If you started at university this year, now might be the time when you’re starting to find things a bit tough. You’re struggling to fit in, make new friends, keep up with your studies, meet essay deadlines, juggle a part-time job, pay the rent and get on with your new flatmates… it’s no wonder you might struggle with anxiety and depression at university too!

Mental health difficulties are common among students. But you’re not alone, and help is available. University is a place where you can thrive, with the right support.

Depression and anxiety at university – you’re not alone

University is a new and often overwhelming experience – especially in your first year. It’s probably your biggest life change to date – there’s just so much new stuff to get used to. A period of adjustment is inevitable.

Depression and anxiety are both very common on campus. In fact, in an large-scale survey of UK students in 2018, one in five said they’d had a mental health diagnosis – with depression and anxiety topping the list. So if you’re struggling, it’s not just you! Many of the students around you are too.

Mental health difficulties can lead to problems with both academic attainment and your quality of life. But you can overcome depression and anxiety, and live your best life at university. There are support systems in place on campus to help you – and lots of tools and strategies you can use to improve your mental health and wellbeing.

Why you might experience anxiety at university

There are many reasons why you might feel anxious at university. And, on top of all the ‘traditional’ student worries, we’ve also had COVID to deal with! It’s no wonder you feel stressed and anxious. Things that may cause anxiety include:

  • Academic struggles. University can be a steep learning curve. You’re not only jumping up a level academically, you might be taking a subject you’ve never studied before. It’s common to feel that you’re falling behind.
  • Workload. Aside from grappling with your subject, the sheer volume of essays, deadlines, tests and exams can be tough. On top of this, you may have a part-time job to fit in. Learning how to manage your workload is an important part of coping at university.
  • Financial anxiety. Having to scrape by on little or no money, or worrying about increasing student debts, is no fun at all. And it can be a distraction from your academic work.
  • Health anxiety. In this era of COVID, an added worry is the possibility of contracting coronavirus – or picking it up on campus and passing it on to your family.
  • Social anxiety. University is not just an academic but a social environment. Social factors that may cause anxiety include social pressures and ‘fitting in’. And everyone else just seems to be having a better time than you. The FOMO is real.

Common causes of depression at university

It’s normal to have ups and downs at university. But if your symptoms of depression persist for two weeks or more, you should seek help. Even mild depression can make your everyday routine a struggle – things like going to lectures or socialising. Things that may lead to depression at university include:

  • Homesickness. This may be your first extended period away from home. It’s natural to miss your friends and family, and the familiarity and comfort of home.
  • Culture shock. Homesickness is compounded if you’re an international student, and you’re coping not just with leaving home but moving to a new country too. You may also experience culture shock if your family background is very different to the world you now find yourself in.
  • Social factors. These may include loneliness, difficulty making new friends, lacking social support – or dealing with toxic flatmates.
  • Relationship difficulties. Whether friends, family or romantic relationships, any ‘people problems’ can affect your studies; and it’s possible your new university life may also negatively impact some of your existing relationships.
  • Overwhelm. Managing your academic workload and balancing it with other commitments, such as a job or family responsibilities, can lead not only to anxiety but to feelings of overwhelm and depression.

8 ways to overcome anxiety and depression at university

You don’t have to struggle alone. Help is available both on and off campus – and there are strategies you can use to give your mental wellbeing a boost. Here are some things to try:

  1. Find someone to talk to. This might be a friend, a family member, a flatmate or a tutor. There will also be a university counselling service that you can use, or you may choose to speak to a GP or therapist. Because anxiety and depression among students is so common, no one will be surprised or judgemental if you share that you’re struggling, and there are support systems in place to help you. So don’t bottle up your feelings.
  2. Speak to your tutors. You’ll usually have a personal tutor assigned to you, who you can approach about any difficulties. But you can also speak to your subject tutors if you feel you’re struggling academically or with your workload. They’re there to help, so don’t leave it too late. You may be able to request an extension to essay deadlines, for example.
  3. Get out more. It’s easy to become isolated at university, especially when you’re new and don’t know many people. But if you can overcome your social anxiety and get out and join in with the many activities on offer, you’ll soon get to know people, and they will become a vital source of social support. And everyone’s in the same boat. Make the first move, and someone will probably be grateful you reached out. And you might just make some friends for life.
  4. Look after your physical health. A healthy diet and regular exercise has a positive impact on both your physical and mental health. Getting out into nature is also proven to help with stress, anxiety and depression. So if you have a leafy campus, a nearby park, or a natural environment nearby, get out and go for a walk. This may be the last thing you feel like doing if you’re depressed – but even a short walk can help you on the road to recovery.
  5. Challenge your thoughts. Negative thoughts can lead to anxiety – but the stories we tell ourselves usually aren’t true. If you think everyone else on your course is cleverer or more popular than you – or simply having a better time – challenge yourself to look for the evidence. They’re probably secretly struggling too. ‘Imposter syndrome’ is particularly common if you’re from a working class or other under-represented background, or if you’re the first of your family to go to university. Remind yourself that you got in – so you’re good enough to be there.
  6. Structure your day. No one is going to stop you partying all night, getting up late or skipping meals. But these things take their toll. Try to create structure in your day, even if you don’t have a rigid timetable of lectures and seminars. Getting up and going to bed at the same time every day, for example, can do wonders for your energy levels and stop you feeling tired all the time. So you’ll be better able to cope with the demands of student life.
  7. Practice self-care. Student life can be hectic. Be sure to schedule ‘me time’, in between academic work and socialising, where you take time to do activities that bring you joy. Try starting the day with some mindful meditation. Deep breathing can kickstart your parasympathetic nervous system and provide a sense of calm.
  8. Use self-help resources. Check out our ‘Student life’ collection in Self-care, our audio and video library. Created by therapists, it’s packed with real-life therapy skills and coping techniques to help you get the most out of university life. We’ve also launched two new audio courses, ‘Deal with Depression’ and ‘Manage Anxiety’, which will help you understand and overcome these common mental health difficulties.

Starting university is often a big adjustment. But, for most people, it’s an ultimately satisfying experience – socially, academically, personally and professionally. Getting to university is a huge achievement – so well done for getting this far! And graduating can give you a sense of ‘mastery’ in your specialism. Mastery is when we accomplish something that makes us feel good about ourselves – and it’s great for self-esteem.

So don’t let an initially bumpy ride put you off or derail you – and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. You don’t have to do this alone. With the right help, support and mindset, you can thrive at university. It might be a cliché – but your university days might just turn out to be the best days of your life.