How to Take Care of Your Mental Health at University

Stress is inevitable when embarking upon a degree. Alongside leaving home and not knowing a single person in this big new city, you have to find a balance between your social life, your studies and financial budgeting.

Such drastic change will naturally inflict some degree of emotional distress for everyone at some point during their university experience, particularly during the first term where everything is new and frankly overwhelming. However, university can be even harder for those suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental health problems which affect day to day living.

Even if you do not suffer from a mental health problem, what is sold as "The best time of your life" isn’t always what it’s made out to be.  Everywhere you turn, marketing and popular culture demands you have the best fun you possibly can. Whilst university is a life changing and a hopefully enjoyable experience, the demands to have a certain kind of experience can be hard to digest when you don’t feel the same way.

I recently went to speak to the English department’s senior tutor, Sarah Serning. We had a lengthy discussion about how students can deal with stress and mental health problems whilst at university and I found out that the university provides a huge amount of support which I fear students do not know enough about.

Sarah highlighted how stress is inevitable when embarking on a degree. She explains how “There is often a very negative association with stress but actually it can be a good driver for success.  Some degree of stress is what drives you to work hard on your essays, and therefore shouldn’t be seen as a completely negative thing. However, coping with stress is critical to make sure it doesn’t become unmanageable.”

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Sarah goes on to say the first thing to do when you are feeling stressed is focus on your basic well-being – sleep, nutrition, exercise, socialising. With all these basics covered, you’re then in a better position to emotionally and mentally deal with any other factors causing stress.

Getting to know your stress is equally important – what is causing it? How does it make you feel? How does it affect your life? Are you coping?

Thinking about why you feel the way you feel allows you to act accordingly. However, Sarah emphasises that if you feel like you are not coping with stress, then this should be taken seriously.  Sometimes things do become too much, especially when starting your second or third year (when things suddenly get serious), or moving away from home to start university.

Address the stress as soon as possible.

Breaking your day or tasks down is a good short term way to deal with a stressful day. Take things 15 minutes at a time. What can you do in the next 15 minutes to make yourself feel calmer? What work needs to be prioritised?

Take breaks, especially around deadlines. Make conscious acts of self-care such as going for a walk or run, meeting with a friend or cooking yourself something nice. My favourite thing to do is have a change of scene, usually by going outside for a walk to refresh myself.  Do whatever will make you feel good and take yourself away from work/stressful situations for a little while.

Mind and body both matter!

Sometimes, however, stress is not the only thing that gets in the way. Studies have recently shown that depression and anxiety amongst students is alarmingly common. In a survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation, it was found that "Clinical anxiety was recorded in 46 per cent of men and 64 per cent of women. Possible clinical depression was found in 12 per cent and 15 per cent respectively."

The most important thing to do if you think you’re suffering from depression or anxiety is to find a form of support. That can be through a family member, friends or the student health service.

Depression is extremely hard to live with, especially when you have to try and balance a social life and academic work on top of it. Unfortunately, if not addressed, depression can get worse at university due to factors such as academic stress, homesickness and general life changes. Whilst depression is a very subjective experience, it usually leaves you feeling very isolated.

The stigma surrounding mental illness often prevents people from reaching out for help, resulting in the condition worsening. But it is also manageable if you take the right steps to care for your mental health.  And remember, mind and body both matter. In the same way you allow a wound to heal, or your body recover after illness, your mental health must also be looked after and given the correct help/support. You don’t have to suffer alone.

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If you know someone suffering from mental health problems, the important thing to remember is that whilst you can be there for them, you are not their therapist. The best support you can give to them is regularly checking in on how they’re feeling and letting them know you are there for them, but also letting them know you will support them should they need to get professional support.

Friendly and loving contact, alongside encouraging that person to get support, is the best thing you can do for them. Sarah mentions that looking out for our peers is really important. It can be hard to deal with the university environment – continual critical academic feedback in a highly competitive atmosphere – so she stresses that we should all “Treat people mindfully.”

So, what can the University do to support students if stress or mental health problems become unmanageable?

The University provides both counselling services and health services, all of which will support your needs both mentally and physically. The counselling services are free, which can be a huge relief for people suffering from anxiety, depression or chronic stress.  Therapy is not cheap, and financial worries can be a huge deterrent for counselling, so make the most of this facility.

Additionally, you can find support and relief from online sources such as Headspace (a mindfulness app) and The Big White Wall. There are also the disability services with a mental health sector which provide appointments and packages of care to help with day to day coping. If the health and counselling services are unable to provide one on one services for some time (as there is usually a waiting list), they can offer relaxation groups and art therapy in the meantime, which many students claim to be extremely therapeutic.

If things are really bad, there is Nightline and safe spaces within the University which can offer support and understanding.

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Every faculty has a senior tutor, so if you are unsure about whom to go to, then arranging a meeting with your senior tutor is a good first step, as they can then recommend you to the right source of support to suit your particular needs. However, it is also important to find your own resource of managing mental health.  My personal favourite is meditation and exercise, whether it is a walk or a run. But for others it can be yoga or meeting up with a friend. It may even be playing a sport, instrument or watching a film/TV series in bed.

Whatever it is, let it be yours. Use it as a means of comfort and time out. The mind can be a busy place, so it is important to make time to take a breather from life and enjoy a quiet moment to yourself.