Degrees of stress: being mentally prepared for university

  • As around 565,000 young people start university, Priory child and adolescent psychiatrist urges more focus on student mental health
  • Studies show students experience stress and anxiety, and almost half have reported feelings of depression
  • Three quarters admit they don't ask for help because they're embarrassed or don't know where to find it
  • Building a new social network, learning to be self-sufficient, and academic pressure and financial pressures caused by student loan and tuition fee debt, all take their toll, Dr van Zwanenberg says

With up to 565,000 students beginning university this autumn, and the media focusing on the debt they will incur, Priory child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg urges young adults to focus on their mental health - and not to forget that help is available.

Her comments follow a YouGov survey which suggests that as many as a quarter of Britain's students say they have a mental health problem.

Depression and anxiety are by far the most common reported mental health ailments. Of those who suffer, 77% have depression-related problems, and 74% have anxiety related problems.

For many, it is common for students to be afflicted with both at once - 74% of students with an anxiety-related problem also have a depression-related one, according to YouGov. These two issues dwarf all the rest, with eating disorders being the next most common at 14%.

The Guardian reported that the number of students seeking counselling has risen significantly in the last five years.

A separate study among 1,000 first and second year university students across the UK reported that 8 in 10 students had felt stress and anxiety, and almost half experienced depression (45%). Three quarters felt that more wellbeing support would help them fit into university life and ways of talking about their unhappiness would stop them dropping out of university.

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, Group Associate Medical Director at Priory, said: "Mental health difficulties can beset anyone at any time, but there is a big transition stage when young adults leave home and start university, when life can be particularly challenging.

"A stereotype exists of students drinking coffee all day and partying at night, but the truth is that many students start university life knowing that their 'debt' levels are rising by the day, and they take on extra jobs to deal with this, and combine these jobs with their studies. We know that increasing numbers are accessing mental health services.

"Students worry their generation is likely to be less well off than their parents, so they feel more pressure to succeed than in the past. Students also worry that even with a degree they won't find a job that will pay the rent, or enable them to ever access the property ladder.

"So, living away from home, learning independently, coping with financial pressures and social inclusion can play a huge part in self-esteem.

Her six tips:

There is help out there

If you're stressed or anxious, there are people there to help. You can access medical professionals like GPs, or counsellors, psychologists, welfare advisers, university counselling services or student union representatives. Your GP may refer you to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. Priory Healthcare has Wellbeing Centres in cities where there are a high number of students, including Oxford, Canterbury, London and Birmingham. All are well set up to meet your needs; they are confidential services and accessing them will not affect your job prospects negatively (a common worry). The therapists will help you develop a plan for when you are feeling 'at sea' and this will help you feel more in the driving seat, and more in control and more able to succeed.

Feelings of being lonely can be defeated

University can be isolating. Moving away from home means students are often left without their safety blanket of friends, parents or siblings. Find at least two university clubs or societies that appeal to your skills, whether it be rowing or the student newspaper, and join up. You are then instantly matched with like-minded people. Make the most of Freshers' week, where clubs and societies urge you to join them. Universities will publish Freshers' week schedules on their own websites or the Students' Union website, and you'll get sent information in your welcome pack.

Pause and concentrate on the moment and not the future

You may feel overwhelmed but everyone is in the same boat. Enjoy the moment. You have worked hard to get to university but it should not feel like a pressure cooker and it is ok not to know what career you might follow at the end.

Social media

Much social media, like Instagram, can make it look like everyone is having a good time except you. Don’t judge your social status or social life by it. It's a false measurement. A lot of people have left behind their friends and are starting afresh at university. Some people find this easier than others. Don't panic. It can be hard work being away from home, but see starting university as an opportunity to try new things within a safe and like-minded environment.

Eat well, stay well

Make sure you eat healthily. Eat well, stay well. Keep in mind simple recipes that can get you by. Useful tips on how to make simple recipes more exciting (25 meals you should be able to cook by 11) can be found here.

Phone home

Don't feel you have to sound like it's all a big party. Have open conversations with family and friends about how you feel. Encourage them to visit. Always have someone to call. While sharing living space with people outside the family is part of student experience for the majority, whether in halls of residence, or in various forms of shared private accommodation, it is not always easy. Learning to compromise will help and negotiating is important, so you can voice what you need without getting into arguments.

Dr van Zwanenberg said; "Leaving home and starting a new life of study in an unfamiliar place can be a daunting and difficult experience. Homesickness and 'first year nerves' are common feelings and should not be ignored - although they usually pass. However, what is more concerning to me is the additional burdens that Freshers are increasingly carrying on their shoulders.

"Financial worries, lack of resilience or experience of looking after yourself, and pressure to achieve top grades, are creating a negative impact on student life. In some cases, this is leading to increasing 'drop out' rates among students unable to cope, coupled with an increase in students seeking professional help for mental health issues."

The proportion of young UK students dropping out of higher education before their second year has risen for the second year in a row, latest figures have shown. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, released on 9 March, reveal that the first-year dropout rate for students aged under 21 in 2014-15 was 6.2 per cent, a slight rise on the 6 per cent figure for 2013-14.

Dr van Zwanenberg added; "Whatever your age, interests, academic ability or gender, I cannot stress how important it is to open up and talk. There is no shame - and certainly should be no stigma - in admitting you are feeling overwhelmed, unable to cope or experiencing feelings of depression and anxiety. As a society, we may also need to accept that student days have changed over the decades and whilst there's no reason they shouldn't still be some of the best days of your life, parents and teenagers may have to learn to adjust their expectations and be prepared for some pitfalls and pressures along the way.

"Many universities offer fantastic counselling and welfare support services, which provide an ideal opportunity to talk through problems - whether practical, emotional or financial. Often, that is all that is needed to reverse a situation and prevent a downward spiral in depression.

"However, if further professional treatment is needed, our Wellbeing Centres - which are sited in many key, university towns including Oxford, Birmingham, Canterbury and Manchester - can provide discreet and convenient access to mental health services, allowing us to treat and diagnose young people swiftly."

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