Studying should be an exhilarating experience and a time in your life when you learn new things, meet new people and learn how to become an independent adult. However, all of this is challenging too and can lead to stress and anxiety.
Feeling anxious or stressed from time to time comes with student life and doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong with you or that you should seek help. But research carried out by YouGov shows over a quarter of UK university students face some kind of mental illness, with this number rising to a third among female students.
Furthermore, 75 per cent of mental health difficulties develop by the age of 25, and the responsibilities and stresses of studying and being away from friends and family can lead to mental health issues or make existing conditions worse.
It’s worth acknowledging that some difficulties experienced by students are not caused by medical problems, but by normal life problems, like family or relationship issues, or anxiety about work. However, seeking help at the right time is important to ensure issues do not spiral out of control and impact your studies.
What is considered to be a mental health problem?
We spoke to Rachel Piper, a Policy Manager at the mental health charity Student Minds, about what constitutes a mental health illness. Whilst this is not an exhaustive list, these are the conditions she says are most common amongst university students.
Characterised by a persistent and severe feeling of sadness and/or a lack of interest in activities once enjoyed.
Everyone experiences some degree of anxiety once in a while before exams or when making an important decision. However, anxiety disorders are different. They cause extreme distress which negatively impacts your ability to carry on with life normally. Types of anxiety disorders include:
- Panic disorder- Causes you to have regular sudden attacks of panic or fear.
- Social anxiety disorder- When you experience overwhelming worry and self-consciousness over every day social situations.
- Generalised anxiety disorder- Leads you to feel excessive unrealistic worry or tension with little to no reason.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
Those with OCD experience obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. If you have this disorder you will often have unwanted and unpleasant thoughts, images or urges on your mind leading to unease or distress. OCD can also cause compulsions, making you obsess over acting out a repetitive behaviour to make yourself feel better. For example, obsessively checking your stove to make sure it’s turned off in fear of a fire.
These are a range of psychological disorders characterised by disturbed or abnormal eating habits. Common eating disorders include:
- Anorexia nervosa- Having an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat or starving yourself.
- Bulimia- Forcing yourself to be sick after you have eaten. You might also use laxatives or excessive exercise to try to stop yourself from gaining weight.
- Binge eating- Compulsively eating unusually large amounts of food over short periods of time and usually feeling a lack of control during binges.
This causes you to perceive or interpret reality differently to those around you. If you are experiencing psychosis you will have either hallucinations or delusions. A combination of hallucinations and delusional thinking can cause severe distress and changes in behaviour.
Intentionally causing damage or injuries to your body as a way of coping with or expressing strong emotional distress.
Signs you should look out for
Please contact a certified health practitioner if you or a loved one experience one or any of these symptoms and you’re concerned. If you are ever unsure, someone will always be there to offer support.
Feeling unsocial for no real reason
We all occasionally feel unsocial and would rather stay home or have “me time” rather than hang out with family and friends. But if you are actively avoiding social situations or have lost interest in your hobbies, or things you are normally passionate about, it may be time to seek support.
Not sleeping or eating properly
Finding it hard to get to sleep or wake up without reason, as well as a loss of appetite can be symptoms of a mental illness.
For example, many people living with depression have trouble getting out of bed in the morning and might sleep more than usual. And people with anxiety often report waking up throughout the night and struggling to get to sleep with so much on their mind. Also, it’s common for those with anxiety to grind their teeth or clench their jaw while sleeping.
Difficulty thinking clearly and concentrating
It can be hard to think clearly when you’re experiencing a mental health problem. You may also find remembering things and concentrating more difficult, especially when your mind is preoccupied with pain and distress.
Feeling uninterested in your life
It’s common for people facing mental health challenges to feel removed from day-to-day life and their surroundings. This may also be accompanied by a sense of being unable to look forward to things or be fully present in the moment. For example, you could be sat in a group meeting at university and feel unable to participate and engage with people. Or you might feel like you’re not really there at all.
Decreased ability to get things done
Lack of concentration, fatigue and tiredness all affect your ability to work productively and to respond proactively to situations. These symptoms can result from most types of mental illnesses. If you see dramatic changes to your work ethic or enthusiasm, it might be worthwhile to speak to someone.
Constant or regular irritability, rage or anxiety resulting in sudden explosive behaviour is a potential sign of a mental health issue. Depression and other disorders can cause serious mood swings.
Anxiety or nervousness can come hand in hand with other disorders. This might result in you feeling restless, uneasy and seriously panicked. Physically, this can manifest as an inability to sit still. It can also cause symptoms like: heavy sweating, rapid breathing, twitching, trembling and a rapid heart rate.
Worried that you or a loved one is drinking too much? Abuse of alcohol and other drugs is sometimes used by people to push aside, ignore or cope with mental health issues. However, misuse of these substances can really exacerbate existing disorders and lead to new ones.
What support is available?
Wondering whether you should seek help? Some people don’t ask for support because they feel embarrassed. However, if you are experiencing something that is affecting you on a regular basis, then speaking to somebody will help. Here is our advice:
In an emergency
In case of a medical emergency, such as an overdose, call 999.
Friends and family
If you feel comfortable speak to someone in your immediate network of friends. And even if your family is not local, they may be able to give you the reassurance and guidance you need.
University counselling service
Most universities and colleges have a free and confidential in-house counselling service you can access, with professionally qualified counsellors and psychotherapists. Many universities also have a mental health adviser who can help you access the support you need.
You can usually find out what they offer and how to make an appointment in the counselling service section of your university or college’s website. This free service in universities is available to both undergraduates and postgraduates.
As well as counselling or therapy, you may also be entitled to “reasonable adjustments” such as extra time in exams, extensions on coursework, and specialist mental health mentor support.
The charity Student Minds offers peer support groups at several UK universities listed here. Other universities offer their own in-house peer support groups. You can usually find information about this online or through your university counselling service.
Make an appointment with your GP
An appointment with a mental health professional will typically include an interview and evaluation to spot your most obvious symptoms and determine the type and severity of mental health challenges you face. They will then help you figure out the best course of action for your specific needs.
When you see your university counselling service, they will send you to see a GP through the National Health Service (NHS) if they think you need clinical treatment, as university counsellors cannot diagnose and treat conditions. Your GP will then refer you to a psychiatrist or someone who can provide the right care for you.
To get confidential support by phone from another student, look on Nightline’s website to see if your university offers a night-time listening service. In some cases, they will have someone you can speak to in your mother language. However, Nightline only runs during term time.
Is a 24 hours a day, 365 days a year helpline if you are struggling with your mental health or have suicidal thoughts. The number for Samaritans is 116 123 and it is a free to call from any phone in the UK.
And if you’re under 35 and struggling with suicidal feelings or are concerned about another young person who might be, you can call Papyrus HOPELINEUK confidentially on 0800 068 4141 (weekdays 10am-10pm, weekends 2pm-10pm and bank holidays 2pm–10pm), email firstname.lastname@example.org or text 07786 209 697.
LGBT+ individuals can contact the LGBT Foundation helpline at 0845 330 3030 (10am-10pm, daily) or email: email@example.com
Why you should tell your university about a mental health condition
At the moment, many young people don’t disclose their known mental health conditions to their universities. This may be because they don’t feel comfortable telling their universities about their conditions and think they will face discrimination. Also, they may not understand what the benefits of telling their university are.
But there are actually a number of benefits in terms of support. After reporting your condition, your university is legally required to make course adjustments which take your needs into account. Other benefits include being referred right away to student support services and receiving specialist equipment or a mentor. However, you must speak to your university to find out what support they are specifically able to provide.
No matter what steps you decide to take, remember that you’re not alone even if you’re far from home. As isolating as mental health difficulties can feel, there will always be someone else going through something similar. And there are so many places you can seek support. Being honest with yourself about what you’re going through and open to help is always the first step to getting better.