• Abbie Tibbott

Protecting Your Mental Health at University

University can be stressful for a multitude of reasons, all of which can impact your mental health. Maintaining your mental well-being whilst living away from home, especially while you’re settling into your new environment can be extremely daunting for students of all ages. Everyone arrives at university with a unique set of circumstances, but there is often a degree of pressure (forgive the pun) to act a certain way. If you're worried about managing your mental health at university, I'd advise speaking to a medical professional, as I hold no psychiatric qualifications! However, I hope that this post will help to put some of your fears to rest.


 

Protecting your mental health comes alongside protecting your interests. At university you will be exposed to many new hobbies or sports, but I’d caution against over-stretching yourself in the first few months. Even if you’re an extrovert like me, meeting new groups of people continuously as you try out new activities can get overwhelming after a while, so stick to one thing that you already do, and one thing that you’d like to try. For example, if you’re a keen netball player, consider trying out for the team to keep up your skills and meet other people in a similar position to you, then try a society or group that has an activity focused on something you’re interested in. Joining lots of societies or sports will fill up your time, and may not leave you enough time to relax or complete your work, so carry on with interests that make you happy. Looking forward to an activity which you already have some knowledge in is a big confidence booster too.




I joined the history society whilst I was at university, and you could often find me eating lunch and drinking copious amounts of coffee with people that I met through its activities. There were themed nights, film nights and trips around the country and abroad. I worked a lot, so didn't have time to join a second society, so I joined the gym instead so I could exercise at my leisure. After a gym session, I'd often sit outside to read or relax, as pictured here in pre-Covid times. I really valued group activities, but also learned to enjoy my own company, which was really refreshing for an extrovert!






Financial worries are commonplace at university, and thankfully, students are beginning to be more open with each other about their personal situations. Getting a job that allows you to meet new people and earn you some decent money will help to alleviate some of your money troubles. I’d always advise getting a job whilst you’re at university if you have the time, as when life isn’t so exciting you’ve still got a regular job that you can build your schedule around. If you’re surrounded by people who don’t work by choice, don’t be afraid to say no to expensive activities that they suggest. The fact that they’re not working suggests that they either have a good financial situation themselves, or that their family is contributing towards their lifestyle, and it’s not a particularly accurate reflection of how the majority of students live. Don't get FOMO (fear of missing out) as you're sure to find a group that enjoy doing activities on the budget you're sticking to.


Cutting down on activities where you spend money aimlessly or exchanging them with cheaper things will help your budget stretch further. I’d recommend ditching shopping more than once a month as you’ll end up buying clothes that you don’t need. Weekday cinema trips, at home movie nights and spa sessions with your friends are easy on your bank account and are a lot more fun than wandering aimlessly through shops.


If you run into an unexpected financial situation, it’s best to ask for support at student services. Not being able to pay rent or bills is the biggest worry for a lot of students, as well as car malfunctions if you commute or live further away. Facing eviction or fines is a horrible situation to be in, so ask to see if you’re eligible for any help. Universities have hardship funding for emergencies, but you’ll be expected to provide evidence so keep hold of receipts and letters where you can. If you’re having trouble affording technology, there should be computer suites available on campus, and many universities have technology grants for students in need.


 

Moving on, illness, both mental and physical, can wreak havoc on your studies. Suffering with illness while writing an important essay or revising for an exam can impact your productivity and your ability to retain information. It may also affect your ability to get up in the morning and impair your eating habits, both of which will impact your mood and motivation. If you’ve suffered a bereavement, relationship breakdown or illness while at university, it’s important to let your academic tutor, lecturers and support staff know as soon as possible so they can advise you on how best to complete the assignment.


Universities have a process known as “extenuating circumstances” that allows students to apply for extra time or special circumstances during assessments. Here too, it’s important to gather evidence to support your claim, such as a note from your GP or mental health support, as universities won’t take your word for it.


The process of applying for extenuating circumstances is complex and clunky in my opinion. Expecting students to gather evidence, often at short notice, during a stressful time is sure to have a continual impact on their mental health. Online forms are often complicated, and require a statement detailing exactly what has happened, and what you need in terms of adjustments. If you’re not well, it may take a long time to fill in these forms, and you may not know how much time you will need for an extension. I will say though that the pandemic has forced universities to address this process, as the majority of students were impacted by travel bans and lockdowns over the past year.


Personally, I was affected during the summer, as I was due to visit several archives to carry out research for my dissertation. Museums and archives remained closed, so I had to apply for an extension to allow for the delay in my dissertation as I had to change my topic as a result. With the help of my supervisor, we argued for a four-month extension to replace the four months that I was unable to work on my research due to the lockdown. Thankfully, my university waived the need for evidence when submitting extenuating circumstances claims last year, so I didn’t need to provide anything apart from a statement of how I’d been affected.


 

Finally, loneliness is another hidden aspect of university life that isn’t talked about nearly enough. I have been lucky enough to never feel lonely, as I’m happy in my own company and spent my time at university surrounded by a fantastic group of friends. However, it definitely isn’t the same for everyone, especially if you’re not excited by the nightlife scene, or have struggled to make friends in the past. Becoming isolated whilst being surrounded by other people can cause students to withdraw completely from university life. If you attend a large university, there’s more of a risk of you falling through the cracks and simply disappearing. My best advice is to attend university with an open mind, and attempt to make friends with a variety of people. The people on your course are those you’ll see often, so try striking up a conversation before or after a lecture, as you may find people that live near you that you could walk back to your accommodation with. The people you live with may become your best friends, so you always have a support network when you get back after lectures.


Finding friends through sports, work or societies will help you build a circle of support. As you get closer to your new friends, don’t be afraid to open up about your stress or loneliness, if you feel able. You’ll be surprised at how many people will be feeling similar things, and hopefully you can figure out how to support eachother in a healthy way. It is true that many people find their friends for life, but it might not happen in the first week. I'd say it took a month or two to become close to my now best friends, so please try not to worry about it. Departments often make the effort to hold informal mixer events at the start of your first year as a way for you to familiarise yourself with the department and meet your course mates. It can be intimidating to put yourself out there, but university is made so much better by friendships.


 

By all means, this wasn't an exhaustive list, but I hope that my personal experiences have given you an insight into what life outside of the classroom is like. Universities are filled with rich opportunities, so it's time to go out and grab them! Speaking to your academic tutor should always be a priority if you run into any issues during your first year. University staff are trained to direct students towards the support that they need, and lecturers want you to succeed too. As I said before, if your mental or physical health is impacting your ability to study, it's vital to get the ball rolling as soon as you can. Remember to keep hold of any evidence, and register with a GP as soon as you arrive.


I'd love to write more about mental health at university, so look out for more posts on the subject in the future.


Happy Studying!