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Written by: Emma Hinds

This post is designed to help us all become more aware of how we can look after our mental health at University, or look after the mental health of those who are currently studying. If you are struggling and need someone to talk to, please consider reaching out to one of the following services.

University is an amazing experience for so many people! The chance to be independent, to meet new friends, learn new skills and live solely on cheese toasties is something every young person should be given the option to do. However, attending university can also be scary and confusing. A 2019 poll of 38,000 showed that university students have surprisingly high levels of loneliness, self-harm, anxiety and substance abuse. The things that are wonderful about university, independence, new friends and the flush of new learning, are also the things that can contribute to loneliness, social anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. So what can you do if you have started to feel some of these things? How can we maintain good mental health habits whilst studying?

Don’t feel guilty

It can be easy to slip into guilty thought patterns about how we “should” be behaving at University. We are out on our own, nobody telling us when we should be in bed or not to eat cereal for dinner every night, what could be better? The pressure to always be having a “great time,” can be quite intense. It’s alright if, actually, you’re not having a great time. Often, when we are brave enough to say that to the people around us we are surprised when they look at us with relief, give a big sigh, and say: “me too.”

Watch how much you drink

When we are feeling down or stressed, our bodies are already working very hard. Those overwhelming feelings eat into our energy levels as our bodies are constantly responding to the threat signals our brain is sending us. When we are feeling this way, it’s important we monitor what impact our coping mechanisms are having on our bodies. Sometimes, the things that can make us feel “worse” are the things that our peers might suggest make us feel better. Sure, it’s nice to go on a night out and have a drink or two, but if we are feeling emotionally vulnerable already, getting drunk will only make us feel more overwhelmed. Whilst we might feel better for a few hours, getting lost in the fun of partying, in the morning nothing is going to make your anxiety worse than a hangover. Four out of ten students admitted to using alcohol as a way to cope with their problems, but it is never a permanent solution. Often, we just end up hiding under the duvet the next day, with a dry mouth and a heightened sense of impending doom.

Protect your sleep routine

Did you know that when you are studying at University, your brain is absorbing and processing the most amount of new information since you were first at school at 4 years old? Not just what you learn in lectures, but everything to do with living your new life. This is why the temptation to nap is so strong! It is also why it is so important to protect your sleep routine where you can. Obviously people throwing parties right outside your bedroom or your roommate stumbling in drunk at 3am and slamming the door are disturbances outside of your control (I speak from experience!) but if you find that you are feeling run-down, under-the-weather, unable to concentrate or overly emotional the chances are you are not getting enough sleep. Sleep is so important for mental processing and for mental wellbeing. Your instincts might say that hitting the student union every night is the right thing to do, but your body will thank you if you save it for the weekend.

Build a community

Community is so important for mental wellbeing. Having people to watch our backs makes us much more likely to make it through, and having people we feel responsible to gives us a sense of purpose. Friendships can be more than someone to sit next to in lectures or someone to share the gas bill with. Our friendships can also support our mental wellbeing. Perhaps you can extend your friendships to include some weekly exercise (a yoga class or a gym trip) or to keeping each other accountable for getting up everyday and practising healthy routines. When I was studying, my friend across the hall would always knock in the mornings to go and get breakfast. It was all too easy to sleep the morning away. I would probably have failed the first year without her! Find people who can support your wellbeing and who you can support too. 

Talk to someone

Sometimes, things are just too overwhelming and they can’t be fixed by a good night’s sleep, an exercise class, a night off with friends or a healthy attitude to alcohol. Sometimes the unexpected happens and it can knock you for six. Perhaps a family member gets ill, or a pet dies, or you have a long illness or a nasty bout of insomnia, it could be any number of things, but it can start a downward spiral of disruption. These things can lead to a couple of missed lectures, a reduced appetite, a withdrawal from social interactions and before you know it, you’re struggling to keep up with your studies and get out of bed. The spiral can be quick and consuming, and the reason for its speed is often because students are often far away from their primary support systems: their families. Without them on hand, there is not always someone to step in and stop the spiral. I speak from experience as someone who fell very quickly to the bottom of the spiral in my third year. That’s why it’s so important to talk to someone:

         If you think you are becoming overwhelmed talk to someone in the University about it. There are specific mental health services in place to help support students through all types of difficult situations and make sure that they don’t have to drop out. They can offer support if your academic work is falling behind and they can refer you to counselling services if you need someone to talk to. You don’t have to struggle alone.

         If you think one of your friends is becoming overwhelmed try to talk to them about it. It is so hard to make that first step and reach out for help, especially if you are using all your energy on just trying to stay afloat. Think about the fact that your friend doesn’t have their family right beside them to notice the warning signs and step in – you can be that person for them. However, please don’t try and support them all on your own. Trying to provide mental health care to a vulnerable adult is above your abilities as a student, and can put significant strain on your own mental health. Your job isn’t to fix them, just be a good friend: you can let them know you support them and maybe point them towards key services in your University.

For more information about student mental health, check out the following sites:

For information about other mental health concerns including overcoming depression, anxiety, childhood trauma, eating disorders, and grief, visit www.thelilyjoproject.com/#help

Remember: if you or someone you love is struggling, you are NOT alone.

About the Author: Emma Hinds

Emma is a writer living and working in Manchester. She is a mental health advocate and has been blogging about mental health for the last ten years. Emma has a history of eating disorders and is currently living with a diagnosis of OCD and chronic depression. She has been working specifically with young people struggling with their mental health for the last four years and is now supporting the Lily Jo Project’s On Track follow up schools programs. You can see Emma’s work and follow her mental health blog here. You can also follow her on socials here: twitter@EmmaLouisePH and instagram@elphreads

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