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The State of Student Mental Health at University

Let's be honest. University can be a tough place, particularly for freshers. It’s one of the most sizeable leaps of faith we take, and it comes at a highly vulnerable time in our psychological development. Students are forced to adapt to numerous dramatic changes during the transition to university life in lifestyle, course demands, social groups and levels of independence.

The majority of mental health problems develop by the age of 24 (MFH, 2016 ), making university students a group at high-risk of developing mental illness. Students that struggle to adapt to university are likely to be exposed to a prolonged period of stress and so increase the chance of becoming ill. So, looking after your own mental health is one of the most important priorities as a student, as well as supporting others around you.

Anxiety and depression are the most commonly experienced mental illnesses within the student community, but students also experience eating disorders, self-harm, OCD, bipolar disorder, psychosis and personality disorders, to name a few.

All of this can lead to decreased performance and interpersonal problems, resulting in academic failure, drop out, job problems and negative social consequences. Whilst some of you may find these varying in how they would affect your life, we can all agree that the tragic rise in suicides in recent years demonstrates an overwhelming problem.

  • Between 2007 and 2016, student suicide rates increased by 56%, rising from 6.6 to 10.3 per 100,000 of the population. (Source )

  • Students are now more likely to take their own lives than other young people in the general population (Source ).

  • Over the past 5 years, 94% of universities have noted a sharp increase in the number of people seeking mental health support (Source ).

  • The number of students dropping out with mental health problems at university has more than trebled in recent years (Source ).

“More than half (54%) of respondents who reported having experienced mental health problems said they did not seek support. A third said they would not know where to get mental health support from at their college or university if they needed it, while 40% reported being nervous about the support they would receive from their institution” — Guardian, 2015

What is causing the declining condition of student mental health?

1. Moving away from home

For the majority of students university is the first move away from their creature comforts at home. This transition to independence is different for everyone who flies the nest. Some adapt favourably to the new situation, whereas for others, it comes as a hard adjustment with profound homesickness and separation anxiety. Then come the downsides of independence: ‘adult’ responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, laundry (how the hell do you use a washing machine?! What’s the difference between bio and non-bio?) and food shopping (why does cheese cost SO MUCH?!) are suddenly thrust upon you.

Obviously, this challenging mix of emotions is different from person to person, but for some, the sadness and anxiety can be overwhelming in a seemingly isolated environment, ripped from the safety blanket of home. Moreover, once you move to university, you will probably be leaving home friendships and relationships behind. The people you may have spent the last 10 years of your life seeing pretty much every day (whether you wanted to or not), all of a sudden feel very far away.

2. Social media & FOMO

University has probably been painted to you as ‘the best years of your life’ and you’ve probably heard parents and other adults remark that they ‘wish they could go back and do it again’. This places a lot of pressure on students to live up to these expectations, causing subsequent anxiety or disappointment for not fitting the ‘student stereotype’.

Throw social media into the mix, and you’ve got self-perpetuating FOMO from the endless stream of updates, invites and opportunities resulting in over-dependence on social validation, less in-person communications and the anxiety to make yourself available 24/7 by responding immediately to texts and posts. Excessive social media fosters a certain competition between someone’s real life and their virtual life, sometimes the virtual life wins the tug of war and becomes more important than real life.

Understandably, we’re all compelled to constantly compare ourselves to other people’s experiences at university. But, it doesn’t hurt to remember that if people constantly look like they’re having a good time, then they’re spending too much time make it appear that way. University is about the experience, the authenticity of which is severely reduced when experienced through a lens.

3. The student cliché

There is a university student stereotype. It includes baked beans and pot noodles, laziness and lie-ins and excessive partying and drinking… Picture sports socials, freshers wristbands and lanyards, foam parties and neon war stripes. As a student, if you don’t end a night in bed with a traffic cone (or indeed, another person), over the toilet vomiting, or in line at the fast food joint shop next to the student union, you might feel inadequate, constantly feeling like you’re not keeping up with the stereotype of a ‘student life’.

You don’t need to live in a perpetual race to keep up with the student cliché. Drink Aware found that 21% of students feel peer pressured to drink more than they normally would choose to. For those suffering from mental illness, sustaining a lifestyle of booze, drugs, unhealthy foods and erratic sleeping schedules can severely exacerbate your symptoms. If you are taking medication to treat your mental illness, even more, caution needs to be taken.

Also, as a student, it is likely that you have a lot more free time than you did before. Some people might really struggle to cope, and end up stuck in their own heads as the plentiful free hours can be an opportunity for the mind wander or ruminate.

4. Money Woes

Managing finances is one of the biggest stressors facing university students, as well as the foremost reason first-year students drop out (Guardian, 2017 ). The move to university is likely to be the first time that students have had to deal with personal financial concerns, so adapting to them may be hard. Moreover, the average UK student will now expect to finish with debts of around £50k. For international students, this will be exceptionally more as tuition fees start at around £10k a year, and can go up to £38k or more for medical degrees. The financial stress of not having enough money can impact on other aspects such as social life.

Stress and responsibility of managing your own money, as well as the stress of student debt, is linked to anxiety and depression and has been directly connected to the rise in numbers of students using mental health services. According to an NUS Survey , two-thirds of students worry about their finances “all the time” or “very often”, and more than one-third admit that financial worries affect their mental health.

5. New ways of working

With the step-up in education comes a larger level academic stress imposed on students. The reality of a university degree might come as a shock for those coming from the confines of a school classroom. School teachers both teach and consistently ensure that work is completed. However, at university, lecturers and professors just provide a framework and the skills from which students can explore the academic subject… so the responsibility for your learning will lie on your shoulders. Basically, no one tells you what to do anymore. Lectures only offer a basis from which to understand subjects — it’s the tip of the iceberg, and the real meat of your learning becomes from independent study.

You will be faced with a greater necessity for self-motivation to take part in lectures, tutorials and labs as well as self-discipline in your studying and time management. The way students at university access resources, keep to timetables and deadlines is vastly different to school students. However, you’re not dealing with this in isolation, every student will be dealing with the challenges of a new learning environment.

6. Student lifestyle

Students often have a ‘transient’ lifestyle, and it’s an odd situation, one that we’ll likely never experience again. Most students will live at home for half the year, and the rest of the year at university during term-time. If you are wishing to, or already are receiving mental health support from a doctors surgery, you will be spending over 25 weeks away from your primary mental health support centre (whether at home or university).

If you’re registered with a GP at university, if care is needed from a doctor out of term time at home, you will need to register as a temporary patient which provides only limited access to care. For those waiting months to reach the top of a waiting list for specialist NHS mental health care, they might be bumped to the bottom of the list again if they cannot attend their appointment due to it falling out of term time. Additionally, if you have built up a rapport of trust with a mental health practitioner, you might feel reluctant to do the same with another practitioner elsewhere, particularly if it’s for a limited amount of time.

So what can you do?

  • Change is a part of developing and growing as humans, and everyone around you will be having their own ups and downs. It might be difficult leaving your support system, especially if you’re suffering with mental illness, but there will be a lot of support whilst you’re at university and you will make new friends who become part of your support system. Having a trusted person to share your experience with is valuable, so accept help and support from those that care about you and it will build your resilience. Help others when they are struggling — everyone gets homesick for home family and friends, whether they would like to admit it or not. Yes, it might be tough maintaining those home friendships and relationships, but they’re only a phone call away if you’re missing them and you can use free weekends or reading weeks to pay them a visit. Plus, contrary to popular belief, long-distance relationships can, and will, work if you want it to.

  • If social media FOMO is starting to affect your mental health, you must reduce dependency on social media by limiting your activity — perhaps set aside a certain time of day to check all of your social media outlets. Practising mindfulness and meditation will also help you enjoy the things you’re doing in the here and now, instead of yearning for what else there could be.

  • If you are feeling pressured to maintain the stereotypical student lifestyle, be sure to remember to enjoy your student life as you’d like to live it, not to fit in. The choice to drink is yours, so if you don’t want to drink, Students’ Unions and student-led groups offer a range of social events and activities that are alcohol-free. If you suffer with mental health issues but do want to indulge in some alcoholic beverages, have a friend around you when you’re out, to help keep you safe.

  • If you have money problems, there are practical steps you can take to help yourself. This University of Nottingham’s guide is packed with valuable tips and advice.

  • Every university will have its own student mental health and counselling service, so check your university website or ask at an information desk. They can take steps to help alleviate this stress (think extended deadlines, or advance assignment setting). **Your personal tutor is also a great starting point if you want to talk about any problems you’re encountering, and receive direction to the right support services.

  • At the time of writing this, October 2018, there is no seamless solution transitioning from home to university health services between term-time and holidays. The most useful advice we can give is to plan ahead as much as possible. For example, if you have a prolonged period at home over summer, speak to your university GP about the support you can receive there, whether they can refer you to a team nearby. By speaking to your mental health support team prior to leaving, they can suggest a number of self-help techniques to help you cope. We know it’s not ideal, but you can also sign up as a temporary patient at another GP to ensure you can access a doctor and medication if needed, or look into online support and local peer-support groups. As another option, if you can afford it, it might be worth paying for private therapy.

By highlighting the key contributing factors to the declining state of student mental health, we hope we can raise awareness, ignite discussions, reduce stigma and help students to take control of their mental health and wellbeing.

Mental health illness is just like any other physical illness, and should never be isregarded. If you’re suffering, make an appointment with your GP. If you’re not registered, use the NHS directory to find your nearest surgery, or do some research to see if any practices near you offer more specialist mental health treatment.

If it is out of hours, don’t forget that there will always be someone at the other end of the phone waiting to talk to you, no matter what time of day or night — you’re never alone. Here are some of the main helplines:

The Samaritans — Their 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 .

Nightline — All universities have a nightline, which typically runs from around 8pm-8am during term time. They offer a completely confidential and anonymous service, where they listen to you and offer advice but allow you to make your own decisions on any further action. Head to the Nightline website to search the phone number for your university.

PAPYRUS — This suicide prevention charity run a HOPEline Monday-Friday 10am-5pm & 7–10pm, 2–5pm on the weekends.

Mind — Mind is the UK’s leading mental health charity, and you can call their infoline 9am-6pm, Monday-Friday, for further information about the mental health support in your local area.

SANE — Another leading mental health charity, SANE, run an out-of-hours helpline 4.30pm-10.30pm every day of the year on 0300 304 7000.

If you need urgent medical help, call 999 or visit your local A&E department. The NHS non-emergency number, 111, will also offer free medical advice whenever you need it.

As well as the main helplines listed above, there are a wide range of helplines, websites and support services dedicated to specific groups or types of mental illness.

© 2022 Sam Loyd. All rights reserved.