Adapting to university life - the impact on mental health

As thousands of young people head off to university for the first time full of promise, it is important to consider the impact that university life can have on their mental health.

We asked Dr Richard Bowskill Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Director of Priory’s Brighton and Hove Hospital about the impact of transitioning to university life:

Living away from home

image“A worryingly high number of teenagers are suffering from stress – and risk dropping out of university - because they are inadequately prepared for undergraduate life

Schools and parents need to do more to ensure young people are equipped to settle and study in unfamiliar, and sometimes unforgiving, settings, often hundreds of miles from home.

“Empty nest syndrome, when the final child leaves home, is real and well discussed. The impact on parents can be significant, especially mothers. But students struggling in their first year at university, ‘failing fledglings’ I call them, is not sufficiently addressed, and it can be very traumatic for some young people.

“Teenagers need to prepare for a massive change in social circumstances; the likelihood is that old friendships will be dismantled, first romances may end. These can be traumatic in themselves.

“Teens have worked hard, got their grades, but they have no idea what living away from home with strangers is like. Their expectations are huge, the social pressures enormous, and they can turn to drink or drugs to numb their insecurities and homesickness. Then they risk dropping out. It is a real problem and one I increasingly see in my hospital.

“They also have financial worries, hectic extracurricular schedules and self-imposed pressures.”

Rise in students seeking mental health support

A recent study by The Times, based on freedom of information data, showed that the number of students at the UK’s top universities seeking help for depression, anxiety and mental health problems has soared.

Young people in distress at many of the country’s most prestigious institutions has almost doubled since 2004. Oxbridge, Bristol, Imperial College and University College London have all experienced a surge in students seeking help. Data gathered from 20 of the Russell Group universities during the recent academic year showed a particularly large rise in students seeking help.

Dr Bowskill said that the figures suggested that the help given to students as they make the transition from the often “cosy” environment of a school sixth form to the atmosphere of a top university, where they have to work independently and look after themselves, was not sufficient.

In Oxford 1,832 students sought psychological help in 2013 to 2014 compared with 453 in 2003 to 2004. The University of Bristol also had a sharp rise, with 1,906 students seeking help in 2013 to 2014 compared with 710 in 2006 to 2007 when the university started collecting the data. Bristol said more students have been seeking help in the recent academic year, running at 1,833.

In London the figures have also been rising sharply. King’s College, Imperial and UCL have all seen the number of students seeking help more than double in a decade. King’s said partial figures for 2014 to 2015 showed 1,514 students sought help in the first term and a half, almost as many as in the entire 2013 to 2014 academic year. The Russell Group said it was investing heavily in pastoral services.

Dr Bowskill said he had noticed “over the last few years that the numbers of students being referred in the first term of university is increasing”.

He said: “All stages in life, when there are major transitions in living and social arrangements, can trigger mental health problems. First year university students face substantial changes in their social circumstances as they transition from life at school, living with parents, to the first of university study.

“Young students and schools face an enormous amount of pressure attaining high ‘A’ level grades.  “Students are often very well supported in their final year at sixth form. Then they need to think about how they will adapt to university student life.” 

How to support students moving to university

His suggestions for parents helping to transition their children for university are:

  • Be aware that the learning environment is about to change and discuss this with your children on an adult to adult basis.  Help and advice might be needed about how students need to become more independent learners, with less externally imposed deadlines. 

  • This is often the first time that people will be living away from home, but don’t be too restrictive in the days and weeks prior to the students going to university.  It is best they learn their own limits and ways to negotiate around safe alcohol intake whilst they have their home environment.  Being too restrictive whilst at home is likely to lead to problems with alcohol misuse with their newfound freedom. 

  • Be realistic about the character and social attributes of your child.  Residential halls and support might provide a stepping stone before full independence is found.  If your children are socially anxious talk to them about how they can negotiate Freshers’ Week and prepare them to join Societies where they already have established interests.

  • If your child already has identified mental health problems such as anxiety or depression then encourage them to contact the university before attending so that they can access extra student support.  The level of support provided by universities is often very good.

  • Children also need to prepare themselves for a huge change in social circumstances, the likelihood is that old friendship groups will be dismantled, first romances may end and the students will be faced with the challenge of building up new relationships and making new friends.

He added: “The majority of difficulties the students have in the first term of university are related to anxiety and depression or harmful use of substances or alcohol.  However, unfortunately, early adulthood is also the time when more serious mental illnesses such as Bipolar Disorder and schizophrenia can show up, so a thorough mental health assessment may be needed if functioning is being affected.

“Perhaps it is time that schools spent a little more time on the emotional and social adaptations the students will need to go through during their first year at university to enable this life transition to be negotiated more successfully.”

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