“I know it’s common to have ups and downs...but the downs were really low. So low that I couldn’t see myself coming out of them.”
Jade*, a 23-year-old medic at Kings College London, developed anxiety in her second year of university after she experienced emotional abuse. The illness manifested itself physically, with symptoms including a racing heart and nausea, as well as physiologically. “Things I’d been confident about doing before – studying for exams, writing essays, and spending time with big groups of people – became a complete nightmare for me,” she told HuffPost UK.
University has the potential to shape and mould you as a person. From societies to activism to meeting people you might never have met otherwise, starting uni can feel like you’re sitting on the brink of something exciting and unknown, marked out by independence. But like all transition points, there are unique pressures that come with it too, which can put a strain on mental health.
Ahead of the new academic year, HuffPost UK asked students and experts for their top tips on maintaining good mental health at uni, plus how to access help if you need it.
Rebekah Dussek, a 20-year-old French and history student, also experienced mental illness at uni. She had depression, an eating disorder and self-harmed before coming to university, but continuing mental health problems made day-to-day life a struggle when she got there: “Things like getting out of bed were hard enough.”
Rebekah also felt that friends didn’t understand what she was going through, particularly after she attempted suicide in May and was admitted to hospital. “They called me selfish and inconsiderate,” she said. The solution she opted for was to move university, from Southampton to Nottingham, which is closer to home.
Thankfully, both Jade and Rebekah sought support from a variety of services, and eventually found the right thing for them.
One night one of Jade’s friends caught her sobbing in her room, and strongly encouraged her to email her tutor. Despite feeling awkward about getting support, she took her friend’s advice. “To this day, I am still so, so grateful that she made me do this,” she said. “Seeing my tutor was probably the first time I’d openly talked about how I felt. It felt like a safe environment and, even though I hadn’t known her long at all, I felt like she cared and knew what to do in this situation.”
Jade tried university counselling but found she was most suited to external Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). “It provided me with cognitive and practical means of arguing against my anxious thoughts and feelings,” she said.
After CBT she had 10 sessions with Mind Counselling Services, where she felt seen and heard: “I was treated as an individual, my counsellor was perceptive and picked up on things from previous sessions. It truly felt like my counsellor was rooting for my mental health to improve, and it definitely did.”
Rebekah found that the University Enabling Services (which provides support for students within university) and her GP were notably supportive. The university’s Advice Centre was also helpful for a wide range of issues: “You could go with any problem from money to exam stress.”
Tips for looking after your mental health at university:
Eva Crossan Jory, vice president of welfare at the National Union of Students (NUS) told HuffPost UK her top five tips for looking after your mental health when starting University:
“Register with a GP - plan ahead, if you need to see your GP about your mental health, you might not feel up to travelling all the way home to get an appointment. You can register as a temporary patient at your local surgery so NHS help is nearby should you need it.”
“Keep in touch - starting university can feel overwhelming so don’t forget to check in with your family or friends from your previous life. Relationships might move on, but talking to people who know you best can help keep you grounded.”
“Prioritise self care - look after yourself, make sure you do your grocery shopping, cook nice food, take regular breaks, get enough sleep, and make time for yourself. Don’t wait until you’re feeling overwhelmed, start making good habits part of your routine.”
“Build up your collective - Self-care isn’t selfish, but looking after your community is just as important. Make time for your friends, colleagues or housemates. Do nice things for each other. Help to share the load with each other, and talk about how you are all getting on. Look out for groups and clubs that are relevant to your interests, and if you can’t find one, start one. Your Student Union (SU) is the font of all knowledge on joining and starting societies, so go and chat to them.”
“Know where to get help - The Samaritans 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@example.com. If you feel your situation is an emergency, don’t wait, get to A&E.”
Rebekah’s top tip is to visit your university before term starts if you get the chance, “[so] you can be really comfortable with your wider surroundings, and then you can know where you’re going the first time you have to get a bus or go to the supermarket”. She also recommends letting the university know about your mental health problems before arriving.
Meanwhile Jade recommends checking in with yourself amidst the mayhem of fresher’s week and subsequent nights out. “It can be a lot of fun, but you can also feel the after effects pretty soon after,” she said. There are routine questions Jade advises asking yourself: “Are you eating and sleeping enough? Are you happy with your balance of studying and socialising? Do your university friends make you feel good?”
Reaching out at the first instance is also crucial. “Get support from someone you trust as soon as you can,” Jade said. “It may not solve everything but it also has the potential to make you feel even slightly better.” And above all, she said to trust yourself if you get the feeling something’s not right. “You know yourself better than anyone else.”
*Some names have been changed to protect students’ privacy.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org