Learn how to spot the signs of poor mental health and address it.
For most, moving away to study is an exciting chance to gain independence, self-develop, and take on new experiences.
Yet the challenges of starting a new life at university are often left unsaid – even when many students struggle to adapt in their first few months.
According to UNIHEADS, 78% of students say they have dealt with mental health difficulties during their studies. This led to some universities seeing more than a fifth of UK students drop out in the 2019/20 academic year.
There’s a lot to grapple with. Settling into a new social group, learning to live alone, and pressure to live up to academic expectations can feel like a lot. And while having feelings of nervousness about these things is normal, there are certainly ways in which we can keep our mental health in mind.
We’ve rounded up some of the best advice from our wellbeing partner, UNIHEADS, about how to keep positive mental health during university.
UNIHEADS is an online mental health training platform for students, developed by a team of both mental health professionals and students. The platform is available to all residents of Vita Student.
“Starting university can often bring a mix of excitement and nerves which inevitably creates a rollercoaster of emotions, particularly over those first few months,” said Richard from UNIHEADS.
“That’s why it’s so important to stay in tune with how you’re feeling and try to keep your wellbeing at the top of your priority list.
“We’ve partnered with VITA to help make university healthier and easier for every student. Our UNIHEADS platform gives you a 15min whistle-stop of tips and advice to help you maintain good mental health, spot the signs of struggle, find support, and also to learn how to look out for those around you.”
Signs of declining mental health
To address our mental health, it’s important that we understand how to recognise when we’re not okay.
It is often difficult to tell if you or somebody you know is struggling with their mental health. The symptoms aren’t always obvious, however there are a number of signs to look out for:
- Tiredness and lack of energy
- Struggling to concentrate and easily distracted
- Regular low moods and feelings of being anxious and overwhelmed
- Losing interest in day-to-day activities
- Noticeable changes in sleeping patterns
- Social withdrawal
- Difficulty controlling emotions
- Excessive alcohol or drug consumption
- Increased gambling
While these symptoms alone may not be confirmation of a mental health condition, if experienced significantly or in tandem, they may be an indication that you or a friend needs help.
Ways to stay on top of things
Sometimes, mental health struggles can come unexpectedly and we’re not always ready to deal with them.
A good way to build mental resilience is to pre-empt the potential challenges ahead and think about how to prepare for them.
Immersing yourself in the university experience, both in and out of the classroom, is one of the most important ways you can look after your mental health during your studies.
Moving away from our friends and family back home can be difficult, especially for those less confident in social situations. And when things aren’t going well, it’s very common for new students to isolate themselves and avoid leaving their rooms.
Having a high level of attendance is not only associated with happier and higher performing students but will also help you to build structure in your day-to-day life.
Establishing friendships at university, however important it is, is sometimes easier said than done. If you’re one of those people who struggle to initiate social interaction, try to remember that everybody during freshers is also building these connections for the first time too. A great way to meet new people is to join societies, as you’ll start with a common interest to talk about.
If you’re a resident at Vita Student, come along to any of our daily events and enjoy activities with other students in your building. Don’t be afraid to get chatting and find people that bring out the best in you!
Transitioning to university life can be disorientating – you’re living independently, setting your own schedule for day and it can be easy to slip into unhealthy patterns.
Keeping a consistent daily routine is key, as it gives your day purpose and allows you to make sure you’re keeping on top of your responsibilities.
Here are some good tips:
- Make a plan to stick to Monday-Friday, including your wake-up time, study time and mealtimes
- Have a healthy breakfast every day to kick start your metabolism. You’ll find plenty options downstairs at Vita Student every Monday-Friday
- Schedule breaks in your study sessions
- Allow yourself weekends off to relax and spend time with friends
- Remember to be realistic with your expectations so that you don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure
- Use phone reminders to keep to your routine
- Find time before bed to switch off, put away your phone and wind down
Looking after your physical health
The way we look after our body can certainly have an impact on our mind. Much of the university lifestyle can affect our physical health – and while it’s important to enjoy yourself, it’s even more crucial than you’re taking care of yourself.
Nourish your body:
Eating nutritious food and keeping active will help to boost your energy levels and have you feeling fresh.
Try to incorporate at least 30 minutes of movement or exercise into your daily routine, and make sure that you are feeding your body with healthy food, not just take-outs.
We host regular PT sessions every Monday if you want to work out with other people in your building, you can access the gym 24/7 and there are bikes if you would like some fresh air. Just ask your residence team for some popular routes near your building.
You’ll meet a lot of people at university who are regularly out drinking and/or using recreational drugs, and it’s hard not to get wrapped up in that lifestyle.
Keep in mind that alcohol and substance misuse can significantly lower serotonin levels – making you experience low moods and lack of energy.
Gambling is another addiction to be aware of and too much of this can also affect your mental health.
If you think that you’re struggling with any of these things, you can get help by speaking to your GP or through the following organisations:
- Alcohol Change UK
- Gamblers Anonymous
We all know that running on lack of sleep is detrimental to both our physical and mental health – but did you know that 1 in 3 people in the UK suffers from poor sleep patterns?
Most people need around 8 hours of good quality sleep a night to function well and while the occasional night without sleep won’t harm you, a pattern of lack of sleep will certainly have an effect.
Some of the ways you can improve your sleeping patterns are:
- Putting away your electronic devices at night, and using night shift mode on your phone in the evenings
- Avoiding caffeine after midday
- Being active during the day
- Eating well
- Making your room a relaxing and comfortable environment
When to get help
Admitting that you need help isn’t something to be ashamed of. Whether it’s to a friend, family member, tutor or professional – talking to someone about how you feel can lift a weight from your shoulders.
There are many services that are easy to access and can help you to manage your mental health:
- Your university: Contact your student services. Details can be found on your university website.
- Visit a GP: Book an appointment with your GP.
- UNIHEADS: Sign up to the platform and do the short training session, that gives valuable information on preventative coping strategies and ways to get help
However, if you feel that you are in crisis and are having suicidal thoughts, you should get urgent help by calling 999, 101 or Samaritans on 116 123.
How to look out for your friends
It’s likely that you will meet somebody at university who is dealing with poor mental health. Being a part of a good support system for your friends is really important, but there are ways to do this while protecting your own mental health.
If you’re concerned about your friend, don’t be afraid to ask them if they’re okay. You may not have the answers, but be sensitive, listen, and allow them to open up to you.
Try to find a good place and time to have a discussion with them, without unexpectedly surprising them with the conversation.
Remember that you can’t solve everything – so if they haven’t got professional help, encourage them to do so and let them know where they can access services.
If they have expressed that they are having suicidal thoughts, try not to alarm them and ask if they have intentions of carrying it out. If so, stay with them and get urgent help by telling your university or through calling 999, 101 or Samaritans.
Supporting a friend can take a toll on your own mental health, so if you feel that it’s affecting you, make sure to set boundaries and take time to look after yourself.
Most importantly, try to enjoy your time at university. Make sure to check in with yourself and be aware of the services available should you need to access them.