Student stress and anxiety – how to be mentally prepared for university
With almost half of school leavers going on to university, and many worried about the debt they will incur, Priory child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg urges young adults to focus first on their mental health – and not to forget that help is available.
The dates of freshers’ weeks vary, but it’s usually towards the end of September with many freshers’ weeks commencing on either September 17 or 24. Homesickness is rife among new students embarking on university life. Sometimes this can trigger mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Dr van Zwanenberg’s advice to students follows recent reports and surveys, including by YouGov, suggesting that as many as a quarter of Britain’s students say they have some type of a mental health problem.
Depression and anxiety are the most common. Of those who suffer, 77% have depression-related problems, and 74% have anxiety related problems.
These two issues dwarf all the rest, with eating disorders being the next most common at 14%. The findings mirror a Priory report, conducted across 18 universities in the UK in 2013, which found that one in four was “too afraid” to mention their mental health problem to friends.
In 2014/15, a record number of students (1,180) who experienced mental health problems dropped-out of university, an increase of 210 per cent compared to 2009/10, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research. It said the number of students who disclose a mental health condition to their university has also risen in the past 10 years. In 2015/16, 15,395 UK-domiciled first-year students disclosed a mental health condition – almost five times the number in 2006/07.
In 2016–17, there were 2.32 million students studying at UK higher education institutions, including part-time and postgraduate students.
Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, Group Associate Medical Director at the 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 take of extra jobs to deal with this, and combine them 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.”
Seven ways to look after your mental health at university
1) There is help out there, says Dr van Zwanenberg
If you’re stressed or anxious, there are people there to help, whether they be medical professionals like GPs, or counsellors, psychologists, welfare advisers or student union representatives. Their job is to listen and to help you cope. Your GP may refer you to a psychiatrist. Priory 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. Also, seek help in having a plan for when you are feeling ‘at sea’ and this will help you feel more in the driving seat, and more in control.
2) Feelings of being lonely can be defeated
Don't worry if being a student isn't immediately the fun-packed experience you were anticipating - that will come in time as you settle in. University can be a highly 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. 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.
3) 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 hothouse and it is ok not to know what career you might follow at the end.
4) Social media
Much social media, like Instagram, can make it look like everyone is having a wonderful 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 a new challenge, and an opportunity to try new things within a safe and like-minded environment.
5) Eat well, stay well
Make sure you eat healthily. Eat well, stay well. Keep in mind simple recipes that can get you by. A useful guide (25 meals you should be able to cook by 11) can be found here.
6) 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.
7) Manage your time
University tutorials and writing dissertations can seem alien after life at school. There’s often lots of independent learning. Try creating a written work schedule, breaking your tasks down into manageable chunks and planning accordingly. Divide your work into urgent and non-urgent tasks, and important and non-important tasks.
Dr van Zwanenberg added; “Leaving home and starting a new life of study in an unfamiliar place can be a daunting and difficult experience. Homesickness and ‘first term nerves’ are common feelings and should not be ignored – although they usually pass soon. However, what is more concerning to me are 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 unprecedented ‘drop out’ rates among students unable to cope, coupled with an increase in students seeking professional help for mental health issues.
“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, teenagers (and their parents) 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.”
Notes to editors
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About Priory Group
The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, stress, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into three divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, and adult care. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health.