Thousands of people with mental health difficulties start university every year. Starting university is a huge life change and many new students feel under-prepared and overwhelmed. Those with mental health difficulties may well face additional challenges which make that change even harder to cope with.

However, there are a number things that you can think about and do to help make the journey more comfortable and to give yourself the best chance of staying on the course and showing the world what you are capable of.

Lou Silver, development officer in Student Support Services at Nottingham Trent University, co-ordinates the Well aHead project at the university.

The unique project has been running since 2009 and promotes social inclusion for people with mental health difficulties through offering a supported transition to higher education at Nottingham Trent University.

Lou has worked in transition support since 2007 and has experience supporting mature students, care leavers and disabled students as well as people with mental health difficulties. Here, she offers some advice for those with mental health difficulties considering university.

Know your rights

Under the Equality Act, you are entitled to 'reasonable adjustments' to put you on a level playing field with people who do not have mental health difficulties. Adjustments might include one-to-one support from a university mental health worker, changes to the way your work is assessed or changes to the way you take exams (eg you might prefer to sit in a room on your own).

Do your research

Before you apply, look at the websites of the universities you are interested in to see what they say about mental health support. If you can’t find anything, ring or email their Student Support Services department to ask how they support students with mental health difficulties. Here are some questions you might like to ask:

Do you have a mental health support team, and how do they support students?
  • Who will advocate for me if I feel like my health is affecting my studies?
  • What adjustments might you recommend for someone with my specific needs?
  • What policies are in place to protect students from discrimination?
  • What activities take place to make the institution a welcoming place for students with MHD?
  • Would someone be able to meet me before the start of term to show me around and help reduce my anxieties?

Tell the universities you are applying to that you have mental health difficulties

The easiest way to do this is on your UCAS form, which asks if you have any disabilities. Most people with mental health issues don’t view themselves as ‘disabled’, but it’s really important to understand that this word does apply to you in this context. It gives you access to a wide range of entitlements and protects you from discrimination. It would be illegal for any university to discriminate against you for saying you have mental health difficulties. This information is treated with the respect and confidentiality that you would expect, and is usually just seen by Admissions staff and Student Support Services staff. They can’t offer you support if they don’t know about you!

If you haven’t put this on your UCAS form, it’s still important to ring the Student Support Services department BEFORE YOU START UNIVERSITY and let them know. They are unlikely to share any information with your course team without your permission.

Apply for the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs)

This will pay for any support that you might need as a result of having a mental health difficulty AND being a student. For example:

Issue: difficulties in lectures due to poor concentration/memory
The DSAs might fund: a digital voice recorder

Issue: difficulty using the library due to social anxiety
The DSAs might fund: money to buy books rather than borrow them

Issue: difficulty using communal IT facilities due to OCD about cleanliness
The DSAs might fund: a laptop

Issue: uncertainty about how your mental health will affect your studies – and vice versa
The DSAs might fund: ongoing 1-1 support from a university mental health worker

You can apply online to your funding body (e.g. Student Finance England).

Choose your accommodation wisely

  • Do you prefer to be around lots of people or in smaller groups? Residences can range from small houses to 700-bed halls!
  • Do you find it easy to budget and pay your bills? University residences can seem pricey but tend to include most utility bills, making it much easier to budget. Shared houses can seem cheaper, but you would need to budget for bills on top of the rent.
  • Where do you want to spend the summer? University residences do not usually offer 52-week contracts, so if you want to spend the summer in your university town you might wish to consider the private sector options.
  • How far is the residence from campus? If you find it difficult to use public transport, you might prefer to choose a residence within walking distance from your lectures.

Ask for a 'familiarisation visit'

Getting to know your new environment in advance will really help you to feel settled quickly. Ask Student Support Services if someone can show you around, including:
  • where you will be taught
  • how to use the library
  • accommodation
  • the Students’ Union
  • sports facilities
  • catering outlets
  • social spaces
  • nearby pharmacy, GP, dentist etc.

Register with a university GP if you have the option to do so

It will be easier for you to access the full range of local healthcare services and to get regular, on-going support.

The Student Room provides guest spots to external contributors. Our thanks to Nottingham Trent University for supplying this article.