How to look after your mental health at university
Going to university is a big step, and can be both exciting and daunting. Moving to a new place, taking on studies, meeting new people and managing money can be stressful, so it’s important to look after your mental health.
Here are some suggestions for maintaining good self-care at university.
Get to know what support is available
Your university may have some or all of the following:
- Counselling and mental health service
- Wellbeing service
- Financial support and advice service
- Student Union
- Health information service
- Faith services
Each university’s website will contain information about which services are available and how to access them. It’s a good idea to find out what’s on offer even if you think you may never need to use these services.
It’s also important to register with a GP. Don’t wait until you feel unwell to register with a GP. You can search for local doctors on the NHS website, or speak to your Student Union.
Self-care for students
University can be a bit of a whirlwind of study, socialising, setting up home and, for some, working part-time. So looking after yourself is so important. It’s easy to underestimate the effect that our sleep, diet and daily routine can have on our mental health.
Make time to sleep at least seven hours a night if you can. Make sure you’re getting fruit, vegetables and lean protein into your diet. It may sound like a cliché, but looking after your body really does help your mental health.
It’s also really important to be kind to yourself. Mixing with a new group of friends, getting to grips with your course, managing your money and finding your way around a new place really is a great achievement. If you feel things getting on top of you, that’s normal. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing a great job. If you need to, keep a journal of the good and bad feelings you’re having. Expressing the bad stuff will help you deal with it more easily, and expressing the good stuff will help you reflect on and recognise your achievements.
Work-life balance while studying
When you’ve got a lot of work to do, it can be difficult to find the time to do things you enjoy. But it’s important to remember that relaxation time isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity for good mental health. In your free time, try and get a balance between activities that are:
- Social, such as meeting friends
- Physical, such as sports
- Linked to a sense of achievement, such as writing or painting
- Just plain fun
Of course, some of these cross over into one another. For example playing football might be classed as social, physical and fun, while giving you a sense of achievement. If this is the case, great – you’re covering all bases.
Student financial worries
You may be worried about debts or making ends meet. Managing your finances can be stressful, but if you feel yourself starting to struggle, the following might be useful:
- Talking to the student finance office at your university.
- Drawing up a budget of your income and outgoings to get a clearer picture of the situation.
- Getting some advice. The Money Advice Service has a useful factsheet for students.
If you have debts, opening your mail and talking to the people you owe money to can be daunting. But if your creditors don’t know your situation, they can’t work out a plan with you. If it helps, ask a friend to sit with you while you sort through things.
Loneliness at university
When you start uni, you’re surrounded by people. And yet many people feel lonely when moving away from home. You may miss your old friends, your old routine and your family. That’s completely normal, and chances are many of the people around you are feeling the same.
People who struggle with their mental health are at greater risk of loneliness. Anxiety or depression can make it more difficult to get out and meet people, and in turn, the lack of social contact can make you feel more anxious or depressed. Mental health charity Mind has an excellent factsheet on dealing with loneliness.
Remember, you are not alone. You may not have found the friendship group that you ‘click’ with just yet, but the chances are you will. And if ever you feel in crisis, help is at hand. Check out the list of useful resources at the end of this article.
Mental health warning signs
For many of us, changes in our mental health come with certain warning signs. These may be different for each of us, but can include socialising less, insomnia, changing our eating habits, having more negative or self-critical thoughts, feeling tired or enjoying things less. Using more alcohol than usual, or taking drugs to combat our feelings are also signs that we might need a little extra support.
Learn to spot your own warning signs, and if they start to show themselves, it might be a good time to:
- Ramp up your self-care routine
- Talk to someone you trust
- Make an appointment to see your doctor
You may also notice these behaviour changes in a friend. If you do, it may be nothing to worry about, or they may just need a chat. Check out our factsheet How to tell when a friend may be struggling with their mental health for more information.
Samaritans – Talk to a volunteer for free and in confidence, 24/7.
Young Minds – A guide to mental health support for young adults.
My Possible Self is a mental health app that can reduce stress, anxiety and mild-to-moderate depression in eight weeks. It can be particularly useful in times of change, or when you’re struggling with low self-esteem. Download the app and try our free module Managing Fear and Anxiety.