Self-care to support: how to look after your mental health at university

<span>Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images

Luis Davies, a history student at Northumbria University, started university feeling positive about his experience. But after spending time alone during lockdown, he began to feel increasingly anxious. First he stopped going out, then his grades took a tumble.

Feeling lost, Luis went to the doctors, where he was prescribed sertraline, an antidepressant. Another doctor then recommended he try counselling. He had a vague memory Northumbria had sent an email about the university’s mental health support, so he searched his inbox, which led him to the wellbeing team.

“The help I received seemed to work much better for me, so much so that I was able to stop taking the medication. The advice that I received continues to help me now, even though I no longer go to counselling,” he says.

Luis is now emphatic about the benefits of contacting your university if you’re struggling, and trying out counselling or therapy.

Dr Dominique Thompson, a GP who has written a book on student mental health, agrees. “Universities provide a whole range of help and support, and many have a close working relationship with a local GP practice. University counselling services are usually easy to find, and will often work alongside disability teams, mental health advisers, wellbeing teams, and even the university faith teams or residence staff will often be trained to support student mental health.”

Students looking for help should start by talking to someone at the university they can trust, and looking up “student support services” on their institution’s website as well as more general advice on mental health charity Student Minds’ Student Space website, she recommends.

Even if you don’t feel you’re struggling, it’s important to look after yourself at uni to prevent problems from arising. “The first thing that helps is connecting with other people to create a new social network of support, for example through your course, your accommodation, your clubs and activities or through volunteering,” Thompson suggests.

She also recommends building self-confidence by trying new activities and experiences, from cycling everywhere to working part-time or even cooking a new recipe. Getting enough sleep is also vital – probably aabout eight to nine hours.

It’s also important to be kind to yourself. Students starting university in 2024 will have experienced disruption to their education and social life during the pandemic, which has affected many young people’s confidence.

“Many feel more worried about going to new places, or being somewhere new, and some have developed eating issues or other serious problems,” Thompson says.

Now, more than ever, the current cohort of students need to prioritise their mental health and wellbeing as well as achieving good grades. Jenny Smith, policy manager at Student Minds, recommends putting time into your schedule for self-care, whether that’s sleep, eating nutritious meals or exercising. She also recommends developing a support network of existing family members and school friends to turn to when times are tough.

Ellen Smith, head of student mental health and wellbeing at Northumbria University, suggests that new students make a wellbeing plan before they arrive at university. “This should include thinking about what they currently do to help them to manage their wellbeing – how can they continue to do those things in their new environment? What routines are helpful and what activities do they enjoy?”

She adds that students should think about the independent living skills they need and how they can learn them, ideally before term starts.

All students should familiarise themselves with their university’s support offer as soon as they arrive – especially those with existing conditions, Smith says. The support offered by universities can take many forms, including one-to-one advice or therapy, online self-help and cognitive behavioural therapy programmes, 24/7 helplines and wellbeing apps, accommodation representatives and personal tutors, she says.

It’s important to be aware that if you don’t immediately feel you’re having the time of your life, you’re not alone. Maureen McLaughlin, academic registrar and director of student services at Northumbria University, says that lots of students she encounters struggle with “pressure and anxiety” about grades, as well as with the transition from home to university, along with financial worries.

This cohort are facing particularly heightened anxiety, she says, with the long-term effects of the pandemic combining with stress around the cost of living, alongside the usual challenges like “impostor syndrome, concerns about the work being too difficult or not quite what you thought it might be in terms of interest and challenge”.

“Always remember you are good enough to be here and you deserve the opportunity,” she says. “There is no such thing as a daft question – ask and keep asking! Whatever you are going through you are not alone, reach out and seek support and help.”

Embracing diversity

Growing numbers of young people are getting diagnosed as neurodivergent, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and autism. For those starting university, it’s important to be aware that there is plenty of support.

Most universities have support services specifically for disabled students, says Jenny Smith. These can help with arranging reasonable adjustments; accessing the disabledstudents’ allowance (DSA), which can fund specialist software and equipment, if you are eligible; and finding other local support.

She also recommends seeking out informal support networks through the student union, such as a committee or society for disabled and neurodivergent students, “which could be a great way to meet students with experiences similar to yours”.

Thompson adds that “if you think that you might think differently or see the world in a different way to other people then the best thing is to explore this in a safe and non-judgmental place like the university wellbeing or disability services”.

Bliss Jayme, a biochemistry student at Kingston University who was diagnosed with autism at the end of her first year, says an early diagnosis will enable you to take full advantage of the support – and it could influence where you choose to study.

She was assigned a disability mentor to discuss adjustments with; lecturers received a report of her needs, for instance time to speak outside the classroom; and she is able to do her exams in smaller venues and with additional time.

Hannah Pereira, student mental health manager at Kingston University, notes that many universities offer fully or partly funded diagnostic screenings and assessments. This can help students access specialist study skills support to enable them to learn the best techniques and methods. “This can make a big difference to supporting neurodiverse students to reach their potential at university.”