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#UniMentalHealthDay: RSCPP therapists' advice for students on managing mental health at university

by Sarah Graham
Wednesday 18 February 2015
366 4382

Wednesday 18 February is University Mental Health Day, an initiative organised by the University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN) and Student Minds, to put the spotlight on the mental health of people living, studying and working in higher education settings. According to Student Minds, events will be taking place on over 50 campuses across the UK.

The University of Hull is holding a 'Meet our professionals' event, where staff will be on hand to discuss mental wellbeing; Liverpool Hope University is running a programme of events from 11.30am-2pm; and Nottingham Trent University is organising information stands, mindfulness walks, sporting activities and informational films on mental health, with coverage via their student radio station.

Today also sees the launch of the #IChoseToDisclose campaign, which "aims to break down barriers around disclosure, empowering students with the knowledge and confidence to talk openly about their mental health with their university and wider support networks." The National Union of Students (NUS) estimates that 20% of students are affected by mental health conditions, but many of these remain undisclosed.

As part of the #IChoseToDisclose campaign, Student Minds tells us, "Aberystwyth University will be launching a video of students and staff talking about how they would respond if a friend or colleague chose to disclose, to help demonstrate that fear of what people might say shouldn't be an obstacle to disclosure."


Mental health disclosure

The campaign follows a recent study, reported by the Guardian, which found that many university staff and students fear seeking help for mental health problems in case they are judged or treated differently. According to the survey, by The Equality Challenge Unit, 54% of the students questioned had not received, or spoken to anyone about receiving, help for their mental health issues. However, of the students who did receive mental health support, 78% said it had a positive effect on their studies.

Ahead of University Mental Health Day, NUS Vice President (Welfare) Colum McGuire tells RSCPP that the NUS is concerned about cuts to support services for students: "The NUS wants to make concerns about mental health a higher priority and to improve standards of support. Many universities offer counselling services to students, which can be instrumental in helping students to stay on their courses but demand for this support has risen by a third in the last four years, and few universities have increased the capacity of their provision to meet this need."

He adds: "We are really concerned about cuts to support services, particularly around poor referrals to outside services, and whether those local services have the adequate resources to help students. We want to make concerns about mental health a higher priority and improve standards of support for those who may be struggling, which is why we are working with mental health agencies to examine the standard of mental health care in UK universities and colleges."


New starts

For students, particularly those who move away from home to study, starting university can be an intensely stressful and exciting time of change and upheaval. Whether or not you have an existing, diagnosed mental health condition, being at university can understandably impact on your overall mental health and wellbeing.

According to Rosanna Hardwick of Student Minds, "nearly 50% of young people enter higher education and the majority of these students live independently, making these years, for many, the first years living away from established networks of family support." Most lifelong mental health difficulties, she explains, have their first onset by the age of 24 and approximately 29% of students experience psychological distress, most commonly anxiety and depression.

We asked RSCPP therapists to offer their advice to students on the mental health pressures that may arise during your time at university, and what you can do if you're concerned.

"Starting university is, without doubt, a major life event, and signifies the beginning of a new life in a highly competitive environment," says Registered Psychotherapist Joyline Gozho.

"University life is highly competitive, and a lot of students struggle with blending in, self esteem and confidence issues. The stress of being away from home, fear of failure and coping with the work load can lead to anxiety, depression, poor sleep, and even a re-emergence of self harm behaviours in vulnerable students who have a history of self harm," she adds.

The stress of university life can lead to anxiety, depression and poor sleep.

Likewise, leaving behind friends and family can make the start of university a daunting time, as you simultaneously learn to live with unfamiliar flatmates and manage your own work, time and money. "Any student starting out in an unfamiliar city, away from home for the first time, can find him/herself feeling isolated and anxious. It's not always easy to make friends, and the pressures of exams can feel overwhelming," says Accredited Counsellor Maureen Cahill.

When you are feeling overwhelmed, she adds, "it is easy to find unhealthy ways to cope with the specific pressures facing you as a student, so professional support can be a vital link in helping you manage distress at this transitional time."


Coping with pressures

For Registered Psychotherapist Suzanne Gray, this difficult transition period that many people face during university is part of an important journey towards adulthood. "In many ways, the pressures that face students at university are no different from those that face any young adult. As children you fantasise about what you are capable of; in young adulthood, living your own life, following your desires and exploring your limits become a real possibility. Yet, the struggle to actualise yourself as an adult can, in fact, be overwhelming," she explains.

"While university is sometimes viewed as an environment that will offer wonderful privileges and freedoms, for many students all this is overridden by internal pressures to deliver academically, socially, and developmentally as fully-functioning, independent and happy adults. Such pressures to deliver can lead to feelings of isolation, shame, guilt, denial or loss of control."

The struggle to actualise yourself as an adult can be overwhelming.

On top of this, financial concerns may add to the stress of living away from home. Not only will you need to learn to budget for rent, food, and entertainment, but high tuition fees may increase the feeling of academic pressure, whether that's imposed by yourself or others. As Registered Psychologist Julianna Challenor says: "Tuition fees have never been higher, and you may experience this as additional pressure to achieve high grades, further adding to your feeling of anxiety and stress."

Besides all these complex emotional factors, Joyline points out that university can also be a time when young people experiment with self destructive behaviours such as drug and alcohol abuse: "The freedom that comes with being away from responsible adults can make some students engage in reckless partying and other irresponsible behaviours, which can have a negative impact on academic performance," she says. This, combined with the pressure to keep on top of your studies, can create a vicious cycle of stress and anxiety that many students know only too well.


Managing expectations

Of course, the build up to university may make these struggles even more acute. If you've been told that university will be the best time of your life, you may worry that you're not making the most of it, or feel guilty that you're unhappy while those around you appear to be having a great time. You may feel an added social pressure to push your distress aside, put on a brave face, and pretend that you're enjoying yourself.

Many of you may find yourselves feeling lost and alone.

Whatever you're going through, rest assured that you are not the only student feeling this way. As Accredited Counsellor Jules McClean says: "Starting and being at university is not always the exciting progression in life as it's billed. Many of you may find yourselves feeling lost and alone as you struggle to navigate a new environment, new people, and being away from home."


Practical self-care

There are plenty of practical self-care strategies you can use to manage your own mental wellbeing, particularly if the feelings you're struggling with are relatively mild, and building a supportive network of friends can have a really important impact on your ability to cope.

Registered Art Psychotherapist Emma Cameron says: "To look after yourself well, it's a good idea to understand whether you tend to be an introvert or an extravert. Neither is 'good' or 'bad'; they are just indicators of where you replenish your emotional energy from. Introverts re-stock their energy by spending time alone; extraverts derive theirs from interacting with other people."

She explains: "If you are introverted, make sure you get enough quality time alone to reconnect with yourself. This may mean setting limits with friends who want you to go out with them. Sometimes you will benefit from taking care of yourself by saying 'no' and retreating for a bit, or arranging for one-to-one time instead of being in a group. Remember it's important and healthy to socialise, though, even for an introvert."

If you're extraverted, she says, "make sure you keep making plenty of plans to spend time with others. Find ‘study buddies' so that you don't have to spend too long on your own. Try out groups and societies so you can spend time with people and widen your circle of friends."

Jules has similar advice for combatting confusion and loneliness; she recommends that you join groups for activities you enjoy or have always wanted to try. "Universities have a smorgasbord of groups and societies," she says. "Say YES to invites in order to meet people and expand your social groups."

Limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine, ensure you get enough exercise and sleep.

Remember also that your mental health is linked to your physical health, so taking care of your body can be good for your overall wellbeing. Registered Psychologist Wilhelmina Van Vuuren says: "limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine, and ensure you get enough exercise and sleep." Eating well can also have an impact on your mood; check out the Student Minds Kitchen blog for some great recipe ideas.

Finally, Marga adds: "Make sure you don't engage in too much unhelpful behaviour, such as procrastination; seek support where necessary; use skills such as problem solving; and maintain a healthy self-esteem." 


Getting support

If you do find that your mental health is causing you significant distress, or impacting on your academic and social life, it's important to remember that you are not alone and support is available. Your first port of call should usually be your tutor, Students' Union or university health centre, who will be able to point you in the right direction for appropriate support and treatment.

"Talking and writing things down can help to make problems external, which helps to make them more manageable," says Registered Counsellor David Hayter. "This means that you can take more control over them and realise that they are not insurmountable. The situation you are in may feel unbearable, but talking with someone will help you to regain hope."

There's no shame in asking for support.

Likewise, Jules adds: "Don't be afraid to ask for help, be it from a tutor, friends or your family. If this is daunting, ask for counselling as most universities offers the service. There's no shame in asking for support, and you might find it's helpful for you to make sense of your new world. When you do find your way, you will discover that university can be an exciting new world - one that may give you nourishing experiences and, above all, lifelong new friends."

Whoever you choose to speak to, Julianna says, above all, don't leave it too late to seek support. "I would always recommend that you make an appointment to see your tutor as soon as you feel that you are not coping the way you would wish to, and not to leave it until things feel really out of control. Universities and their staff are very experienced at helping students to manage; they do care about your welfare, and will be able to help you get the support you need, whether that is counselling, another type of mental health appointment, or additional academic support." 


Getting involved with Student Minds

Student Minds is the UK's student mental health charity. They run three peer support programmes - Positive Minds courses, eating disorder support groups, and supporting supporters workshops - and offer information and resources on student mental health. To find out more about their work, visit

To get involved with Uni Mental Health Day, check the list of events to see if your university is involved, or join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook, using the hashtag #UniMentalHealthDay when you tweet.

Finding support

If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 18 February 2015