Everyone has to take care of their mental health just like their physical health, but because we’ve grown up in a society that’s still not comfortable talking openly about the former, students are arriving at university without the tools to maintain theirs. A YouGov survey of 2,300 adults in Britain carried out for Mental Health Awareness Week 2014 found that along with unemployed people, students are the most susceptible to feelings of anxiety.
But why is this the case? And what can students do in the meantime to look after their minds? This article is the result of reflecting on my own experiences, and of conversations with five former students who were kind enough to share their perspectives.
Starting university can feel like a new lease of life – you can eat what you want and stay up all night without being told off. But it can also be a great opportunity to start practising good habits and working out what’s right for you. Personally, I would encourage my 18-year-old self to take time to unpack bags and boxes properly, write down what I need to do the next day and then go and join my flatmates in the kitchen afterwards.
Everyone will have different things that are essential for their own mental health, but learning to listen to yourself is key. It was definitely irritating when I realized that my parents had been right all along about ‘having a routine’ – basic things like exercising, eating well and sleeping enough can be so easily lost when living independently for the first time.
My friend *Becky advises to “never feel guilty if you’re not doing shots every night and seizing every day. It’s a difficult time, so give yourself a period for adapting to your new lifestyle.”
Talking about university as ‘the best years of your life’ can be an unrealistic and even damaging expectation. In reality, ups and downs are to be expected, so you haven’t failed if you’re struggling. Everyone sails in on the same boat, with their own personal history and insecurities; I promise you that you’re not the only one. In my experience, being honest about what you’re struggling with can encourage others to open up too, and you can often develop strong bonds from sharing that too.
As an international student, *Linnea compares studying in the UK to studying in Sweden. “[In the UK] I observed that students couldn’t properly support each other because of traditions such as all exams taking place at the end of the year,” she says. “However, at my Swedish university, where assessments are more spread out, I had more support from my housemates when I was stressed.”
In my friend *Sarah’s experience, the ‘bubble’ atmosphere of campus can be a suffocating place. She recounts having great support from friends and family outside of university, which kept her grounded and reminded her that uni definitely isn’t everything.
*Freya agrees. “Don’t feel that you can’t talk to your friends and family back home,” she says. “The first term can be the hardest where the most support is needed.”
For those who are LGBTQ and perhaps more likely not to have as much of an existing support network, the change in environment can be liberating. Freya recalls attending an extremely worthwhile support group in her first year for LGBTQ students that really helped her.
More generally, living in a new city and being surrounded by completely different people can be a fantastic opportunity to start fresh and explore new aspects of yourself – especially on a campus that offers a wide range of societies and facilities. On the other hand, Becky points out that students often worry about having to establish their personalities now rather than allowing themselves to naturally develop, and would urge new students to give themselves space to make mistakes and be themselves.
My friend *Claire sums up her feelings succinctly: “If I’d been able to manage my mental health better, I probably would have finished my degree,” she says.
Remember that you don’t have to take on the challenge of managing your mental health all by yourself. There’s no denying that asking for help can be the hardest thing to do when dealing with issues such as depression and anxiety. But until we’re at a point as a society where mental health is given the consideration it deserves across the board, it’s worth being aware that as a university student you’re in a unique position due to the support available that can be harder to access elsewhere, such as student counselling services and/or mental health support teams. Plus, over 40 UK universities now have a night line – a non-judgemental listening service run by students for students.
However, that doesn’t mean you’re under any obligation to use a service that isn’t right for you, or to rush to sort out everything all at once. Becky says that self-care is very much an ongoing process, and Sarah acknowledges that she’s still constantly learning about herself even after graduating. “Far more people than you think can relate to what you’re feeling,” she says.
Suffering in silence can be immensely isolating, especially in an environment where everyone is clambering to find their ‘true selves’. It’s hard, but let’s keep talking about ways we can make it easier.
Originally published in the Winter 2016 Issue.
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