Behind the Books – mental health tips for uni students

We are a group of students from the University of Sussex who have teamed up with the Mental Health Foundation to curate a social media campaign aimed at raising societal awareness of the issues faced by students during this critical time. 

Coronavirus outbreak. Across the UK some restrictions on education and student life are being relaxed. It is important to keep up to date with government advice in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as they have each taken different approaches: more details and up to date information here.
Reported mental health problems from students have increased at least fivefold over the past ten years and the majority of mental health problems develop by the age of 24,  making university students a high-risk group
 
Adding to the above, we saw the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK early in 2020, grinding the global economy to a halt and forcing many countries into lockdown. Students across the country faced an abrupt end to in-person teaching at a time when many were gearing up to the assessment period, and many international students fled back to their home countries in fear of being trapped behind closed borders. 
 
As such, this campaign is crucial. Whilst the disruption to our education and our lives in March was abrupt and unanticipated by many, we are hoping to utilise the lessons learned during lockdown to anticipate the issues students will face during the next academic year, to cultivate better mental health outcomes for both returning and new students. 

Accomodation

For many students, university is the first experience they'll have of living independently. As well as this being an exciting opportunity, it can also bring about new worries and problems to adapt to:

Isolation and making new friends

One of the main fears when leaving home for the first time can be worrying about loneliness and making friends, a worry which can seem stronger if you live in off-campus accommodation or at home. There have been resources put in place to help overcome these feelings - visit the social life section of this blog for these. It’s important to remember that everyone is in a similar place when it comes to these feelings, and everyone is looking to make new friends, so you're not alone.

Renting for the first time

Another concern can come from the legal side of renting, especially in the private sector. Students are a vulnerable group with some landlords taking advantage of their lack of life experience and low income. One easy way to boost confidence when you rent is to check if your university has any agencies which they’ve approved and go through them.

It’s important to know your rights when renting as a student. Unions like NUS and Acorn offer advice and ally-ship, and organisations such as Citizens Advice offer clear articles and free advice on your rights. This may seem very intimidating, but by simply knowing your rights you are less likely to be scammed or cheated. 

Creating a safe new home

We feel it’s important to mention the impact of creating safe, beautiful and welcoming living spaces in your home. Having a place to feel relaxed and focused when you come home every evening can help you deal with the stresses of the day. 

Toxic or abusive flat mates

If your flat mates are making your living situation difficult and you’re in university-managed accommodation, then ask your university about the possibility of changing rooms, as they may well be able to accommodate this, especially if it’s affecting your wellbeing. 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 for what steps to take next. 

Ask for help

We want to remind students that while many of these issues might seem intimidating, there are always people who are happy to help. One of the best things to remember is that so many people around you are or have been in the same situation as you and will be able to give some advice and guidance.  

Communication

When moving to university for the first time, students can find themselves away from the support networks that they are used to, such as family and school friends. This can affect their mental health. On top of this we are currently seeing the way we interact with others restricted like never before.

Coronavirus and changes to how we connect with others 

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
 
Students are being faced with challenges not yet seen before. The ways we communicate with our friends, family and teachers has drastically changed. There are new rules of social distancing and fewer opportunities for group activities. This means we are forced to explore different ways to socialise and meet new people.  
 
Between online classes and Zoom calls with friends it can be daunting to start a new year at university without knowing anyone, especially when your main means of communication rely on  technology both to check up on those back at home, as well as to connect with new people around you.  
 
This distanced form of communication, though convenient in our current situation, can be simultaneously exhausting and isolating, jeopardising our ability to form strong emotional bonds as well as complicating the ability to read others’ body language. 
 
Here are a few suggestions that can help you socialise in a safe way and make sure you are receiving the help you need academically:  
 
  • Check out your uni fresher groups to see what events they have planned, they might not happen in September, but they will take place eventually.  
  • Most courses will ask you to do group work (virtually or in person), and this is a chance to meet new people.
  • Check out the university webpage, they have lots of useful information about your course and how you can make sure you receive the help you need. 
  • Have a look and see if the Students Union at your university has an events calendar and be sure to check out what societies are still taking place online – there are often groups for specific courses.  
 
Aside from these adversities that we are all facing, it should be noted that we are all in the same situation and in a way, though apart, we are all in this together.  

Decision-making

Having to make big life decisions as a student can affect your mental health. On top of this we have the added complications that have come with the pandemic, for example, being faced with the decision of 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 during the coronavirus pandemic?

The internal monologue as a student with mental health problems can make big life decisions that little bit more challenging. Accompanied by this, you may have moved out of home for the first time, be living in a new area and not have the same support network you previously relied upon. Therefore, making “Big Life Decisions” can have a serious impact on student mental health, but how?

Pressure and anxiety

Living with uncertainty, waiting on course results and attempting to “adult” for the first time can be anxiety inducing.

Expectations from family, friends, and society to ‘have it all together’ can also add pressure. As well as this, your lack of experience can make the whole process of going to university overwhelming, even if others view it as a simple decision.

Living through a global pandemic

On top of this, we are currently living through a global pandemic, which adds new dilemmas to an already challenging transitionary period. Should we return to university at all, should we attend classes in person? The current uncertainty means that there’s no straight-forward answer, but here are some tips to help you make the most appropriate, informed decision you can:

  • Make a pros and cons list for every possible outcome of the decision.
  • Trust and have confidence in yourself - put simply, take on-board what others have suggested, but also trust your gut instinct!
  • Talk to your friends - someone you know may have to make a similar decision, utilise their knowledge.
  • Talk to your student advisor - if the decision is regarding university ensure you know all the information.
  • FINALLY… embrace your mistakes - sometimes things do not go to plan. When you know how and why you have made a poor decision, 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.

Expectations and university

To be a student in 2020, it can feel like more is expected of us than ever; to not only achieve academic success but also to have experience in job roles, volunteering and being involved with societies to achieve our goals.

  • A recent NUS survey found that 9 in 10 students found their exams more stressful than they’d expected.  
 
The mounting pressure of considering our futures whilst trying to learn and manage social aspects and lifestyle changes that coexist with university study can be overwhelming. I've written some tips to help students cope with pressure and expectations:
  • Try not to compare yourself to others

Students need to remember that the culture of academia is performance-driven, so it can feel like everyone is continuously achieving. However, you shouldn't compare yourself to other students as no two circumstances are the same; there are many reasons as to why your grades might differ.

  • Set aside time to relax

There are blurred lines between work and play at university since it all becomes part of the student lifestyle – you don't just clock out of your set hours. Therefore it's vital that you do this for yourself 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 harsh on yourself? Write these things down and 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. There has been lots of work about how black students are marginalised in higher education. Being a woman in STEM subjects, you can find yourself being in the minority. For mature students, students with disabilities or student parents, you may feel the need to justify your choice to study and show that you can achieve alongside peers that may not face the same challenges. If you are feeling this pressure reach out to someone you trust to talk about it and remember that you are just as worthy as anyone else.

  • Celebrate the small wins

You are at university to learn not merely to prove your ability. Take every little win and celebrate it. Congratulate yourself for getting assignments in on time, for knowing you worked hard on a project, for 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

The most important thing to remember is to be kind to yourself. Achievement is fantastic, it should be celebrated, but the definition of an achievement doesn't have harsh parameters. It shouldn't just be about getting the highest possible grades or doing the most extra-curricular activities. 

Quote from a student: “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 and student wellbeing

You are not alone

The important thing to realise is you are not alone: it’s perfectly natural to worry about your money and spending habits and many young people under 25 say they regularly worry about money. 

COVID-19 pandemic and finances

Worries about finances have only been intensified and worsened through COVID-19, with many students losing their part-time or jobs due to the pandemic, which is affecting the entire country’s economy.
 
The number of UK paid employees fell by 730,000 from March to July,  with younger workers amongst the most badly affected. This in turn can cause even greater financial strain, and therefore cause students sleepless nights and excess financial stress due to the prospect of having less money to help support their studies, and life away from home. 

Reach out for support

Whilst it is both important and admirable to create strict budgeting for yourself, spending too much time or energy on this can have an adverse effect on your mental health. Fortunately there are different sources of support available to you.

Tips for managing your financial worries

1. Talk to someone: it could be as simple as discussing your worries with your parents, carers or a close friend and getting advice from them. Often, talking about your stress and anxiety is a great way of releasing it from your mind. In turn you could also receive helpful direct and relevant advice from trusted charities, organisations or professionals who will be linked below. 
 
2. Find out your entitlements: most students in the UK are eligible for student finance loans, and whilst these are means-tested, they are offering special circumstances for financial assessments for students this year . So, if your household income has declined as a result of the pandemic, you could be eligible for a higher maintenance loan. This could hopefully reduce personal financial strain whilst at university if your parents or carers are unable to support you. Many major banks also offer student bank accounts with an interest-free overdraft whilst you are a student. Whilst overdrafts are not always advisable and should NOT be considered a personal cash asset, it can be a helpful safety net during a difficult financial time. Remember, an organised government or bank loan is ALWAYS a better option than a payday loan, which 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. 
 
3. Contact your university directly to see what options are available: many universities offer numerous awards and bursaries which can help you out financially. These range from an academic achievement award scholarship, to a hardship fund, or a loan in case there has been an issue or delay with your student finance. Universities often hold employment positions and opportunities that are exclusively open to students, which can not only improve your CV and future employability but can be a helpful way to gain some income alongside your studies. 
 

International students and mental health

International students not only deal with the same workload, deadlines, and assignments as everyone else, but they are also hundreds of miles from home and living within a new and different culture. 

A sense of loss is normal

Studies show that you might feel a sense of loss when moving to a different country to study, this may be due to the new culture or language barrier. 
 
Trying to understand that these feelings are normal, and that there are other international students going through similar things, can help you deal with your new situation. A culture shock can sometimes even make you more aware and appreciative of small things from home. 

The added complication of a global pandemic

While the situation international students are in can be really draining and stressful as it is, current events make it even harder.

Back in March, just before the nationwide lockdown, many universities decided to cancel in-person teaching. Students were faced to decide whether to stay at uni or go home. Back then, it was already too late for many international students to make that decision as flights back home had been cancelled and borders had been closed already. For many international students, their university support system broke apart due to most students rushing home.  

The uncertainty of this autumn

Even with the new term about to start, things will not be back to the way they were. As international students you’re left with the decision to study remotely from your home country until rules are eased or risk your health and safety and face compulsory quarantine to attend physical teaching. 

Tips for coping with university as an international student 

  • Wherever you’ll be at the start of this term, try and balance maintaining contact with your friends and family from back home and from uni. 
  • If we can take away one thing from the current situation it is that we can be lucky to live in such a connected world where people are only a video call away if you really need them. 
  • Even if you are studying remotely, the same services your university is currently providing will be accessible for you. 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. 

Navigating a healthy social life

For many prospective students, one of the main attractions to university is the promise of a fun social life. 

Whilst meeting new people is of course a big part of this experience, for many, it will be the most dreaded. It is so important to keep checking in on yourself, the situations you are in, and the way that it makes you feel.  

Try not to compare your social life to others 

One of the best tips I was given when I started university was to avoid comparing my social life to others’. Whilst all students are in the same boat of navigating a new experience, every student is different. Some people may be experiencing drinking alcohol and going clubbing for the first time, so 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 just remember that you’re only seeing the highlights of the event, not the 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 out 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

With any new experience, it’s important to establish and maintain boundaries regarding your social life. Whilst it is easy to be swept up in the excitement, try to maintain connected to who you are and what you want. Pause and try and notice if you are 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! 

Especially with the current pandemic, remember to be patient and respectful of others’ views regarding social distancing, and avoid judgment. You are never boring for wanting to follow the guidelines in order to keep yourself and others safe. Setting boundaries in place may seem silly, but you’ll thank yourself for making the decisions that make you feel the happiest and safest.    

Societies and meeting people with similar interests

As well as meeting people in your seminars, lectures and accommodation, societies are a great way to combat fears around maintaining a social life. Whilst daunting, returning members will have been in your position and recognise how important it is to make others feel comfortable in the new environment! A society is a great way to meet likeminded people, even if it just one person to smile at around campus.  

Struggling to seek support for a mental health problem

The truth is that for many students and young people living with mental health problems, seeking the help you need can be a source of anxiety.

The statistics

  • Despite the often-perceived openness of young people in regard to their mental health, people between the ages 16-24 are less likely to receive mental health treatment than any other age group.
  • Amongst students, around 34% reported having psychological difficulties for which they felt they required help, but what these statistics do not pinpoint is whether all students who felt as though they needed help actually sought it out. 
  • Suicide is often interlinked with the presence of a mental health problems, however tragically only 25% of those who died by suicide in UK had been in contact with mental health services in the year before their death, sadly showing how many people who have mental health problems are not accessing the support available to them. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the struggle to seek support for many young people and students. A recent survey by Young Minds found:

  • amongst those accessing mental health support before the coronavirus crisis, 31% said they could no longer access the support.
  • 40% of respondents said that they had not sought out support, despite struggling with their mental health.

It is okay to prioritise your mental health

These are worrying findings. It can be hard to prioritise your mental health amongst constant reminders of a public health crisis; however, it is important and unselfish to place the needs of yourself first. For many, seeking help can often be the first step towards helping your mental health.

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. 

Your needs are just as important  

If you are struggling to seek help it is important to remember that your needs are not less than the needs of others – seeking help for your mental health should be as normalised as seeking treatment for a physical injury.

Taking the first step to support

You may feel as though you are alone and have to fight a battle with your mental health problems by yourself; this feels like a reality for many facing mental health problems, but overcoming the reluctance to seek help can open up multiple means of support.

The Mental Health Foundation has outlined a list of services and organisations which can offer support for those suffering with mental health problems, the list contains support which can be accessed both in-person and over-the-phone for those who may be unable to access face to face to support due to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Learnings from lockdown

For some of us, the pandemic has brought home the importance of boundaries: having the confidence to say no to social events and take some time for ourselves when we feel pressured to take part – whether from internal or external stigma or pressure. 

In our fast-paced world, time alone for rejuvenation and self-reflection can be tricky, but many people, students and non-students, found value in being forced into having more time to themselves to reflect and look inwards. To think about what really matters. 

All in all, the overarching lesson is that we all have mental health – if we ignore it and don’t prioritise taking care of it in the short run, mental health problems could catch up with us in the long run. By taking small, daily measures to pause and reflect, whatever our circumstances, we can prevent ourselves from burning out and, instead, prioritise taking care of our mental health. 

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.