Here's some tips from the TSR community to help you keep a healthy mind
We're all guilty of sometimes overlooking or neglecting our mental health. But with 1 in 6 people experiencing a common mental health problem in any given week, it's time to make your mental health a priority.
In a recent TSR survey of university applicants, a quarter of participants admitted to suffering frequent anxiety issues. Of this group, 75% reported that they lost sleep; 78% said they struggled to concentrate on their studies; 61% said they experienced panic attacks; 36% admitted to having suicidal thoughts and 33% said they have self-harmed.
To try and address issues like these, World Mental Health Day is recognised annually to help raise awareness of what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide. World Mental Health Day falls on 10 October this year, and the theme will be 'young people and mental health in a changing world'.
If you're suffering with a mental health issue, remember you're not alone. To make you feel less isolated, some of the TSR community have shared their experiences of coping with mental health issues during university below.
Starting uni with depression
"My university have been nothing but fantastic with my mental illness. I was diagnosed with depression in the early autumn of 2012; with my university life starting in September 2013. I was first hesitant about declaring it on my UCAS application but do not regret it in the slightest; my university (Manchester Metropolitan University) were quick to follow it up once I’d received an offer from themselves.
"I was contacted by what was the ‘Learner Development Service’ – now the ‘Disability Service’ who quickly put plans in place for extra support in time for September 2013. A Personal Learners Plan (PLP) was made and this gave me access to things such as extra time on library loans, extended deadlines, the permission to record lectures and any exams that would be usually taken in a large hall would now be in a much smaller room. Just knowing that the support is ‘there’ if I need it has helped a lot with my mental health.
"My university’s counselling service have been nothing but fantastic too – they’ve taken on board the level of support I want from them; I see them once a month to just give them an update and it definitely does help knowing you’ve got others looking out for you. I’d recommend to anyone reading this if they’re struggling to reach out to theirs!
"I also receive Disabled Students Allowance; the LDS helped me with the application and it was a really, really easy process! Unlike Student Finance – which is means tested; DSA isn’t! I received a free laptop; free Dictaphone (so I could record lectures if my mental health was playing up and I wasn’t in the right place to be making notes) and a free printer. I get also get photocopying, ink cartridges and my internet costs covered too! It’s honestly brilliant
"My advice to those out there to people thinking of reaching out to the support available to them is; Don’t be afraid! Help is out there if you look and ask for it and it can really, really make the world of difference to your university life!"
Suffering from poor mental health at Oxbridge
"I recently read a statistic that absolutely appalled me: apparently 1 in 8 university students (or perhaps it was just undergraduates) have considered ending their lives during their university studies. I was horrified.
Perhaps it appalled me so much because I could (a) totally believe this, and (b) totally identify with it. As many of you know, I read my undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford. Within 2 weeks of starting my first term there, I was hugely overwhelmed by the social side but by the academic side especially. Everyone knows that an Oxbridge degree is difficult but until/unless you're actually THERE, it is impossible to conceive of what that actually means or feels like. Even having an older sister who had studied her undergrad at Oxford hadn't prepared me for the sheer intensity of the undergrad lifestyle and experience.
"I felt troubled on many levels. My inferiority complex about having missed my grades was heightened by a fellow music student claiming that I didn't deserve to be at Oxford.(This same person was bullying me and made many slurs against me, including to do with my background and my ethnicity.)In addition to this, it had become very quickly apparent that both my schooling and my own interests in music had been inadequate, in terms of preparing me well enough to study at Oxbridge.The workload was huge and felt insurmountable. I was also very aware that I was behind my tutorial partners in terms of knowledge and abilities.
Within 2 weeks of starting, it was looking like an attractive option. I felt that I couldn't leave Oxford - my family and secondary school would be so disappointed, and my friends wouldn't understand. It felt very much like "do or die trying".
"I decided to fight - I decided to "do" rather than "die trying" - but it was a real struggle. For 2 years I battled alone with my perceived inadequacies/failings. Over time, as I built up a solid friendship circle, the negative thoughts. One tutor was vaguely aware that I was unhappy and insecure, but did not know the extent of how troubled I was. That tutor then moved at the end of my second year to a different Oxford college. I felt alone and powerless.
"I decided - finally - that extra support was needed. Having been newly diagnosed with depression and anxiety by a psychiatrist in Sri Lanka (my country of origin), I began engaging with college welfare staff. Sadly, despite their best efforts, things got much worse and I ended up attempting to drown myself in the middle of my Finals (end of degree exams). As a result, I left Oxford with a 2.2 classification and felt more worthless and confused than when I had started.
"Why am I telling you TSR peeps all of this? Hopefully by telling these bits of my story, you can see that I should - and indeed, could - have got help much more early on in my degree, both from tutors and my peers. It wasn't for lack of help available - for all their faults, Oxford and Cambridge probably have the most welfare support available to students, plus the tutorial/supervision systems mean that problems often get detected much earlier than they would in a university with far less contact hours/one-to-one tuition provision.
"The fact is that there is a plethora of welfare support available at Oxford and Cambridge, from the SU (they may appear inactive but they are there and are incredibly helpful, resourceful and supportive) to your college tutor/DoS, and more generally the college welfare. Each university also has its own disability service for those experiencing mental health difficulties, alongside other disabilities. (It may sound obvious but it's worth emphasising that mental health difficulties ARE a disability and count as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. So you should never feel uncomfortable or anything like that about approaching the disability services.) The support networks are definitely there but you HAVE to be proactive in accessing them. Don't leave it late like I did - it may cost you your life!
"So don't suffer in silence: get the help you both need and deserve! Many people thrive at Oxbridge but many people (even amongst those who thrive) will be suffering from mental health difficulties, be it sporadic or long-term, or diagnosed or undiagnosed. This is as true of the staff as it is the students! This is as true of the staff as it is the students! We have the lowest drop-out rate but are amongst the highest - if not having THE highest - rates of ending their own lives Don't be a statistic who can no longer make positive changes - seek help. If the first person you approach is no good, then go round everyone you can find. If you can't find anyone, complain to the SU about welfare provision in your college.
You have the power to make a difference not only to yourself, but to others. Hang on in there and remember, things CAN get better "
Counselling and communication
"My university have been great actually. I was already known to student support due to my physical disability, but my disability adviser had known for some time that I was struggling a lot - having panic attacks, not sleeping, not turning up to classes/lectures, etc. (I was undiagnosed prior to ~March 2015). She was one of the main people who noticed my rapid deterioration in mental health along with the disability liaison officer for my department.
"In January 2015 (spring term of my second year), I turned up in student support having a breakdown (due to my then undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) getting particularly bad) and was able to see someone straight away (they were on-call). I was referred to counselling. They said that the wait may be up to two weeks to get an assessment, but due to how unwell I was at the time, I had my application fast-tracked and was able to get an assessment on the following Monday. I then had to wait to be assigned a counsellor (I was told that due to the amount of people needing counselling this might take up to four weeks), however, this didn't take long at all! My first counselling session started a week after the assessment - essentially, I had waited less than 2 weeks to get help from my university's counselling service. At the time it felt like an eternity, but I had help from my department, student support and the on campus Nightline (we have a Nightline flat you can go to, a number to call and an email) and got through it. Counselling helped me a great deal and was a great bit of support between then and starting therapy with a clinical psychologist in the local community mental health team (CMHT). During the counselling, we talked a lot about what brought me there, how to cope with being unwell and dealing with university. All in all, she really helped me through it. I ended up having 16 weeks of counselling when people usually only get 6 weeks.
"I already had a great deal of support due to my physical disability from both the university and from DSA (e.g. on campus accommodation; extended deadlines; extended short-loans in the library; individual exam arrangements (IEA's) (own room, use of a computer, extra time, etc); software to help with proofreading, mindmapping etc.). A lot of this is available to people with only mental health issues as well.
"When I got my mental health diagnoses (PTSD, depression and anxiety), I had my DSA "topped-up" (suggested by my disability adviser) and they added a specialist mental health mentor. The process itself was easy (I didn't need to be re-assessed or anything), but my mentoring didn't start until the new academic year (my top-up only went through at the tail-end of second year, so there was no point starting then).
"When I initally applied for DSA before my first year started, my university were very informative - despite me not putting them as my firm choice (they were my insurance...), I was helped a lot and during a UCAS day I was able to speak to a disability adviser who explained the process of applying to DSA. The DSA assessment itself was really relaxed from what I remember; he just asked me a lot of different questions relating to study needs (e.g. memory, motivation, etc.) and then suggested something to help with any issues. I took my mum a long with me to the assessment and some paper work relating to my physical disability - I'm pretty sure that the process is the same for both physical disabilities and mental health issues (from what people have told me!). The assessors are always really easy to talk to, so there's no need to be afraid or anxious, and they have this knack of knowing what may (or may not) be helpful to someone with your condition/s.
"Anyway, my mentor has been amazing, despite me only having access to this support since the start of my final year at university (October, 2015), it has helped me a great deal! I am even on track for a first. She helps me with a variety of different things, such as time management, motivation, as well as helping me deal with my diagnoses and just being there to talk to when things are particularly bad. Additionally, she's supporting me with my application to do a masters! Given how bad things were at the start of the year (one of my best friends passed away during the summer and my mum also got diagnosed with cancer, I was not in a good place at all), I'm quite surprised I didn't drop out. I know for a fact I probably would have had I not had the support of my mentor! They are truly valuable resources.
"My advice to someone going to university (or who is already at university) is that: if you feel you may have a mental health issue and it's impacting you to the point that it's affecting your ability to study, you need to talk to someone. Whether it's a parent, teacher, someone in student support, whoever - you need to talk to someone. They will (and should!) take you seriously, and will be able to offer you the appropriate level of support. Never feel ashamed. Had I been open about my mental health when I first became unwell (which was when I was a young kid, according to my psych.), maybe I wouldn't be so ill now! I'm glad I made the decision to speak up about it though; my university have helped me so much and I'm grateful for it.
"Counselling and mentoring are both really good sources of support and most universities should offer counselling now. Mentoring may be more difficult to have access to as you need a mental health diagnosis to have access to one (usually) as it comes from DSA, but it's always a possibility too if you decide to go down the DSA route. Moreover, if you need any IEA's then most universities require you to go through DSA for the funding - if you're struggling with your mental health, especially during exams, please speak to your student support team! They are there to help and want you to succeed.
"Really, it's all about communication. It may be scary but it is worth it in the end. Generally, people are a lot more progressive these days and universities are a lot more aware of the amount of mental health issues that can affect students and are doing more to help. Take advantage of the help and don't let yourself suffer, do something about it!"
Supported by DSA
"I studied Mathematics & Computer Science at one university for a year before I dropped out due to my mental illness. I went back to university 3 years ago and I'm currently in my second year of a Social Work degree. I am diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder and Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder.
"Both of the universities I attended have been very support of my mental illness. Before my first day at the university I got in contact with the disability service who helped by arranging my support that was detailed in my Disabled Student Allowance (DSA) assessment and also liaised with my faculty so they were aware of my illness and support needs. I had a few periods of becoming unwell and spending time in hospital whilst at university, and they were always very supportive. My tutor would let my lecturers know and they would arrange extensions if needed. A couple of times I would have catch up sessions if needed, and my lecturers were more than happy to help explain anything I missed and was unclear on. I had to take 2 separate years out during my time at university, and the university and my tutor would help me with the process and discuss the break with me, ensuring that it was the right step. I always felt very supported.
"I accessed my university's counselling service when I was at my first university. I went in my first week and had an assessment the next week. After the assessment I had my first session a week later which was perfect as I was really struggling. The counselling service was a life saver and they were great with me - I ended up getting a lot more sessions than planned until the local mental health team were in a position to take over my care and they even arranged a care plan meeting with them at the university. A few times they had to break confidentiality as I was at risk, but they always did this in a supportive way and would take me to my GP surgery and wait with me. I couldn't fault them.
"I accessed the local mental health team and crisis team quite a lot, and I did spend some stints in hospital. I also used A&E if things were really bad. I did use the Samaritans and Nightline a few times if I just needed to talk to someone, and I always found their service supportive. At the moment I see a psychotherapist and my mental health team, which helps me manage my mental health.
"The process of applying for DSA was very easy and I got a lot more support than I was expecting! If you are thinking about applying but are not sure, definitely go for it! I got a laptop, computer equipment, a dictaphone, mentoring support and a notetaker. The mentoring and notetaking is by far the most important and best support I have, and without them, I would really struggle when I am unwell at university. My mentor is a godsend, and helps me with so much - academic work, managing stress, managing my health and also just being there if I need to offload!
"As I am studying social work and we go on placement where we work with vulnerable people, we have to go through occupational health which ensures that we are fit to work with these service users. I filled in a form before I started the course and I had an initial appointment. I continue to see occupational health regularly, as well as when there are concerns about my health, and after any absence. We talk about how I am currently doing with my mental health, my treatment, my diagnosis, how I am managing with the work at university and on placement as well as any stressors in my work life or personal life. It can be a daunting process, but I would encourage anyone to be open and honest about your health - there is no point anything as it is likely they will find out anyway (plus, lying would be extremely un-ethical!) There has been periods where they have told me I need to take some time away from university or placement, but this has always been done sensitively and supportively. They are not out to stop you from being on your course, they just want to make sure it is right for you at the moment, that you can handle it, and that you aren't going to endanger any vulnerable people by being unwell - and they will look for adjustments if needed. Please don't worry, having mental health problems or a history of being sectioned won't stop you from passing OH, as long as you are okay at the moment!
My advice to people thinking about reaching out to the support available to them at university:
- Apply for DSA ASAP!
- If you're starting to feel the pressure, or are feeling mentally unwell, go and talk to someone at your counselling service or your GP, they are there to help and are very used to mental health problems.
- If you are worried about confidentiality, remember that EVERYTHING is confidential, unless you are a major risk to yourself or others, but even then, they will talk to you about this at the time.
- Talking about self harm or ending your life is very unlikely to result in you being sectioned. Many people go through these issues and the best thing to do is to talk to someone - counselling, GP, A&E or even just phoning the Samaritans or Nightline.
- If you are starting to feel unwell, remember that drinking loads, getting high, going out clubbing every night, not getting much sleep or avoiding how you feel is unlikely to help. Sometimes a good nights sleep or just avoiding the booze or drugs for a bit can do wonders.
- Finally, like I've already said, just talk to anyone, anyone who you feel comfortable with - your mental health is very very important!"
Six tips for keeping a healthy mind
Regardless of whether you suffer from a mental illness, it's still really important to try and maintain a healthy mind. If you're struggling, here's six simple things that can give your mental well-being a boost.
Disclaimer - these are tips that may not work for everyone and shouldn't be used as a supplement for seeing a doctor.
When you’re feeling low, anxious or experiencing another symptom of mental illness, the idea of whacking on your trainers to go for a run can be the last thing you want to do. However, the surge in endorphins that physical activity brings could make a significant difference. As little as 10-20 minutes of physical activity can have a positive impact on your health by boosting your self-esteem, improving sleep quality and enhancing your concentration.
Whilst hitting the uni gym can feel intimidating, it's very unlikely other students won’t be watching you, as they’ll be too busy focusing on their own workout. If the gym is really not for you, you could go for a walk, play badminton or look up some yoga videos on YouTube in your room.
Get the right amount of sleep
Students are notorious for neglecting sleep and having an irregular sleeping pattern. So many of us have been guilty of hitting the clubs a little too hard or heading to the library for a midnight cramming sesh, completely disrupting our sleep cycle.
Although student life doesn’t always make it easy, try and get yourself into a good sleep routine. It's important to get enough rest but not over-sleep, as both can exacerbate already existing conditions. If you have trouble drifting off, try turning off all blue screens an hour before bed, listen to a white noise sleep app or try the 4-7-8 breathing exercise. If you continue to struggle to sleep, go see your GP.
Eat the good stuff
We can all be suckers for cheap microwave meals or finishing off last night’s kebab for breakfast, but it’s important to try and be conscious of what you’re putting in your body. At the risk of sounding like a nagging mum: "make sure you’re getting your 5-10 pieces of fruit and veg a day!"
When you eat right, your body feels better, you have more energy and you'll feel less lethargic - all of which will have a positive impact on your mind. If you don't want to have to pop to the shops every other day, why not pick up some frozen vegetables? It’s a practical way to make sure you always have some green goodness in stock.
The word 'student' is often synonymous with drinking to excess. But if you are dealing with any mental illness, alcohol (which is a depressant) can worsen the symptoms you are experiencing. We’re not saying you have to stay in or isolate yourself from socialising, but try to ease up on the booze. There are plenty of students who don’t drink and still have a great social life, so why not switch to a lemonade instead of racking up the Jägerbombs.
Too often, low self-esteem rears its head when your mental health is shaky, making you feel even worse.
If you feel like you’re doubting yourself, try to recognise the things you’re good at and remind yourself of how far you've come. Make the time to do something you love or something that will have a positive impact on your mood. Self-care is also a great way to boost self-esteem. Taking a long bath or spending some time meditating are just little things you can do for yourself to instantly lift your mood and alter your perspective.
It might seem cheesy but try looking in the mirror and saying three positive things about yourself. Doing this can feel awkward or uncomfortable at first, but stick with it and you might just see a difference in the way you view yourself. Be conscious of the way you speak to yourself and consider whether you’d speak to someone you love in the same way you speak to yourself. The more you attack yourself with negative thoughts, the more you'll start to believe it. So give yourself a break and love you.
Recognise how you’re feeling and talk it out
Denial, suppressing your feelings and not addressing the issue will only make you feel worse.
Remember, there is no shame in suffering with a mental health illness. You wouldn’t be embarrassed talking to your doctor if you had a broken leg, so why should you be when it comes to your mental health?
Not only will letting someone know how you’re feeling stop you alienating yourself, they can also direct you to the right help you may need.
If you're feeling low, there's no need to suffer in silence. There are some great forms of support out there, including charities like Student Minds. They are the UK's leading student led mental health charity and run support groups across the country. They are at the forefront of creating campaigns to raise awareness of the current state of student mental health.
Other useful resources are charities like Nightline, a student-run organisation which prides itself on its five core values; confidentiality, anonymity, being non-judgmental, being non-directive (letting you drive the conversation) and non-advisory (will give advice but let you come to your own decision).
If you are a student who is suffering from mental health issues, you may also be entitled to a Disabled Students Allowance, which can help provide things like specialist equipment - a computer, for example, if you need one because of your disability.
There are also some great resourses right here on TSR, including the amazing community on mental health forums. Additionally, here's some other articles and threads you might find useful:
- What mental health support can you expect at university?
- 5 ways exercise can help your mental health
- 5 top tips to keeping anxiety at bay
- How to access your university's mental health services
- University students: what do you do to look after your mental health?
- How do you look after your mental health at work?
- Things you can do in your lunch break to boost your mental health