Student mental health support and advice
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 disorder, OCD, eating disorders, PTSD, psychosis, self-harm and suicide.
With tuition fees higher than ever, insufficient Maintenance Loans and the pressure to succeed, students are under more stress than ever before.
We've heard from thousands of students who have experienced mental health issues as a result of money worries 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 an overview of the key things to know.
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 diagnosable conditions like clinical depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and eating disorders. You may experience poor mental health without necessarily having a diagnosable mental illness or mental health condition.
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 struggling with mental health problems, 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.
The below list includes summaries based on info from the NHS website, but you'll be able to find expert advice and detailed guidance, including the treatment options that may be available here.
Common mental health conditions and issues
- Anxiety and panic attacks – Anxiety is a feeling that everyone experiences, but if it interferes with your daily life, it could help to get support. Symptoms can include sweating, breathlessness, feeling hot, obsessive thoughts and finding it hard to relax. Some may experience panic attacks, which can come on quickly and cause symptoms such as shortness of breath, trembling and feeling sick.
- Bipolar disorder – Bipolar disorder is a condition that affects your moods, causing them to go from one extreme to another. People with bipolar disorder experience episodes of depression, where they feel very low and lethargic, as well as mania, where they feel very high and overactive. These episodes can last for several weeks or more.
- Clinical depression – Most people feel low occasionally, but people with depression may feel sad for extended periods, such as for weeks or months. Symptoms of clinical depression include having lasting feelings of unhappiness or hopelessness, as well as often feeling on the brink of tears. Depression can also impact your appetite, ability to sleep, sex drive and can cause aches and pains.
- Eating disorders – Somebody with an eating disorder might use unhealthy eating behaviours to try to deal with feelings and other situations. Three common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating disorder. The most common eating disorder is OSFED ('other specified feeding or eating disorder') – this is when somebody has an eating disorder but doesn't fully fit the expected symptoms of a specific eating disorder (more info here).
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – OCD leads someone to have obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. An obsession can involve unwanted and unpleasant thoughts, urges or images. Someone with OCD could find the obsession enters their mind repeatedly – it's often distressing and can cause intense anxiety. A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act that someone feels the need to do, due to feelings of anxiety and distress.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by events that were very stressful, distressing or frightening. These traumatic events can lead someone to often relive them through nightmares and flashbacks and can severely impact daily life.
- Psychosis – Psychosis is a diagnosis given to someone who suffers hallucinations and delusions. Psychotic episodes could be triggered by psychological causes such as schizophrenia, as well as some medical conditions, substance abuse and changes in the brain.
- Self-harm – This is when someone hurts themselves deliberately. It's important to talk to a GP about self-harm or thoughts about self-harm – they can provide support and treatment, as well as guidance on how to approach treatment such as self-help, support groups and talking therapies.
- Suicidal thoughts – If you ever feel as though you want to die, it's really important to tell someone as help and support is always available. Get in touch with your doctor, and reach out to family and friends to talk about how you're feeling. It could also help to call a helpline such as Samaritans on 116 123 – we list more support services and helplines here.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all mental health conditions, and as we mentioned earlier, only summarises each condition and issue. We'd advise you to visit the NHS website, the Mind website or speak to a health professional for more detailed information.
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
- Difficulties managing important daily tasks like showering and eating
- Finding it hard to cope with stress or problems
- Addictive behaviours around alcohol, drugs, sex, food or exercise
- Suicidal thoughts or self-harm.
If you're worried someone might be in immediate danger or experiencing a mental health crisis, calling an ambulance on 999 can get help to them quickly.
Samaritans have detailed information on how to support someone you're worried about.
If you think someone might be struggling, check in to see how they're doing. Asking open questions like how they feel can really help – listen to what they say and take it seriously.
Mind's page on coping with student life includes a list of things you can do to help students while they're away at uni. One example is asking them how they're doing and finding the time and space to allow them to answer honestly, such as on a walk together.
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 18. 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.
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.
If you ever struggle with suicidal feelings, it's important to talk to your GP and loved ones. It might also help to look at advice from Mind or see the helplines below if you need someone to talk to.
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. They might 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, 65% of you said your mental health suffers as a result of money problems, while 34% 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.
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, such as from a GP or psychologist, to prove you have a mental health condition that can affect your ability to study, and you'll be required 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 info, 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. Opening up about how you're feeling can make so much difference.
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 university's 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. The process of talking through your feelings and learning to understand what might be causing you to feel a certain way can be really 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 antidepressants (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 your university.
If you've identified an area of your life that 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:
- 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].
- SHOUT – If you'd prefer to communicate with someone with text messages, you can text 'SHOUT' to 85258. This is a free and confidential support service that's available 24/7.
- 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 runs HOPELINEUK from 9am – midnight every day of the year. The helpline is for anyone under the age of 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 holidays).
- 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 helpline on 0800 58 58 58 or their webchat between 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.
- Bupa's page on dealing with anxiety includes useful resources, such as an interactive worry tree and an audio guide to help with progressive muscle relaxation.
- If your mental health is suffering as the result of a bereavement, Cruse Bereavement Support can offer support, advice and info.
- Stonewall offers 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.
- The NHS and Mind have lots more info about mental health conditions, support and treatments.
How to look after your mental health
The best ways to look after your mental wellbeing will be 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.
It's also worth trying to switch off for a while by spending less time on your phone. Focus on your own goals and successes, disable distracting notifications and give yourself time to really relax.
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.
For more self-care tips, have a read of our full guide.