaver. You might not notice the results immediately, but in the long-term, you'll have more energy and feel stronger.
Get into a good sleep routine
With nights out and deadlines, it can be easy to neglect sleep when you're at uni, but finding a sleeping pattern will help to get rid of the sluggish feeling you get 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.
Writing down what's on your mind is a great way to make sense of how you're feeling. As no one necessarily needs to read anything that you write in a journal (unless you'd like them to) it can make it much easier to articulate some of your more difficult worries and thoughts.
We recommend treating yourself to a nice new notebook that is just for journaling. The stationary doesn't need to be expensive, but it can help to keep a diary that's completely separate to the notebooks you use for uni and daily planning – it's just for your thoughts, and completely personal to you.
Please note though: Journaling is great for self-care, but we'd still urge you to talk to people as well as writing down how you feel. Together, talking to others and writing in a journal can help your thoughts and feelings seem a lot easier to manage.
Set small, manageable goals
Sometimes, mental illness can make it difficult to even get out of bed in the morning. 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. Whether you've made a home-cooked meal or contributed to a seminar discussion, make a note of the small wins and look back on them when you're feeling down – you'll feel so much more productive!
Keep your room tidy
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. Getting rid of clutter will help you 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.
Reassess your current situation
This might seem like a scary one at first, but take a step back to think about any specific aspects of your life which are 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.
Just remember there's no point struggling through the year doing something you hate.
Being so plugged into 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 when you need it.
Find out how dog therapy can improve your mood and grades. If your uni doesn't offer animal therapy sessions yet, it might be worth suggesting it to student support. 🙂