Going to uni presents a whole host of challenges. It can be extremely unsettling to leave one’s hometown, friends and family, and adjust to new surroundings and people. The stress of uni may exacerbate a pre-existing mental health issue, or influence the onset of one (or more). And while student life appears fun and exciting on paper (e.g. heavy drinking, drugs and late nights), this kind of environment can also take a massive toll on one’s wellbeing.
According to a YouGov survey, 1 in 4 students experience a mental health issue – the majority suffering from depression or anxiety. Another survey published by the National Union of Students (NUS), found that 78% of students say they experienced a mental health problem in the last year. In addition, 33% reported having suicidal thoughts, rising to 55% for LGBT people. Self-harm and suicide attempts are also a noticeable problem at some unis.
The fact that mental health problems are so common within higher education does not make them any easier to manage. If you are genuinely struggling – and especially if you feel you’re at ‘breaking point’ - there are some steps you can take that can make a world of difference.
Talk to a counsellor or therapist
Your university will have a counselling service, so don’t feel hesitant, ashamed or embarrassed about seeking professional help. It’s there for a reason! The service will be free and confidential, and can offer an open, non-judgmental and empathetic space for you to express your thoughts and feelings.
Counselling tends to be shorter and more focused than psychotherapy. It’s often used to handle a specific issue, perhaps the stressful nature of one’s studies. Counselling can help with mild versions of common mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. So if the mental health problem is more serious, then psychotherapy could be the way to go.
Speak to friends and family
When you’re used to having a support network at home – trustworthy friends and family members you can speak to in times of distress and struggle – it can be tough to be away from home; especially if you’re experiencing hopelessness, crippling anxiety or a nervous breakdown. While you may have good friends at uni, you might not feel comfortable confiding in them.
However, even if you’re far away from home – perhaps even studying in a different country – this doesn’t mean that your support network has vanished. Phoning or Skyping your parents or a good friend during a particularly troubling period at uni can be cathartic, and help you to see things from a different point of view. Your friend may be going through (or has been through) a similar experience, so opening up may help you to see that you’re not alone.
Also, if you feel that you need to go home to see friends and family, and be in a familiar and comforting environment, then there’s no shame in doing so. If you go home for a weekend or even longer, you’re not running away from your problems, but taking action that you know will help.
Adjust your lifestyle
It may not seem obvious at the time, but binge drinking, poor sleep, a sedentary lifestyle and eating lots of junk food can increase the risk of depression. It’s crucial to understand the link between lifestyle and mental health. Heavy drinking is rampant and pretty much taken for granted by students. It’s easy to spend all day smoking weed, watching Netflix and eating junk food.
Even when Freshers is over, everyone is still probably going out clubbing or partying on consecutive nights. If you throw in the pressure of your studies into the mix, then it’s no wonder that so many students end up suffering so much. Remember: the most important thing is to look after your mental health, rather than worrying about missing out or being considered anti-social by declining another invitation for pre-drinks and a night of Jagerbombs and cheesy music.
Adjusting your lifestyle in a positive way means adopting positive habits, as well as doing away with negative ones. Joining a gym and doing regular exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants for the treatment of depression. There’s also a wealth of evidence to suggest that practising meditation can alleviate stress, depression and anxiety.
It’s okay to struggle at uni. Don’t buy into the unrealistic expectation that you’re meant to be having the time of your life, and that if you don’t, that it’s somehow your fault. Make use of the support available, speak out and make decisions that will benefit you. In this way, uni can help you find ways to take of yourself when you’re at your lowest. This may be a hard lesson. But it’s immensely valuable and can allow you to handle other challenging situations in the future.
Sam Woolfe writes for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice. To browse graduate jobs London and graduate jobs Manchester, visit their website.