Studying at university is an ambition for around half of all teens. In 2021, UCAS reported 311,000 UK school leavers had applied for higher education courses. The draw of university life extends beyond the study, with many young people keen to experience independent living. Why are there concerned about student mental health issues at this exciting time of life?

University Life & Student Wellbeing

Many young people dream of leaving the family home and being responsible for their own decisions. They want their freedom and to broaden horizons by meeting new people and enjoying fresh experiences. They are choosing to head off to university, so why are mental health challenges a concern?

Even for the most confident and resourceful teens, the move out of home is a period of rapid change. They are suddenly faced with a different way of learning, a new routine, unfamiliar places and starting from scratch with making friends. Some are good at adapting and managing that change, whilst others find it harder to find their feet and settle in.

Every student is likely to experience some level of stress about their work. It takes considerable self-motivation to study a degree, develop ideas and complete the work in time for deadlines. Then there are the usual relationship difficulties that come with making new friends. Some will be pals for life, but others can be complex. Issues from housemates eating your food through to bullying are common.

Running in parallel to this is the need to pay the bills, shop, cook, clean and undertake many other chores, sometimes for the first time. Most students will find a way to step up to these responsibilities, but others will try to avoid dealing with them. This can lead to money worries becoming an issue.

In recent years, remote learning and social isolation have escalated the challenge of university life, with loneliness now being widely reported as having an impact on mental well-being.

In a study conducted by Accenture and Cibyl, 39% of students reported a deterioration in their mental health since starting university.

Support Networks: Where to Turn

The difficulty for many students is knowing where to turn when they need support.

With social media and video calls available on mobile devices, it has never been easier for students to stay in touch with family and friends from home. Whilst this can bring advantages, it can also heighten feelings of homesickness and hinder self-reliance. Many don’t mention the issues they are facing because they don’t want to worry or disappoint their parents. They want to match the expectation of having a great time at university, even if it is an illusion.

It is widely recognised that good mental health is essential if students are to fulfil their potential in learning and personal growth. In response, universities across the UK are increasing their awareness of and provision for student wellbeing. There are, however, issues with limited resources and funding, so the level of support available and access to it varies considerably between institutions.

University Mental Health Day was held on 3 March 2022. This annual event aims to raise the importance of consistent and accessible support for student wellbeing, no matter where people study.

Without access to support, mental health issues can cause students to withdraw from both study and social activities. They can lack the motivation, energy and concentration for learning, self-care and building relationships, which exasperates feelings of not being able to cope.  This can lead to students engaging in risky behaviours, including self-harm.

My PhD focuses on student wellbeing. I’m fascinated by effective intervention; what makes a difference to the student experience? I’m keen to understand the positive impact of good practice in mental health support, so we can learn what is needed to encourage wellbeing at this important transition into independent living.

Support for Students

If you are at university or preparing to head off in the Autumn, I’d like to make you aware of three sources of information to aid good mental health.

  1. Apps including Headspace, Calm and Student Health offer strategies to help you retain control in times of stress
  2. Student Mind provides mental health resources, support, events and student voices
  3. Office for Students offers insight, information and resources to promote protection and wellbeing

With the right support, university life can be a brilliant experience where you thrive and build your future.