Starting university is a huge life change that can sometimes trigger mental health challenges. Find out about the key causes and the best ways to maintain wellbeing.
Before starting university, you’re usually presented with an ivory tower ideal of the experience. From promotional photos of friends laughing arm-in-arm on lush green lawns, to clichés around ‘university being the best time of your life’, it’s easy to have high expectations before your first term.
Yet the truth is, it’s common for new students to experience stress, loneliness and mental health issues. Signs can include:
· Lack of motivation
· Social withdrawal
· Feeling sad, numb or low
· Feeling anxious, irritable or on edge
· Sleep issues
· Issues with food e.g. bingeing, purging or restricting
· Over indulging in drugs or alcohol
· Falling behind with studies
· Not wanting to leave your room
· Addictive behaviours around the internet or gaming
· Self-harm e.g. cutting
Let’s look at some of the reasons for this, plus steps that you can take to maintain your mental health at uni and thrive.
A 2020 survey by Ranstad found that over a third of UK students (37%) experienced their mental wellbeing changing for the worse since starting university, while 64% stated that their studies and university lifestyle had negatively impacted their wellbeing. Over half of the students surveyed (55%) had also considered leaving their course.
A further 2021 study of first year university students by the Office of National Statistics found that 37% showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 39% showed signs of anxiety.
However, it’s worth noting that many of the students in the latter study could have been heavily impacted by the effects of the pandemic, including social distancing and a switch to virtual learning. For this reason, it’s important not to see these statistics as all doom and gloom. They don’t mean that you can’t have a rewarding time at uni — they just highlight that if you’re struggling then you’re not alone, as many other students go through the same thing.
But it’s also important to examine what could be causing these feelings too. In fact, there are various factors that can create sadness and stress after making the transition to university.
According to Mind, some of the main mental health issues that students experience include anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Also, if you had an existing mental health issue before starting university then you might find that this big life change can cause it to return or worsen.
Many people start uni in their late teens and early twenties, a time where they're already managing transitions into adulthood — for instance, developing their identity as autonomous individuals, separating from their families and becoming more independent. All of a sudden you might find yourself juggling studies, socialising and part-time work, as well as new responsibilities like cooking, budgeting and paying bills. Throw money worries into the mix and it can feel totally overwhelming.
Plus you will have to negotiate new social situations. For instance, you might be living in halls or flat shares with total strangers, or noticing people in your classes forming cliques, or trying to navigate dating as an independent adult for the first time.
Added to this, you are away from your normal support network of family, home, school, friends and community. This can be a huge wrench, especially if your university setting is very different from what you are used to. It’s very normal to feel homesick or lonely at times.
Plus if you had difficult experiences in childhood or are dealing with any kind of trauma or PTSD, then these stressors could easily trigger feelings of fear, sadness, loneliness, shame or inadequacy. In many ways, life at uni might not feel all that safe or reassuring to you. Added to this, your inner critic might be busy berating you for not having the ‘best time of your life’ like you’re ‘supposed’ to. Yet remember, despite the smiles of those around you, many of your peers might be feeling the same way too.
Also, it’s totally okay to take stock and ask yourself ‘Is this what I want?’ Before beginning a course, there can be an intense focus on achieving the right grades to be accepted onto it. But once you get there, it might not be what you thought it would be. Maybe you felt there was an expectation that you would go to uni but now you're there, you realise that it's not for you. If you are feeling this way, then it is important to know that there are many routes to successful careers that don't involve a university degree. Plus there are also routes to getting a degree that don’t involve attending an institution full-time and in person.
With all this in mind, if you are experiencing wellbeing issues right now then here are a few tips for how you can start to feel better.
1. Take care of your physical wellbeing
It might sound obvious but there really is a relationship between your mental and physical health. When you’re away from the structure of your family home it can be very easy to fall into a lack of routine or develop unhealthy habits, yet this can have a big impact on your mood and motivation. Part of adjusting to uni is finding routines that work for you and setting the boundaries that you need.
So aim to eat a balanced diet (instant mac ‘n’ cheese might be cheap but it’s not ideal for every day), get regular exercise and keep to a sleep routine when you can. Also, if you’re feeling low then avoid too much alcohol as this can be a depressant. And if you feel unmotivated about the whole exercise thing then why not join the student leisure centre or an activity club?
2. Try to identify any issues
Starting uni can be such a whirlwind. With so much going on and so much to adjust to, it can be easy to lose touch with yourself and how you're feeling. Taking time to check in with yourself can help you identify how you're doing and how you’re feeling. When we experience wellbeing issues like feeling angry or anxious or low, the root cause isn’t always obvious. If you’re feeling out of sorts and don’t know why, then that’s totally okay.
However, it can also be useful to try to identify any possible causes. For instance, when did these feelings or changes in behaviour start? Was there a significant event, such as moving into student accommodation, having your first exam or struggling with a particular class? Sometimes, identifying a cause or contributor can be a good start in identifying why you’re feeling the way you are — and what steps you can take to fix it.
Also, bear in mind that struggling with things like focusing on studies, socialising or being away from home — while all totally normal — can also be a sign of an underlying condition like ADHD or Aspergers. If you think that you might tick some of the boxes for these, then seek advice from the student medical service.
3. Get support from your university
Every university has a range of resources to help students who need advice or support. These can include mental health services, as well as specific support centres for LGBTQ+ students, international students and students with disabilities. And if you are struggling financially then hardship funds, grants and scholarships could be available.
So don’t be afraid to reach out — and that includes to your lecturers if you are feeling overwhelmed by the workload or are struggling with a particular subject. You can also connect with the learning development centre for advice on study skills and time management. Plus the Student Minds charity offers a range of mental health resources.
Remember, these support structures have all been set up for a reason: to assist you, offer advice and let you know that you’re not alone. There is no shame in getting help.
4. Be kind to yourself
While it’s great to have goals, try not to put too much pressure on yourself to constantly achieve. Be mindful of things like perfectionism, comparing yourself to others and having unrelenting standards.
Starting uni is a big lifestyle adjustment in many different ways. From the academic side of things, it is also a different way of learning and being assessed. So it can be easy to lose perspective and for your inner critic to take over.
It’s also important not to isolate yourself. Often, when you’re not feeling yourself, the last thing you want to do is socialise. Yet even if you don’t feel like hitting the student union for a big night out, it can really help to find groups to connect with in a more lowkey way. These could include doing activities that you already feel comfortable with, such as existing hobbies.
Are you a fan of theatre? Sports? Board games? Creative writing? Photography? Even the act of dropping along to a meet-up can help lift your mood and make you feel less isolated. Plus if it’s based around a shared interest then there’s less pressure to make small talk if you don’t feel up to it.
And remember, it can take time to bond with people. TV shows and movies can create the impression that you will have an instant group of best friends for life by the end of your first term. But finding your tribe doesn’t always happen overnight and that’s okay.
Your ideal university experience doesn’t have to look like other people’s. Maybe wild nights out will never be your thing and maybe you’d just prefer to join a student hiking club or a study group. That’s completely fine, just aim to discover the side of university life that suits you best and explore how you want to engage with others. Give yourself time to find your own way and work out what your values are. It can be a rewarding journey.
5. Talk to a psychotherapist
When it comes to mental health, it can really help to explore what’s going on at a deeper level. A good therapist can help you to develop strategies for managing overwhelming feelings, deal with issues like social anxiety, or talk about past experiences that might be affecting you right now. They can also help you to develop a routine that works for you and deal with any worries that you might be feeling around your studies.
Also, if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts then there's lots of support out there for you. This can include uni mental health services, talking to a psychotherapist or psychologist, or contacting the Samaritans. The uni experience can feel intense at times but it doesn’t last forever and there’s always a way through. Never feel like you have to battle on alone.
If you do decide on therapy, then what kind would be best for you? Sometimes, it’s a case of finding a therapist that you click with and who feels like the right fit — clinical and counselling psychologists will often tailor an approach to suit you and draw upon different elements depending on what you want to work on. In other cases, you might benefit from a psychotherapist who has specialised in specific approaches.
For instance, if you feel that you’re stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking or behaviour, then you could consider ACT, CAT, CBT, CFT or Mindfulness Therapy. Or if you think that your mental health issue could be rooted in trauma or an upsetting experience, then EMDR could help. And there are various other approaches too, including the deep self-exploration offered by Schema Therapy, Art Therapy and Psychodynamic Therapy.
Also, if the idea of talking to someone face-to-face (whether online or in person) feels daunting, then don’t forget that text-based therapy is an option.
University is never going to be perfect and it’s rarely going to be the ideal that people make it out to be. Yet it’s also possible to find supportive friends, have exciting new experiences and do well in your studies. When you’re feeling low, it can seem as if all those things are out of reach but they’re not.
The first step is seeking support, whether from your university, peers, family, GP or a therapist. That way, you can start creating the rewarding student experience that you deserve.
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