Most students relish their time at university, enjoying new freedoms, friendships and interests. However, it’s not uncommon to also experience more difficult moments, such as adjusting to being away from home, coping with exam stress, or managing an existing mental health problem.
“Everyone is going to have issues that they deal with at some point, because it is an intense and overwhelming experience,” says Poppy Lindsey, 20, students’ union welfare officer at Reading University, which recently topped a league table that ranked mental health support on campus. “But people are more supportive than you think and want to help you.”
While universities must offer counselling services and advice on registering with a local GP or their own dedicated medical centre, some, such as Reading University, are going further in terms of the support they offer.
“I have a lot of friends who have accessed help at Reading,” says Lindsey. “I myself was struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, and found counselling a really positive experience. People tend to be quite open about their mental health.” This attitude has been encouraged by campaigns run by the students’ union to de-stigmatise issues around mental wellbeing. In parallel, the university has an average spend of £70 per student on welfare, and a holistic approach to mental health support, with staff receiving mental health first aid training.
The annual Relax with RUSU (Reading University students’ union) event, which coincides with exam season, encourages students to de-stress by accessing everything from gardening and painting to a mobile animal petting farm. Students can make use of a relaxation room, sessions on resilience, and yoga and meditation classes. “The union tries to make sure every student feels included,” says Lindsey. “And that they can come for support if they need it.”
The need for these types of measures is clear. Universities have reported that more students are experiencing mental health problems in the wake of the pandemic. A study from the Office for National Statistics published in October 2021 found that 37% of students were showing signs of moderate to severe depression and 39% had some form of anxiety. In June, the government announced £3m to improve services on campus, with a further £15m being distributed by the Office for Students to fund student mental health support, and a tsar appointed for student wellbeing.
The services available vary by institution. Some, such as Middlesex University, have a mental health triage system, where students can voice concerns and quickly gain access to relevant professional help required. At Cardiff University, meanwhile, dedicated mental health nurses are on hand.
Jua O’Kane, 24, who studies illustration at Arts University Plymouth, says: “I had frequent sessions with a mental health support officer who ended up being much more beneficial to me than counselling was. He taught me meditation, gave me a relaxed space to unload, and we worked through problems together. He mediated me through various crises and was a really important point of contact in trying to de-escalate when I was doing badly.”
Pastoral care for students is provided by personal tutors, and universities encourage staff and students to undertake mental health first aid training. Workshops can help participants to learn more about their own mental health and how to support others. A University Mental Health Charter was launched in 2019 by the mental health charity Student Minds, encouraging institutions to strive to provide the best possible care.
Ucas forms give applicants the opportunity to declare mental health issues. An English student at Leeds with OCD, who wished to remain anonymous, says that this meant she was placed in a flat with another student with similar health struggles, and was given extra time for essays and exams. There has been a gradual rise in online support, from web-based counselling to therapy apps.
Loneliness and isolation have always been problems for some and can be made worse by living accommodation choices. Dr Nicola Byrom, a senior lecturer in psychology at King’s College London and founder of Student Minds, points to the rise in upmarket accommodation, with students often living alone rather than in traditional halls and house shares “where you find yourself with a bunch of strangers”. While initially living with a group may be harder for some students, ultimately it makes it easier to integrate, make new friends and find your feet, she says.
At King’s College London, a Students Against Loneliness society was established “to show that you’re never alone”, thanks to telephone befriending schemes and social events such as group walks.
Finding a sense of belonging can be key to positive mental wellbeing at university. Aneeska Sohal, 24, is a team lead for the charity Mind. When working towards a master’s in Modern South Asian Studies at Oxford, she set up the podcast All Things Mental Health. “Students came on and spoke about all the different things that helped them,” she says. “There was a really powerful one about a student who ran a hospital radio show. Playing songs for patients helped his wellbeing because it gave him a sense of purpose.”
For Sohal, her previous experience as president of the University of York Student Minds not only gave her a community but paved the way for her career. “If we’re saying mental health and wellbeing underpins every person, then universities need to realise that it is a key component of the experience. It can give young people the tools to help them in later life.”
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk.
For more guidance on the right course for you, check out the Guardian university league tables for 2022. The Guardian league tables for 2023 will be out on 10 September in print and online.
For more helpful advice and student news sent straight to your inbox, sign up to the Guardian’s student newsletter.