Uni and mental health: tips for students

We are a group of students from the University of Sussex who have teamed up with the Mental Health Foundation. We're curating a social media campaign to raise awareness of the issues faced by students during the pandemic. 

Last updated: 22 December 2021

The Mental Health Foundation is part of the national mental health response during the coronavirus outbreak. Government advice designed to keep us safe is under constant review and will be different depending on where you live: more details and up to date information here

There has been a five-fold increase in the number of students reporting mental health problems over the past ten years. In addition, the majority of mental health problems develop by the age of 24. This makes university students a high-risk group for developing mental ill-health.

As you’d expect, the coronavirus pandemic has made this picture worse: a survey of first year university students in October 2021 showed a third showed signs of anxiety and depression.

This page looks at both the extra pressures the pandemic has put on students as well as other challenges you might face.

 

How has coronavirus changed student life?

Universities have to follow any government restrictions in place, but beyond this they can make their own decisions about managing the risks of coronavirus. This means all universities are doing things differently: check your university’s website to see what their rules are.

Changes to teaching

Your teaching may be all in person, all online, or a mixture of the two. This will depend on your university’s rules as well as the sort of course you’re going.

Relying on online classes may be safer but can also be exhausting and isolating. It’s no wonder a survey in October 2021 showed almost two out of five students felt unprepared for studying at university because of the loss of face-to-face teaching.

If you’re struggling with online classes, some of these tips might help.

  • Try to learn with others, even if it means just hitting play on a pre-recorded lecture at the same time so you can chat about it afterwards. You might find it easier to concentrate.
  • Make a timetable so you know when you’ll be studying, socialising and exercising. It’s easy to let things drift if you don’t have to be in a certain place, such as a lecture hall, at a certain time.
  • Make a space you only use for studying. Maybe that’s a desk if you have space, or maybe it’s just a different blanket on your bed.
  • Figure out how you learn best. Are you more productive in the morning or evening? Do you like studying in one long block or breaking it up into 20 minute chunks?
  • Reward yourself when you complete something difficult, maybe with a break or a snack. That can encourage you to keep going.
  • Let your teachers know if their teaching style isn’t working for you. There might be small tweaks they can make, or they may have suggestions to help you get more from it.

Changes to socialising

Maybe all or most of your socialising is online, and you’re finding it harder to form strong emotional bonds and really get to know people. Or maybe other people are excited about attending social events in person, but you’re worried about coronavirus or experiencing social anxiety.  

Here are a few suggestions that can help you socialise safely and get the help you need academically. Read the social life section of this page too.

  • Check out your uni fresher groups to see what events they have planned.
  • Most courses will ask you to do group work (virtually or in person). This can be a good chance to meet new people.
  • See if the Students’ Union at your university has an events calendar. Check out what societies are still taking place online – there are often groups for specific courses.  
  • The Student Space website has tips on building a social network during coronavirus, whether you’re socially confident or more introverted.

Worries about money

Worries about finances have only been intensified lately, with many students losing their jobs due to the pandemic.

Financial strain can cause sleepless nights and stress. Read the tips in our finance section below, and visit the Student Space website for advice and practical tips about money during the pandemic.  

Student Space – help for students during the pandemic

The Student Space website can help you find the support you need during coronavirus. It offers:

  • advice and information on studying, socialising and managing your mental health
  • support via phone, email, webchat or text  
  • help to find support from your university (in England or Wales)
  • tailored support for specific groups including students who are Black, Muslim, Punjabi, trans or working-class, as well as students who hear voices, have OCD or have an eating difficulty.

 

Accommodation

For many students, university is the first experience you’ll have of living independently. This can be exciting but also bring new worries.

Isolation and making new friends

You might be worried about being lonely and making new friends, especially if you live in off-campus accommodation or at home. There are resources to help you overcome these feelings - visit the social life section below to find out more. Remember that most people have similar feelings and everyone is looking to make new friends, so you're not alone.

Renting for the first time

Students are a vulnerable group and some landlords take advantage of their lack of life experience and low income. Check if your university has any approved rental agencies and go through them to feel more confident.

It’s important to know your rights when renting as a student to lower the risk of being scammed or cheated. Unions like NUS and Acorn and organisations such as Citizens Advice (or Citizens Advice Scotland) offer clear advice and support on your rights.

Creating a safe new home

Creating safe, beautiful and welcoming spaces in your home can really boost your mood. Having a place to feel relaxed and focused when you come home can help you deal with the stresses of the day. 

Toxic or abusive flatmates

If your flatmates are making your living situation difficult and you’re in university-managed accommodation, then ask your university about the possibility of changing rooms. If you feel your living situation is abusive or dangerous and you’re not in university-managed accommodation, then speak to organizations like Men’s Advice Line, Women’s Aid, Galop (LGBT+ specific) or Citizens Advice (or Citizens Advice Scotland) for help. 

Ask for help

Remember that there are always people who are happy to help, no matter how bleak or hard things feels. So many people around you are, or have been, in the same situation and will be able to give some advice and guidance.  

Decision-making

Having to make big life decisions as a student can be stressful. On top of this, you may have the added complications that come with the pandemic: for example, choosing remote or face-to-face learning, socialising virtually or in person.

Which university should I go to? Which course should I study? Where and who should I live with? Should I attend classes in person?

If you’ve moved out of home for the first time, you may not have the same support network you’ve relied upon to help with these choices.

You may feel very anxious as you try to make decisions during a time of great uncertainty – perhaps while you’re also waiting for exam results, feeling pressure to keep everything together, and wondering how on earth you’re meant to know what’s best for you.

There are no straightforward answers, but here are some tips to help you make decisions.

  • Make a pros and cons list for every possible outcome of the decision.
  • Talk to your friends - someone you know may have to make a similar decision, (although bear in mind that what was right for them may not be right for you)
  • Talk to your student advisor - if the decision is about university, ensure you have all the information you need.
  • Trust and have confidence in yourself. Put simply, take on board what others have suggested, but also trust your gut instinct!
  • Finally, embrace your mistakes - sometimes things don’t go to plan. When you know how and why your choice wasn’t right for you, you’ll understand how to make a better decision next time. Remember that making mistakes is part of being human – be kind to yourself about it.

Pressure and expectations

It can feel like more is expected of you than ever before: to not only achieve academic success but also to have work experience, volunteer roles and involvement in university societies.

The pressure of considering your future while trying to learn, socialise and cope with  changes can be overwhelming. Here are some tips to help you cope with pressure and expectations.

Try not to compare yourself to others

Try not to compare yourself to other students on your course. No two circumstances are the same; there are many reasons as to why your grades might differ from someone else’s.

Set aside time to relax

The lines between work and play can become blurred at university since it all becomes part of the student lifestyle – you don't just clock out after your set hours of work. It’s vital that you remember to switch off and set aside time to relax to avoid burning out. 

Make short-term goals

When you find yourself becoming overwhelmed with academic demands, consider why you feel this way – why are you associating your worth with academic success and do you need to be so hard on yourself? Set short-term goals for yourself so it doesn't feel like you are continually working towards just graduation day.

Remember that you have a right to be here

For students in minority groups in academia, there may be even more pressure to prove yourself. If you’re a Black student, a woman in STEM, a mature student, disabled student or a student parent, you may feel the need to justify your choice to study and show that you can achieve as much as peers that may not face the same challenges. Make sure you reach out to someone you trust to talk about how you’re feeling, and remember that you’re just as worthy as anyone else. Student Support has tailored services for specific student groups – visit their website to see if there’s something for you.

Celebrate the small wins

Take every little win and celebrate it, whether that’s getting an assignment in on time, knowing you worked hard on a project, being a good team player in a group project – university is more than grades. It gives you so many transferable skills in ways you might not imagine. 

Reach out for support

Reach out to tutors, to academic advisors or heads of school if you are struggling. Speak now before you become overwhelmed – there is no shame in asking for help, that is the support services’ primary function. They wouldn't exist without student need for them, so you aren't alone in feeling like this.

Be kind to yourself

Achievements aren’t always about getting the highest possible grades or doing the most extra-curricular activities. Think about all the other things you’ve done: maybe just getting to university was a huge achievement for you.

It’s easy to forget that I should be proud of myself for even getting this far, and concentrate on the present rather than worrying about my future. 

Financial worries

If you’re worried about your finances, you’re not alone: many young people under 25 say they regularly worry about money. You don’t have to figure out a budget or deal with debts on your own: try some of these tips.

1. Talk to someone. Whether that’s discussing your worries with your parents or a close friend to release your stress and anxiety or contacting a trustworthy organisation (see below) for advice, talking is a good way to start dealing with money concerns. 

2. Find out your entitlements. Most students in the UK are eligible for means-tested student finance loans, Visit the Student Finance website to find out more.

Student money is about more than your student loan though: the Money Helper website has useful financial information for students about credit cards, bank accounts and dealing with debt. You may also be entitled to claim benefits.

Avoid payday loans. They offer incredibly expensive interest rates, and late repayments can seriously damage your credit score. This can significantly reduce your ability to receive loans, including mortgages later in life. Look into government or bank loans instead.

3. Contact your university. They may offer numerous awards and bursaries which can help you out such as scholarships, hardship funds, or loans if there has been a delay with your student finance. Universities often have jobs that are exclusively open to students too, which can not only improve your CV and future employability but also boost your income while you study. 

Further information

 

International students and mental health

If you’re an international student, you’re not only dealing with the same workload and deadlines as everyone else, but you’re also hundreds of miles from home and living in a different culture. 

Studies show that you might feel a sense of loss when moving to a different country: perhaps because of culture shock or a language barrier. 

Understanding that these feelings are normal, and that other international students are going through similar things, can help you deal with your new situation. You may find you’re more aware and appreciative of small things from home. 

The pandemic may bring further questions and confusion: you may be wondering whether to study remotely from your home country or risk your health and possibly face compulsory quarantine to come back to campus. Try some of these tips to make life easier.

  • Wherever you’ll be this term, try and balance maintaining contact with your friends and family from back home and from uni. 
  • If we can take one thing from the pandemic, it’s that we’re fortunate to be only a video call away from friends and family if you really need them. 
  • Even if you are studying remotely, you can still access your university’s support services. Contact your International Student Support if you need help or someone to talk to.  
  • Make sure to register with your nearest GP when you first come to the UK if possible. However, being an international student also means that it can sometimes be harder to get immediate help through the NHS. 

Further information

Navigating a healthy social life

For many prospective students, one of the big draws of university is the promise of a fun social life. For others, meeting new people brings anxiety and worry. However you’re feeling, our tips might help.

Try not to compare your social life to others 

While all students are navigating the same new experiences, every student is different. Some people might be keen to go out multiple times a week, whereas others might prefer a quiet dinner and a movie night; neither option makes you ‘less of a student’. 

Do what feels right for you

Your social media may be flooded with images of nights out, but remember you’re only seeing the highlights, not the full reality. While its sensible to push yourself out of your comfort zone, think about what elements of a uni social life are right for you. Go to an event or night out because you want to go, not because other people are making you feel like you should.   

Boundaries and acceptance

It’s easy to be swept up in the excitement of a new social life, but try to stay connected to who you are and what you want. Pause and notice if you’re acting in a way that doesn’t feel natural to you. Try and accept who you are and what your interests are – through this you may find people with shared interests! 

Think about what you feel comfortable doing during the pandemic. Remember that you’re never boring for wanting to keep yourself and others safe. Setting boundaries may seem silly, but you’ll thank yourself for making the decisions that make you feel the happiest and safest.    

Meeting people with similar interests

Societies are a great way to combat any fears around having a social life. If you’re new, remember that older members will have been in your position and should realise how important it is to make new people feel comfortable. A society is a great way to meet likeminded people, even if it just one person to smile at around campus.  

Further information

Getting support for a mental health problem

Getting help with your mental health might make you feel anxious. Perhaps you feel that during the pandemic, you shouldn’t be asking for support with your mental health: however, this isn’t the case.

It’s true that the pandemic has made it harder for young people to get mental health support. A survey by Young Minds in January 2021 found that among young people who needed help with their mental health:

  • nearly one in four (24%) looked for support but didn’t get any
  • over one in five (22%) didn’t look for help, often because of stigma.

However, this doesn’t mean help isn’t available. Whether you want talking therapy, medication, peer support, a mixture of things or something else entirely, help is out there.

  • Make an appointment with your GP to talk about how you’re feeling and your treatment options.
  • Your university will have a student support service, and usually a counselling team or other resources. Have a look on their website or visit Student Space for help finding support from your university.
  • Talk to your support network: that might be flatmates, friends, your personal tutor or other university staff. They might be able to support you, point you to the right help, or remind you of what’s got you through tough times before.
  • Check the Nightline website to see if your university has a night-time support service. These are staffed by students, who are more likely to understand what you’re going through.
  • Talk to your tutors as soon as you can to let them know you’re unwell. They may be able to offer deadline extensions, flexible ways of working or other support.

Speaking from personal experience, taking the first steps towards getting support for my mental health problems felt hugely daunting and overwhelming, but was ultimately a rewarding experience which helped to unlock channels of support both in my day-to-day life and at my university which I was unaware were available to me.

We also have a list of services and organisations that can support you.

Thank you to the following University of Sussex students for writing this blog, sharing your personal insights and reflections, and curating the Behind the Books campaign; Aimee Cole, Oriana Knopf, Violet Lambies Carreras, Thomas Collins, Hannah Stone, Ben Sewell, Georgia Shakeshaft, Miranda Dunne, Elizabeth Scott, Sneha Madnani, Will Greensides, Aditi Mehta, Jacob Hung, Rasat Bajwa, Tanzim Islam, Anisah Choudhury.