Congratulations, you’re off to UNI! So begins the first three (give or take) years of the rest of your adult life. You will be moving away from home for the first time, away from your friends, family, dog and the support network that has pulled you through your teenage years. All responsibilities are suddenly your own, as you now have to cook for yourself, wash your clothes, handle pesky admin (how many forms does it take to sign up to the new GPs) and manage a student budget. It can be very overwhelming, but somewhere amongst the freshers nights, the tins of baked beans and the hungover rush to 9am lectures, the pressure students are placed under are forgotten and we are expected to just cope.
My only knowledge of Uni life, before I embarked on the experience myself, came from countless Facebook pictures of friends in corridors, that haven’t been hoovered in weeks, drinks in hands, fancy dress adorned and captions that screamed “I’m having the time of my life!” I saw older friends graduate, throwing their caps in the air, clutching their £27,000 piece of paper whilst being hugged by loved ones. Celebratory text messages making the rounds announcing the achievement of a First or a 2:1. University, it was made clear to me, was going to be the greatest time of my life!
The reality was very different. I have certainly had the best times of my life, but also the worst. The mental health issues that I brought along on the journey became more severe and were increasingly triggered by university life, which is something that has caused much frustration for having tainted the experience. However, I cannot live in regret and it has showed me an area that I am passionate in and shown me how strong I can be.
I didn’t write this guide to scare you, or act as a fortune teller, predicting unhappiness in the months ahead. Instead I write this piece as something I wish I could share with the 18 year old, bright eyed and bushy-tailed version of myself. It might have saved me a lot of time, trouble and pain if someone had been realistic with me and gave me advice that was actually useful. University is much harder than everyone made it out to be, but I’m all about being honest. Alas, here are the 7 tips I plucked from my brain, but firmly believe to be crucial to maintaining your mental health at university (without getting all serious).
1. Take it easy on the booze.
The binge drinking culture at UK Universities is unavoidable. Almost every social event is alcohol centric, and the existence of drinking games rules out any possibility of “a quiet few.” I personally hit alcohol too hard, and too often. The physical effects would leave me in bed until 4pm, unable to go to class or see my friends. Mentally, the guilt and shame that would follow embarrassing antics would eat at me until I did something more embarrassing to replace the memory. There is absolutely nothing wrong with going out and having fun, but my advice to my 18 year old self would be to drink less in general and give it a miss altogether for a few days each week. Your liver, mind and wallet will thank you.
2. Fill your time.
As a mere social sciences student, I only had 10 hours of contact time a week, which left me with plenty of time to fill on my own. I will admit, as the terrible student that I am, that private study only really took place when absolutely necessary, which was usually between 10pm and 4am on a Wednesday night, ready for my weekly hand in at 9am on Thursday. This led to lots of wallowing in bed and wasting the spare time I had, as I lacked the motivation to do anything, overwhelmed with so much time on my hands and too much time to think. One of the best things I ever did was write out a weekly schedule, down to the hour, of what I was going to do between the times I woke up and went to bed. Throw in your eating times, shower times, coffee times, study times, lectures, gym classes, shifts and society meetings and you will quickly realise that you have time to do everything you need to do and the empty time left over won’t feel so overwhelming. Oh, and it will help you stop the all nighters.
3. Take care of yourself.
It’s not easy trying to get your 5 a day when you don’t know how to cook and are on a budget supplied by Student Finance England, but fuelling your body right will keep you feeling well and able to participate fully in student life. Do the best you can to cook your own meals and close the Dominoes tab on your laptop.
Movement is also important to keeping your mind healthy. Join a sports team, take up Youtube Yoga like me or hit the gym. You don’t need to sign up to do a marathon, just listen to your body and at least take yourself for a walk each day to keep yourself active. It doesn’t matter how you move, just move.
4. Get social!
Isolation is a huge issue at university. Many people struggle to make friends (but won’t admit it), and expecting your flatmates to become your new best friends is like going into the Big Brother house and expecting to leave with plans for an unpaid reunion. The best advice I can offer on how to make friends is to look for the people in your lectures who are responding similarly to you, I looked for groans and eye rolls, and go ahead and introduce yourself. My two best friends from my course were made through our mutual love/hate relationship with our degree, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It took time though, it wasn’t until the end of my second year, which was really my third year, that I cemented these friendships. Relationships take time. You can’t expect the kind of bond you have with your friends from home, whom you most likely grew up with, to form immediately, it takes time, shared experiences and plenty of food.
Don’t just rely on your course mates, join societies! And sign up to ones you are actually interested by, not the ones you think you should join. Or the one the cute boy at the freshers fair told you to join, he says that to everyone, believe me. Whatever you enjoy doing, those will be your people.
5. Speak to your teachers.
One of my biggest faux pas at Uni, that isn’t related to alcohol or fashion choices (I tried rocking green eyebrows for a week), was not embracing the relationship with my teachers. Riddled with anxiety and imposter syndrome, I would avoid my teachers as best I could, preferring to keep the rest of my class between them and me. It was a coping mechanism and it was the best I could do at the time to cope with the issues I was struggling with. Long term, this strategy really hindered me and had a negative effect on my learning experience. Since opening up to my teachers, telling them what I find hard and most importantly, what I am good at, I’ve been able to have a much more relaxed relationship and have actually enjoyed going to class.
There was a module in first year that I technically failed, because despite physically handing in my assignments, my crippling anxiety meant that I couldn’t open a) my University Email or b) the e-Learning platform to hand them in online. When eventually emailing the professor in July, whom I had never spoken to, despite being in his class for 2 years, to confess what had happened, he offered me his congratulations for my result on my exam and laid out a plan to resolve the issue. He also showed a kindness in his words about what University is about, that have stuck with me since. He told me; “You should really not hesitate to ask help. Offering help is surely what teaching is about?” It made me consider taking his class for a third year.
6. If you are struggling, ask for help.
If you start to notice that things aren’t quite right, ask for help, sooner rather than later. Your university should provide you with many different options for who to speak to. Whether it be a friend, an RA, your GP, your parents or your personal tutor. Speak to someone and they will help you find the support to ensure you are having the best time possible. If things start becoming a long term problem, or you are joining University having already experience a mental health problem, get in touch with the disability service at your UNI as they are a fantastic resource that can make student life that much easier for you. 49,265 students disclosed that they have mental a health condition in 2017-2018, a number which is ever increasing, so you certainly aren’t alone.*
7. Look out for your friends.
On a train home once, I overheard a conversation between father and son. Son was complaining to dad that Adam** was barely leaving his room, not going to any of his classes, eating badly, had given up football and was becoming a pain to live with. If it wasn’t for the social anxiety and frustration that was coursing through me, I would have dropped myself into the seat next to them and calmly explained that “All though it might not be the case, you have just listed several symptoms of depression and you should probably ask Adam if he’s ok.”
Educating yourself about mental health is one of the best things I believe you can do to prepare yourself for the ride that is your late teens and early 20’s. I have included some useful links below. Educate yourself so you can not only look after yourself, by spotting any signs of a problem and knowing how to access help, but so you can do the same in others. Admitting you have a mental health problem is an incredibly hard and shame riddled experience, so if you can be the friend that turns up with snacks and says “I can see you’ve been having a hard time recently, do you want to talk to me about it,” you will have truly nailed the university experience.
Good luck to all the freshers. Have fun, make mistakes, feel happy, feel sad. Discover what it is like to be your own person and just how scary that can be, but most importantly, be honest with yourself and to others. Take care.
(N.B. I have only included the most common mental health issues faced by students. If you want more information on a wider range of mental health issues, you can access the Mind website here.)
* Minding Our Future: Starting A Conversation About Student Mental Health, Universities UK (2018)
** Name changed.