A freshers’ guide to university and mental health
(Last updated: 14 October 2020)
Fresher’s Week – a time when students are having all the fun, joining all the societies, making all the friends, drinking all the alcohol... Right? Probably. You’ll likely have heard from every angle by now just how crazy Fresher’s Week (and beyond) is going to be. Students leave their family home and live parent-free for the first time. They meet loads of new friends in easy social situations filled with other young outgoing and likeminded people. They get to study fun and challenging new things. All while enjoying an unprecedented number of free hours to indulge their newfound independence. Working hard, playing harder…
So, if everyone is skipping around having the time of their lives, where does “mental health” come in to it all?
Well, what if you don't end up having all the promised fun? What if you end up halfway through your first term (or sooner) sitting alone in your room and hiding away from everyone, close to tears and missing home? And what if all those opportunities to study new, fun topics end up being far less freeing than you expected and sources of spiralling stress?
Just to reassure you: it’s unlikely you will feel this way. University really is a great experience much unlike any other. But naturally, it takes people differing lengths of time to find their feet in this new environment. It could take you a month or two to adjust, or longer. And that is OK. However you handle starting university, rest assured that it’s all completely normal. You won’t be the first to feel the way you do.
The most important thing to remember is that you should always seek help if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Read on for our advice.
Remember, you are not alone
Despite doing all the prep for university you possibly could, you've discovered that those first few weeks aren't quite what you expected. Finding yourself stressed out by the environment, people, places and things that are supposed to represent The Best Years Of Your Life can be a surprising and disorienting experience. And the sea of people around you seemingly enjoying their new lives with effortless abandon won't help.
The first and most important thing to realise is that you're not alone. You're not somehow abnormal for feeling this way. There's a whirlwind of change happening around you, and everybody responds to this differently. And while there are no doubt a few people around you who are genuinely having as much fun as they appear to be and embracing all these new stimuli unequivocally, there are many more who are experiencing anxieties of one sort or another. Anxieties about making friends, fitting in with their flatmates, coping with their coursework, sustaining their relationship over a long distance, or any number of things. At least some of them feel as lonely or out-of-place as you do; they're just hiding it well. Maybe you are too.
It's also worth remembering that moving away to university and being around a whole mass of new people, with few or none existing friends living close by, can affect people in quite unpredictable ways. Students who have previously been socially awkward and had difficulty making friends can suddenly flourish. They may find that associating with people with a particular niche interest, or simply being thrust into surroundings where nobody knows them and they have the ability to reinvent themselves, turns them overnight into extroverts. Conversely, having a wide circle of friends back home and being the life and soul of the party doesn't necessarily translate immediately into social butterfly status in your new environment. People who have developed a very large circle of friends over several years can feel quite unmoored by having to start again from scratch.
You shouldn't feel like there's anything intrinsically wrong with you if you find the first few weeks of university more challenging and a whole lot less enjoyable than you expected.
In your first few weeks of university you'll be exposed to vast numbers of different people in a very short period. It’s a rate of social interaction you've probably never experienced before and may never again. And there's a similarly vast range of responses to this that all fall under the umbrella of "normal". You may need to seek help of one kind or another if your initial feelings of loneliness or disorientation turn into depression (see below). But you shouldn't feel like there's anything intrinsically wrong with you if you find the first few weeks of university more challenging and a whole lot less enjoyable than you expected. Putting yourself under pressure to have fun and worrying continually that there's something wrong with you because you're not doing so is going to achieve one thing and one thing only: increased anxiety. Be kind to yourself.
Lean on your existing support networks – and your creature comforts
If your network of friends is all the same age as you, and most of them have also started university, it can add to the sense of loneliness to hear how much fun they're having (whether they're actually having that much fun or not). As can finding out that they're too busy to take your calls or answer your texts during the first few weeks. And inevitably, you'll lose touch with or grow more distant from some of your existing friends as you both experience new things. But your close friends and family – the people who kept you anchored and happy in your home life – are an invaluable resource now if you’re struggling to adapt to student life.
Call them. Tell them how you're feeling. Ask them if they've experienced similar feelings and how they coped. They may give you helpful advice, or they may even confide in you that uni isn't all they hoped it would be either. If you’ve a close friend in a similar situation, going through this experience with them can be a big help and make things a lot less lonely. It does take courage to admit you're not enjoying university as you'd expected, but doing so may provide your friend – and you – with the outlet you both need.
And if you've got friends who have settled really easily and are loving their new lives, arrange to visit them. It will give you something to look forward to. And meeting their new friends might nudge you into interacting with strangers but in a much lower-pressure situation than the one you're in right now.
Put yourself out there, but don't force it
There are things you should do to encourage a positive experience as a fresher. Try to talk to the people around you. Join clubs or societies that will provide you with opportunities to meet like-minded people. Suggest meeting for coffee or drinks with anybody you click with – or think you might potentially click with given a bit more time. Rare is the fresher who will turn down a coffee date if you ask – remember, everybody wants to make friends! But don't feel like you have to go all-in from the first day if the thought of doing so terrifies you or makes you uncomfortable. And don't try to force yourself to become close friends with someone you don't really connect with: this is likely to lead to awkwardness and stress you both out.
Ultimately, university is a marathon, not a sprint. And while it can be a bit unnerving to reach the end of Freshers' Week, or the end of October, and find yourself without a social group while people around you are heading off to clubs with twenty or so "friends" they met yesterday, people make friends and adjust to new environments in different ways. There's nothing wrong with making the choice to spend a week or two retiring to your room early while you adjust, putting on some familiar music and curling up with a book. Or talking to your mum every night if that's what makes you happiest.
University is your first step on the road to adult life, and one of the great joys of adult life is freedom from peer pressure. It's your choice how you live at uni, how much you go out and socialise, and how outgoing you want to be. If enforced socialising makes you miserable, it's fine to opt out. Trust that sooner or later you'll connect with people who want to do things at your pace, and you might find that you leave in three years' time with a small circle of intimate friends, having never once been to a club that serves cheap triple-vodka-and-Cokes.
University and mental health
Anxieties about meeting friends in Freshers' Week and beyond are important and shouldn't be trivialised. In particular, you shouldn't be made to feel abnormal because you experience anxiety. But in many cases they're likely to be short term anxieties, unless you continue to feel lonely for months at a time. This – possibly along with other issues such as anxieties about money or work – leads to longer-term depression or mental health issues.
Mental health issues are a growing problem on UK university campuses. High tuition fees, increased student debt, pressure to obtain high grades in order to succeed in competitive job markets, and social anxieties are all possible contributing factors to a university mental health crisis. Estimates of the number of students who suffer from a mental health issue during their time at university range from 1 in 4 to a majority of students. If the upper estimate is to be believed, it's actually more likely than not that you'll experience some sort of mental health issue during your university career. Even the most conservative estimates suggest it's virtually guaranteed that someone you know will face a mental health struggle.
The bottom line with these stats is that experiencing poor mental health at some point during your studies doesn't make you weak or abnormal. Just like you'll need to rest when you contract one of the myriad colds floating around campus, you’ll need to take care of your mental wellbeing when in need, too. Consult a health professional early and do whatever's necessary to recover and get back on your feet.
How do I know if I'm sad, or depressed?
Mental health is a serious issue and we encourage you to get help if you think there's any chance you could be suffering from a mental illness. But bear in mind that experiencing a full range of human emotions – including sadness – is also a sign of perfectly good mental health. If you find yourself feeling miserable because you've had a big upheaval in your life, you miss your old family and friends, or you're yet to make new connections at university, that doesn't necessarily mean you’re depressed. These are things that are making you sad, and you're feeling a bit down as a result.
So how do you know whether you're simply feeling sad or are suffering from depression?
Clinical psychologists will generally tell you that it's sadness in the absence of triggers (which essentially just means "reasons to feel sad") that distinguishes depression from simply feeling down. As this article in Psychology Today puts it:
Depression is an abnormal emotional state, a mental illness that affects our thinking, emotions, perceptions, and behaviours in pervasive and chronic ways. When we’re depressed we feel sad about everything. Depression does not necessarily require a difficult event or situation, a loss, or a change of circumstance as a trigger. In fact, it often occurs in the absence of any such triggers. People’s lives on paper might be totally fine – they would even admit this is true – and yet they still feel horrible.
If your feelings of sadness are disproportionate to the level of stimulus – if you feel pervasively sad all the time, even when things are going well or you're doing something you normally enjoy – you may well be depressed. The Psychology Today article also provides a handy checklist of symptoms that can tell you if there's a substantial risk that you're experiencing depression.
You may be depressed if you experience more than five of the following nine symptoms:
- A depressed or irritable mood most of the time.
- A loss or decrease of pleasure or interest in most activities, including ones that had been interesting or pleasurable previously.
- Significant changes in weight or appetite.
- Disturbances in falling asleep or sleeping too much.
- Feeling slowed down in your movements or restless most days.
- Feeling tired, sluggish, and having low energy most days.
- Having feelings of worthless or excessive guilt most days.
- Experiencing problems with thinking, focus, concentration, creativity and the ability to make decisions most days.
- Having thoughts of dying or suicide.
If this applies to you, seek help as soon as you can. With research showing that a majority of students suffering mental health problems don't seek help, and that self-harm and suicide among students is on the rise, whether to seek help could literally be a life-or-death decision.
Where to get help
It's tough enough admitting to yourself that you might have a mental health problem that needs addressing. And it can be even harder to know how you should address it, and who you should talk to about your issue. The avenues for addressing mental health issues are much more numerous and less straightforward than for physical ailments, and it's easy to become paralysed with indecision even after you've identified that you do need to see someone.
So where do you actually go to get help if you're suffering from depression, stress, or anxiety? We've put together a list of some of the options.
University counselling services
Most universities have a range of resources available to students. They are likely to employ trained counsellors who can both provide therapy by listening to you and offering constructive advice and refer you to more specialised mental health professionals if the need arises. Many universities also offer peer-to-peer counselling services for students who are worried they might have a mental health problem but don't necessarily want to deal with it in as formal an environment as a professional's office. The students' union section of your university's website should have a list of the resources on offer on your campus, and may offer you the opportunity to book an appointment online.
Your personal tutor
As part of providing pastoral care, most universities assign students a personal tutor. How well universities structure and implement personal tutorial time varies widely from institution to institution, as does the seriousness with which tutors take their pastoral care roles. But if you've developed a good relationship with your personal tutor, they could be an excellent person to talk to regarding your mental health concerns. They may also talk to your module tutors on your behalf, lessening the stress of negotiating extensions on deadlines or other accommodations.
You may or may not feel comfortable discussing mental health issues with your GP – especially if you've recently switched doctors after moving. But if you feel you need professional help, going to see your doctor may well be your best bet. Your GP may have only minimal training in mental health issues so they're unlikely to offer much in the way of immediate direct help. But they will be able to determine the most appropriate service to refer you to, and may also prescribe medication (for example, anti-anxiety medicines or antidepressants) if they deem it appropriate. They can also help by providing a doctor's note in case you need extensions for essays and assignments or special accommodation in exams.
Web-based self help
You may recognise that you need help but not yet be willing to talk to a professional, or anyone at all, about how you're feeling. There are some online resources and charitable bodies with a very good web presence, that can help you negotiate mental health issues. These include Student Minds, the NHS's Moodzone website, and Students Against Depression.
If you're feeling extremely down, desperate, or likely to self-harm, the Samaritans offer immediate counselling over the phone, 24 hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year. You can call them free on any phone on 116 123, and there will be someone at the other end of the line ready to take your call and discuss what you're going through. It's a confidential and anonymous service, and volunteer counsellors are trained to deal with anything you might need to discuss with them.
London Nightline is another service – available to students in London and at the Open University – that provides counselling and welfare services over the phone or via online chat. They are open between 6pm and 8am, when daytime services aren't available, and can be contacted by phone (on 020 7631 0101), text (on 07717 989 900) or via IM, Skype or email (see their website for details). Nightline provides trained volunteer counsellors who are willing to offer a sympathetic ear as well as student advice, and all calls are dealt with in the strictest confidence.
What about my studies?
Your health and wellbeing are more important than anything else, and this should not only be your attitude but your university's as well. Don't struggle through your coursework and exams while you're clearly not in a fit state to do so and without telling anybody.
Negotiate extensions to assignments
If the pressure of multiple deadlines is causing you excessive stress or anxiety, or an existing mental health condition is impairing your ability to complete assignments, talk to your tutor at the earliest possible opportunity to see if you can get an extension. If you've got documentary evidence such as a doctor's note, your extension is almost certain to be granted, but even if you haven't sought professional help you'll generally find tutors and departments pretty sympathetic provided you don't ask for an extension the night before your work is due.
Apply to defer or resit exams
If you're not in a fit state to take an exam because of your mental health, you should immediately inform the university and request a deferral. You'll then be allowed the opportunity to sit the exam at a later date, normally when resits are taking place. Unfortunately, performing spectacularly badly in your exams could be one of the first signs that something's not right with your mental health. Don't sit on your hands and do nothing if you think you bombed your exam because of a mental health issue. If you can retroactively prove you were suffering from a mental health complaint while you sat your exams, you may be eligible for a first-attempt resit, where you can have a second shot at the exam without penalty.
Don't take no for an answer
Universities should be increasingly aware of the impact of mental health issues on their students, so if you find a particular tutor or department unsympathetic, your students' union will likely be more than willing to advocate on your behalf.
If all else fails…
Take some time off. Defer your next year of studies and move back home, go travelling, or get a job. You might even decide that university is not for you and you want to do something else with your life. All of these are valid choices, and infinitely preferable to struggling through university while your mental health takes a beating, or having a complete breakdown because you simply can't cope any more. And know this: nothing you do to address your mental health – whether it's requesting special accommodations or quitting your degree entirely – makes you a failure.