Beginning University And The Impact On Mental Health

Mental Health: The Untold Story Of Freshers
A man sitting in an auditorium with his head resting in his arms
A man sitting in an auditorium with his head resting in his arms
Caspar Benson via Getty Images

The first year of university is always the most testing. You have to make new friends, navigate around a new city, and master a new pretentious language for your essays. From the moment you arrive at halls, you are immersed into a world of unfamiliarity.

Such transitions can have a huge impact on mental health, especially for those already suffering from anxiety and depression. According to Student Minds, a UK student mental health charity, "even those who have been recently discharged from specialist inpatient or day-patient services may spend their first months at university with no access to specialist support."

Research conducted by the organisation also revealed 96% of professionals feel students do not get specialist care as quickly as they would like – the average wait for an appointment with a specialist service being five months.

Amy Zile, a member of Student Minds' advisory committee, says: "So many people fall through the gaps in service provision and communication when moving to university. I have a summer birthday, so I turned 18 at the same time as I moved to university.

"The already stressful transition to university and trying to adjust to it with mental health difficulties was exacerbated by absolutely no guidance for me on where to find help at university, no talk about continuation of care - after using mental health services for years I was just left to look after myself, despite the fact every aspect of my life was changing."

Considering the isolation which many students face at some point during first year, the lack of adequate care is disappointing. For those on courses with low contact hours – many humanities students are in lectures, seminars, and tutorials for as little as five hours a week – such loneliness is built into their timetable.

Adapting to independent, research-led learning is made especially difficult as an immediate follow up to years spent in secondary education. In micro-managing students to pass exams and tuck their shirts in, schools and colleges fail to prepare pupils for the antithesis; learning which is grounded in individual spark and academic autonomy rather than box-ticking and assessment objectives. This is why students who have been educated privately - at schools where there is a culture of mollycoddling - tend to perform worse than their state school counterparts at university.

Andrea, now a postgraduate at the University of Edinburgh, suggests after "adjusting to the unstructured style of education", the hardest part of first year is “getting comfortable with a group of friends".

"There’s so much propaganda that the people you meet in halls would be ‘your friends for life’, and sometimes that was the case. But getting randomly placed with people isn’t the best way to ensure that."

The pressure to find a clique of friends as soon as you move into your accommodation is a common complaint amongst students. Nick, an undergraduate at Southampton University, says: “I found the tension awful. No familiar faces wasn’t something I had ever dealt with before, and I found it far too easy to just hide away in halls."

Unrealistic expectations of university also don’t help. Some students slog their way through UCAS with dreams of Oxbridge quads and midnight discussions of Sartre, others fantasise about Animal House frat parties, a tightly-bound pack of mates, and an endless stream of tequila. However you imagine university, the belief that your time there will be "the best years of your life" can only add to the self-consciousness of the experience.

A report published by the NUS in 2013 revealed one in five students consider themselves to have a mental health problem, with more than 25% not telling anyone about how they feel. Though talking about mental health is not as taboo as it once was, clearly there are still many students who feel uncomfortable discussing these issues with friends and family, let alone with professional counselors.

Marc Shilling, who also sits on the Student Minds Advisory Committee, believes that systematic changes in the way universities tackle mental illness are vital:

"All universities should have the same pastoral/mental health coordinators in place for when a student arrives. From our first meeting [The Student Minds Advisory Committee] it was clear that each uni varies in regards to support. There should definitely be a focus on mental health support around the start of uni and at exam times, maybe in the form of a lecture promoting support that is available (student minds peer support, medical centers etc). [...] It's obvious to say that the commissioners should put more money in to having staff available to support students, as a first instance."

As mental health services shut down due to spending cuts, it seems there are increasingly fewer places for students to turn to when they need help.

The best advice for freshers then would be to seek out whatever services their universities offer, but also to have honest conversations with flatmates, tutors, and course mates about mental health.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 08457 90 90 90
  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994; email: or visit the website
  • href="" target="_hplink">Young Minds

    offers information to young people about mental health and emotional wellbeing
  • HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pmand 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41
  • HeadMeds - a straight-talking website on mental health medication
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