Practical advice for students struggling with their mental health at university

Words by: Alex Williams

Of course you know mental health issues are increasingly prevalent in young people. You’ll have read and heard that multiple times if you’ve been a teenager living on planet earth in the last 5 or so years. If you’ve struggled with your own mental health you’ll also know that a statistic such ‘as 1 in 4 teens feel depressed at some point’ is f***ing useless to you. So everyone else is sad and anxious too? Wonderful.

This article isn’t going to be about the whole ‘you’re not alone, raise awareness’ jazz. Instead it’s going to give you some actually useful ideas you can do to help you figure out and alleviate some of the issues you may be having whilst you study.

One of the most important things is recognising you’re struggling and to not be ashamed of that. Everyone is dealt vastly different hands in life and all kinds of traumas and events affect people in different ways. Just because the person next to you seems to be doing better in your eyes doesn’t mean that it’s true in any shape or form, and even if they are it doesn’t matter. Other people shouldn’t be your focus when it comes to your health. It should be you. You don’t break a leg then get mad at yourself because your friends don’t have broken legs, or because you can’t run as fast as them: you care for your leg, rest when needed and search for appropriate treatment. Going from a mind-set of guilt to one of self-compassion is a massive step, and just aiming towards treating yourself with the same care and attention you would a close friend is going to work wonders.

For some people simply looking at the hand you’ve been dealt is incredibly tough. I created a lot of noise in my life to block out the darker emotional truths. Netflix has a billion series to keep you distracted; alcohol and drugs are a temporary sanctuary; and casual sex can be a delightful way to escape yourself. All those things can be fun parts of life without you having to have some mental issue, however if you find yourself running from moments of silence and constantly seeking ways to alter your mood then it might be time to take a step back and assess what’s going on. This can be incredibly intimidating but there are many ways to go about it. Just a few examples include journaling, cognitive behavioural therapy, talking things through with family and friends, making music, and meditation. All of these can be helpful to you in changing your mental state or finding out what the root of any mental upset might be. They can also work in varying degrees from person to person. Mental health is an individual journey so you may have to chop and change at different times to find out what suits you.

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There are of course many of you that know exactly what the problem is and it hits you like a truck every damn day. The symptoms and barriers may be more extreme but in a way you are a little further along than those who feel something is wrong but aren’t sure what. You have that big thing to tackle and it’s going to take lot of effort, trial and error, and discomfort but once you’ve resolved it then you’ll have gained one of the biggest victories in your life. Equally, if you know what it is then you can seek more specific medical help in the form of medication. My personal opinion on prescribed medication that change your mood is that they facilitate within you the ability to make positive change within your life when the chemical imbalances are too extreme for you to logically resolve through non-medicinal forms of therapy. I have been in way too deep before, that crippling depression that has you rewarding yourself if you manage to get out of bed and shower that day. Thinking about throwing the towel in, hating every waking second beyond all logical explanation. When I tried talk therapy it was absolutely useless. My head was in such a toxic place that I couldn’t get to the bottom of any of my problems and just talked myself into a downward spiral. So I decided to go on a course of anti-depressants. These specific anti-depressants worked for me. It wasn’t that they made me happier, or fixed any of my negative mind-sets, they simply numbed me. It was kind of alarming and weird but it gave me a surreal distance from the raw pain that was overwhelming me and helped me see ‘mind-set’ for what it was, something alterable and separate from my core self. I could then take the steps and decisions I needed to push myself towards a more pleasant mental state. This included tidying up my chaotic, hoarder-style halls room, trying out a different counsellor (who ended up helping me until I finished at university) and applying for mitigating circumstances for one of my modules. I came off the anti-depressants a month later as they made me sleep too much and feel too little. However I still believe they were instrumental in allowing me to do a few key things in my life that meant when I came off them I didn’t slump back to that same awful place.

You will find that most universities are quite compassionate when it comes to mental health issues and if you need the time to collect yourself – be it an extra week extension, an uncapped summer resit, or even an entire year to work through stuff – then they will likely grant it to you. You just have to go through the right channels.  One of these can be discussing the situation with your personal tutor or lecturer. This can be highly intimidating and especially difficult if you have high anxiety or shame surrounding your issues however all lecturers are bound by confidentiality and entrusted to care for your wellbeing. They will also have seen a situation similar before and won’t be phased, freaked out, or judgemental. From a purely selfish standpoint it is in their interest to help all of the students achieve their best, it reflects well on them. Going through your struggles face-to-face with a person can reassure you that your needs are being listened to, however if you really don’t want to share those things with someone then you just don’t have to. Most universities will have a mitigating circumstances form that you can fill out anonymously online or print out. Universities can give you the space to get help and they also provide the help themselves.

For example, at Brunel there is counselling service and the drop-in well-being officer service at the student centre. There is also Big White Wall, a new online support network that the university has purchased so all students get free membership. It gives you anonymity and 24/7 support from a clinical professional. There are also some great tools on there like self-guided courses and online therapy. The internet can be a trashy, toxic place for your health but with all these online services available you can now crawl out of your metaphorical pit of despair without having to leave your literal one.

Another option is the NHS surgery on campus where you can seek NHS counselling and GP support. Then you have PASS the peer support group on campus and Well at Brunel who will run events and provide support throughout the year. These are just the services directly available on campus, and there are also many charities around the area such as ARCH (Addiction, Recovery, Community Service Hillingdon), Samaritans, Healthwatch Hillingdon, and Hillingdon Mind. Most major towns and universities will have this mixture of different services on offer if you go looking for them and what I’m really saying is that there is the support out there you just have to meet the world halfway.

It is not your fault what life has done to change, torture, traumatise, and hurt you. However it is only you that has any power to change where you are now, to push yourself toward a life a little sweeter than the one you’re used to. And you can do it with directed effort; gradually, uncomfortably, and with self-compassion. Day-by-day with ups and downs you will get stronger and more capable at dealing with your past issues and whatever new ones life throws toward you.

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‘There is always light – so long as you remember to seize it.’

One thought on “Practical advice for students struggling with their mental health at university

  1. Hi Alex, great post! I’ve suffered with mental health problems for many years, probably as far back as my late teens. One of the things for me was that I always knew something was wrong, and always did my best to cover it up, but the more I did, the more it then became a problem. My time as an undergrad probably wasn’t the best because of this as there were times when I’d zone-out, or not enjoy things as much as I should because of various issues playing on my mind. It wasn’t actually until many years later that certain life events forced me to take drastic steps to actually admit I have a problem. Unfortunately mental health services here in the UK are pretty poor, and universities can only help so much. Personally I ended up paying for private counselling, and have to say it was one of the best things I ever did. Of course it’s not ideal (it cost me a lot of money!), but you know what, my life is more important than that — and it helped me figure out a lot of things about myself that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. It’s also helped me look at my life differently. Of course things aren’t quite 100% (they never will be), but taking that step to see a GP and start to try and seize control of my problems was one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I can only recommend others reading this take that first step to seize control. Best of luck with everything — I hope things work out for you.

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