Looking after your mental health at university

Aug 12, 2020

Are you feeling that your mental wellbeing may be starting to slip and want to know what actions to take when looking after your mental health at university? Or are you already experiencing mental health problems at university and feeling overwhelmed about not knowing what to do and how to seek mental health support? 

If your answer is yes to either of these questions then read on and know that you are not alone. 

This post will be the first step in your journey towards understanding mental wellbeing and the state of student mental health. It will give advice as to where to look for mental health support when needed and it will outline actions for any student to take to improve their mental wellbeing and respond positively to the pressures of higher education. 

What is mental wellbeing?

We all have mental health. Mental health encompasses our general psychological, emotional and social wellbeing which can determine how you can cope with your day to day life. It is common for our mental wellbeing to fluctuate day-to-day, where some days we feel better than others. 

In fact, an NHS Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing reports that 1 in 6 people experience a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England. Therefore, in the same way as physical health, everyone needs to look after their mental health!

Mental health at university: Let’s break the stigma! 

Despite mental health problems being a common human experience, not everyone understands what it’s like to experience poor mental health. Thus, there is still a huge amount of stigma and shame around mental illness. This has led many university students and young people with a mental health condition to feel ostracised and often misunderstood. 

However, remember that you are not alone! People in all walks of life can experience poor mental health at any time and it is increasingly clear that experiencing mental health problems at university is most common that we might have thought.

Mind, a charity which provides advice and support to anyone experiencing a mental health problem, states that “students are at higher risk of developing mental health problems with research showing many people first experience mental health problems or first seek help when they are at university”. 

mental health at university

In fact, the state of student mental health is the subject of increasing concern. Students are increasingly declaring and reporting mental conditions and poor mental wellbeing, to the extent that a student mental health crisis has been reported.  

A recent report from the House of Commons suggests that 21.5% of students at UK universities had a mental health diagnosis. 33.9% had experienced serious psychological issues for which they felt they needed professional help. These facts evidence that in recent years the proportion of students who disclosed a mental health condition to their university has increased rapidly.  

So what are the reasons behind the current state of student mental health?  

Work pressure, moving away from home, employability and financial worries, are only several of the factors affecting a wide variety of students and young people in England and Wales. 

In reality, there are various challenges one faces as a student and each person will react and respond to them differently. If you are about to start studying at a UK university and you are interested in understanding what these challenges can entail, read this report authored by Student Minds, a mental health charity focused particularly on students.

The reality is we can only expect the situation for students to become increasingly difficult now that young people are living through the challenges of attending university during the world’s adaption to a pandemic and post-pandemic life. Going to University during Covid-19 can mean that more students will experience unsettling times as they adjust to a new way of living. 

For more information on Coronavirus and young people’s mental health visit Young Minds Blog, which has various posts on what to do to help young people through these times. You can also have a look at this range of Coronavirus resources compiled by Student Minds, which has key information and guidance specifically for students. 

Looking after mental health at university 

Now that we have a better understanding of mental wellbeing and the state of student mental health, the next section of this post will focus on what to do when looking after your mental health at university. 

It’s important to be aware of your mental wellbeing and identify when you feel it might be slipping. Student Minds has listed several questions which you might find useful to ask yourself if you feel that you are experiencing lower mental wellbeing. Awareness will allow you to take action as soon as you notice that your mental health is starting to drop. 

Self-care and everyday student life-hacks 

It is understandable that when one is not feeling great it feels harder to take action to benefit your mental health. However, the following list will provide small everyday self-care practices which can benefit your mental wellbeing greatly. 

Remember that boosting your mental health at university is a-lot about finding that work/life balance. However, if these self-care life practices feel a little overwhelming to start with, or you feel you don’t have enough time you can also have a look at this Student Minds guide for tips on how to boost your mental health if you only have five minutes to an hour. 

#1: Eat well 

The evidence linking what we eat and our mental wellbeing is rapidly increasing. The research suggests that the types of food we eat have a direct impact, not only on our physical health but also our mood and energy levels. 

The Eatwell Guide from the NHS can give you advice on how to achieve a healthy, balanced diet. Consuming a balanced diet by eating the right proportions of a variety of foods can be one of the best ways to look after your mental health at university. 

Mind’s advice on Food and Mood is worth a read. However, some key points that you can adopt to improve your mental wellbeing are:

  • Get your 5 a day alongside a good amount of protein and healthy fats
  • Stay Hydrated and manage your consumption of caffeine and alcohol
  • Avoid processed foods 

#2: Make time to get active 

Student life can easily force young people into becoming inactive and sedentary in their lifestyles. It is almost expected for university students to spend most of the day sitting down studying in front of a computer screen, in class and lectures and in the library. 

Despite sitting down the whole day, using the brain to perform mental tasks leads many to feel completely exhausted. This exhaustion makes it seem almost necessary to relax by sitting down a little longer to watch TV or lying in bed binging on your favourite Netflix series. 

This means that for most of one’s student life, physical activity seems like too much effort for it to be a priority. However, evidence now shows that a lack of physical activity has a big impact on how we feel emotionally. Carrying out physical activity in contrast to what we might think, increases feelings of relaxation, reduces stress and improves our overall sense of wellbeing.

I am not saying you should not binge on that favourite series of yours, but try doing so in moderation. When you have had a tough day studying, end your day with some exercise. This can also be an opportunity to spend some time outdoors. Take some fresh air and appreciate the beauty of nature whilst boosting your Vitamin D!

  • Go for a short run, a long walk or a bike ride in the park. 
  • Try out something gentle like pilates or yoga 
  • Take up a team exercise like football or dancing 

Doing a little exercise every day can go a long way in helping our self-esteem, boosting our mood and motivation and improving our ability to sleep better, concentrate and focus. It, therefore, reduces chances of depression, anxiety and cognitive decline. 

For more information on looking after our mental health at university using exercise have a look at this short booklet from The Mental Health Foundation and for inspiration look at this Ted Talk on the brain-changing benefits of exercise.

#3: Use your downtime to do something you enjoy

In addition to doing some physical activity for relaxation, your mental wellbeing at university can improve greatly if you use your downtime to do other activities you enjoy. 

This can include spending some quality time with your friends and family, not just drinking in the Pub, but playing a board game or a computer game, having a book club together or simply talking. Connect, relationships matter! 

Use your downtime to spend some quality time alone. Try and avoid only spending time on social media, as there is an increasing understanding that IT can affect our mental wellbeing. For more information on this, you may be interested in listening to this podcast

Instead, you can nourish yourself by watching your favourite TV show, listening to music that makes you happy, doing a Mindfulness practice or something new and creative like learning a new language, drawing, painting, playing an instrument or dancing whilst nobody’s watching.

Don’t be scared of trying something new! People who adopt a lifelong learning approach appear to report a greater ability to deal with stress. Cultivating curiosity and learning other skills can also help with developing a growth mindset, beneficial for protecting, maintaining and improving mental health and wellbeing. 

Finally, use your downtime to be aware and take care of your own environment. Who would have thought that cleaning and decluttering your bedroom can make you feel less stressed!

For understanding more about how our environment affects our mood and how decluttering can help when looking after your mental health at university, check out this blog from Blurt, a social enterprise dedicated to those affected by depression.

There might be other specific things that are affecting your mental health at university. These may include: financial worries, the difficulties of studying at home and the worries of employability during Covid-19. 

These quick to read, guides from Graduate Coach can also offer some practical advice on these fronts.

#4: Mental Health Support and Services

Whilst there is a lot as to what we can do when looking after our mental health at university, if these are unhelpful and your quality of life and relationships are being affected, then seek professional mental health support. 

Look for support offered at your University.

You can start by talking to your tutor or another academic staff with whom you feel comfortable. They can always point you in the right direction and give advice about the various support your university offers. 

If you are worried about your mental wellbeing affecting your studies and you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, then you can also contact the student wellbeing team at your university. They can refer you to a Mental Health coordinator who can help identify strategies and reasonable adjustments to support you through university. 

Most universities give students access to counselling services, which provide mental health support for free. Look for counselling services on your university’s website and don’t be afraid of sending them an e-mail. They are there to support you.

It is increasingly common, however, to be placed on the Counselling waiting list. If this is the case, then try and also seek support from other student services, like the Student Union. The student advice centre at the Student Union can give you free, confidential and independent information, advice and support. You can visit them about anything that is affecting your mental health at university, including things like:

  • Bullying/harassment 
  • Personal Issues
  • Academic-related issues
  • Homesickness and culture shock
  • Mental Health issues

If you feel like your institution cannot provide you with the help you need or you require emergency support and advice regarding your mental health, then don’t be afraid to contact your GP or take a look at the list of mental health organisations and helpline services below. There will always be someone to help and support you. 

If you require more information on how to ask for help read this guide from The Charlie Waller Memorial Fund.

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