University is often our first taste of freedom – and it can be a little daunting. Between the heady mix of alcohol and parties, you’ve got to master the art of cooking the perfect pesto pasta, work out how to use an overpriced laundry machine and navigate a brand-new social circle. And that’s all before you make it to your first 9 am lecture. 

University is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. But what if the novelty wears off, the late nights catch up with you and you’re left with just the terrifying part? What do you do when you’re really struggling?

Mental health at university: a growing problem

It’s not an uncommon question. Mental health issues are a startling reality in campuses across the country. In fact, in an extensive 2018 study, 1 in 5 students revealed they had a mental health diagnosis, with depression and anxiety topping the list. Meanwhile, 1 in 3 students said that they experienced a serious psychological issue for which they felt they needed professional help.

When we picture university we may remember the glossy pictures from the brochures, the smiling photos of students in libraries and green spaces. But the reality is more people are struggling than you think. And these mental health problems are bound to have been compounded by Covid and the onslaught of lockdowns and restrictions it has brought.

This is possibly the biggest upheaval you’ve experienced in your life, and it’s understandable if you’re feeling anxious, low, or just a bit overwhelmed. Nobody could predict that you’d be studying under such intense circumstances. So you should be proud that you’ve gotten to this point – it shows just how resilient you are. 

It’s normal to experience ups and downs at university but if the lows last for a long period, seek help. Don’t wait until you’re at breaking point to reach out. You may want to make a good impression or feel like you’ve got to showcase your best bits but remember you’re all in the same boat. Your friends are probably struggling just as much as you are so you don’t have to do this alone. Your needs are not less than the needs of others, and you deserve to be happy. 

Here are just a few common problems you might be facing at university:

  • Social pressures and fitting in
  • Loneliness and trouble making new friends
  • Homesickness
  • Financial stresses
  • Social anxiety
  • Illness
  • Work stress and burnout
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Dealing with difficult or toxic flatmates 
  • If you’re an international student you may experience culture shock
  • Lack of boundaries and structure
  • Family difficulties
  • Part-time work stress 
  • Housing difficulties
  • Alcohol and substance misuse 
  • Relationship difficulties

Tips to help you look after your mental health at university 

Be prepared

Let’s say you already know you have mental health problems. As soon as you can, try and figure out the mental health services available at your university and register for a GP. Admitting you need help isn’t a sign of weakness, it shows inner strength.

Create structure

The transition from living under your parents’ roof to living by yourself is enough to put anyone in a mental tailspin. The line between work and play is blurred and no one is going to tell you off for partying several days in a row, sleeping in and cooking yet another beige meal. But these bad habits can quickly catch up on you. As humans, we thrive off of structure. So, if you’re floundering, try and make your own routine. Wake up at the same time every day, eat well, practise self-care and schedule time for exercise, studying and relaxation.

Manage your work-load

Deadlines can pile up in the blink of an eye so organisation is key if you want to manage your work-load. It can be tempting to ignore that essay you don’t want to write but avoidance helps no one. You’re just delaying the inevitable and making things harder for yourself. Keep a diary of future deadlines, break your work up into manageable chunks, and start your essays early. Future you will thank you! 

If you’ve tried all of this and you’re still struggling, your university may be able to make adjustments to help you cope. For instance, you might be able to complete your degree part-time or get more time for your assignments. 

Practice Self-care

Between exam stress, money worries and the endless hangovers, university life can be a mental minefield, even at the best of times. It’s important to make time destress and unwind. Be sure to schedule ‘me time’, where you take time to do activities that bring you joy. And you may find it helpful to practice mindfulness too. Deep breathing can help kickstart our parasympathetic system and provide us with a sense of calm, for instance. Or you may find that starting the day with some mindful meditation is all you need to unwind the mind. 

Self-care is something we should be practising even when we’re not struggling. But if you don’t know where to start, check out the ‘Coping with 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. 

Notice your triggers

Alcohol and drug use, lack of sleep, lack of exercise and a poor diet… All of these negative behaviours can wreak havoc on your mental wellbeing — and they’re an all-too-common reality at university. If you find yourself in a dark space, it may be worth keeping a diary or acknowledging these triggers and how they impact your mood. If alcohol and substance use is an issue, there are also plenty of NHS services, as well as charities such as Drinkaware, FRANK and ADFam, who can help you cope. 

Exercise

When you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s easy to scoff when someone says exercise can improve your mood. But there is some truth in it. When we exercise, our bodies release feel-good hormones – endorphins and serotonin – which gives us a positive feeling and a natural energy boost. That’s what gives athletes the feeling of a ‘runner’s high’. Exercise not only makes us feel happier but it also helps us better manage our cortisol levels, the hormone that’s released when we’re put under emotional or psychological stress. 

Create a positive living environment

Loud noises, piles of dishes and squabbles over who last took out the bins… Living in student accommodation can be tough. The occasional squabble is to be expected but if the rows never end or your flatmates are making home life difficult, don’t suffer in silence. If you’re in university halls, it may be worth asking about the possibility of changing rooms as they may be able to help. 

Avoid burnout

It’s only natural that you want to do well in your studies. But remember your university degree is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll have endless essays and projects over the next few years so don’t burn yourself out. If you find yourself unable to meet the impossibly high standards you’ve set, try not to be harsh on yourself. Your sense of self-worth shouldn’t be defined by your academic success. It may help to jot down some manageable short-term goals so you don’t get overwhelmed.

Tackle imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome – the feeling that you’re inadequate or don’t fit in – is sadly an all-too-common reality for many students. And it’s particularly the case if you’re from a marginalised group. Endless studies highlight the underrepresentation of BAME students in higher education, and it can be an alienating experience if you feel like you’re always the odd one out in a room. 

If you’re a student parent or a student with a disability you may feel like you’ve got to constantly justify your reasons for studying or living in student accommodation. Or maybe you come from a low-income background and feel like a bit of an outsider. 

Imposter syndrome can tarnish our self-esteem. But remember you have a right to be here – you’re just as worthy as anyone else. Why not reach out to someone you trust or join a society where you feel represented and heard? 

Stay connected

Homesickness is a horrible feeling. But, even if you’re miles away from your home, remember your friends and family are only ever a phone call away. We may want to forge our own path and showcase our independence but it’s important to stay connected to your roots. It can ground us and make sense of how we’re feeling. 

Go to therapy 

If you still feel a bit lost after talking to your tutors and loved ones, a therapist may be able to provide a safe space for you to talk about what’s on your mind. Working together you’ll trace where your problems stem from and practice skills and techniques to help you cope with student life. 

Take time out

Your mental health should be your number one priority and you may find that you need a bit of time out to get back on track. That’s completely understandable so don’t be hard on yourself. Every course is different, but it may be possible to defer the course for a while or repeat a term or year. Take the time you need and don’t feel bad for putting your mental wellbeing first. The process can sometimes be daunting so be sure to check in with friends and family too. 

But most, of all, be kind to yourself 

We’re often told that university is ‘the best years of our life’ so it can be heart-breaking when the reality doesn’t quite stack up. Chances are you set yourself impossible standards though, so practice self-compassion. Pause and take a moment to realise how far you’ve come. You worked so hard, got impressive grades and made it to university. You’re living independently for the first time and having to deal with all the nerve-wracking experiences that brings. Be proud of your journey so far and remember this is only the start. You have so much to  look forward to.