University is supposed to be the best time of our lives, right? When speaking to people from your parents’ generation, watching the TV and reading the newspapers, it’s so frequently portrayed as the most care-free time of booze, late nights, and the occasional lecture. Put simply, it is portrayed as being one big party away from the family home.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
The reality can be quite a culture shock, not least if you struggle with any form of mental health issue. Change can exacerbate issues. In fact, a study conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2015 found that 78% of students reported having had a mental health problem in the past year, with 33% encountering suicidal thoughts. 
What we can do for ourselves: 5 things I wish I’d known.
1. You don’t need to be at breaking point to visit your GP or university counsellor
Given the pressures and demands of studying at university, it is understandable that your mental health may struggle. Seeking help is not a weakness; it is an act of strength to stop and say “hey, I’m really not doing too good right now. I need a bit of help”.
2. There are often lots of student wellbeing services tailored just for students
Student wellbeing services often have a lot to offer, so I recommend having a look at their online webpages. In fact, it’s better to do this now, so you know where to go/what to do if you do start to feel your mental wellbeing decline.
Also, if you let your university know (ideally when you first apply) about a mental health condition, they have a legal duty to make any reasonable adjustments to make sure you can manage your health conditions whilst at uni. This might include putting together a Student Wellbeing Plan, including the possibility of extra time for coursework or sitting in a different room for exams if you struggle with anxiety.
3. Know that it’s ok to take time out
Physical exercise (whether it’s a fast 10 minute walk around the block or one-hour Zumba class) can give better results in the long run – there are plenty of surveys to show how exercise enhances cognitive performance. It is also great for releasing endorphins, the body’s natural ‘feel good’ hormone.
It’s also OK to stay in, watch Netflix, and relax! It’s not lazy, it’s necessary to take some time out and let the body wind down.
4. You don’t have to compete with everyone else
There are lots of pressures when you’re a student (job prospects, getting a 2.1, financial challenges, what-the-hell-am-i-going-to-do-next moments). These are often buzzing around your mind, whether you realise or not. Chances are, you’re also comparing yourself to your peers, and might be pushing yourself to unattainable goals. Perfectionism isn’t healthy. You need to learn to be ‘good enough’. How someone else in your class is doing doesn’t impact on your journey. In fact, they might lack in other areas that aren’t quantified by an exam grade. Focus on your own path and it will help to reset the goalposts.
5. Be yourself. People respect that.
Drink to your limit, stay in if you want. Go tee-total for the term. True friends won’t care, and people who make a big deal are immature. You don’t need them in your life. Standing up for yourself and knowing your limits also gives other people the courage to maintain their own integrity and self-respect.
Worried about someone else?
If you’ve noticed that a flatmate hasn’t been socialising within your halls of residence, or a classmate has been absent from several classes, or perhaps they have seemed to be unusually quiet, take today as an opportunity to reach out and say hello. Ask how they are. Suggest a quiet movie night. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to be a mental health professional to be a good listener. You don’t need all the answers to their problems. A listening ear is sometimes all that is needed for someone who has been battling their inner demons alone.
Seemingly inconsequential acts of kindness can be the difference between a person having a good or bad day. From a text message letting someone know that you’re thinking of them, to inviting a friend over for coffee, fostering a culture of openness through conversation is the first step in creating a society that isn’t afraid to talk about our feelings.
How do I know this? I was that student. I have experience of mental health problems. But through seeking help from friends, my GP and university wellbeing services, I was able to get through studies. I am not ashamed to say that I needed help, and it has made me a healthier, stronger person as a result.
Ultimately, we all have mental health; just as we all have physical health.
So as the new academic term kicks off, reach out to a classmate and start those conversations. It might be the most important thing you’ll do today.