Expert advice on how to get support for your mental health when you get to university
There’s lots to consider when you start thinking about applying to university – what to study, where to live, how much to pack. But you might also have concerns about your mental health and be wondering what kind of support will be available when you get there.
If so, you’re definitely not alone – mental health concerns are common among students and universities know this, so they’re usually well set up to support you.
We spoke to Dr Nihara Krause, a consultant clinical psychologist and founder of stem4, a charity that promotes positive mental health in teenagers, for expert advice on how students can get help with their mental health.
First of all, what kind of support can you get?
Before you seek out mental health support at university, it’s helpful to understand the type of support that is available.
It will obviously depend on the mental health issue, but broadly speaking your main options are talking therapy, medication or a combination of the two.
In talking therapy, you speak to a trained therapist and the therapist helps guide you through the problems you’re experiencing.
There are lots of different types of talking therapies – which one is best for you will depend on the condition – and therapy can be carried out face-to-face, in a group, online or over the phone.
You can find out more about the different types of talking therapies on the NHS website here.
Medications also “play a role in treating several mental health disorders,” Nihara says.
“There are only a few types of drugs licensed to treat mental ill health in young people under 18 years and can only be prescribed by a child and adolescent psychiatrist, who you will need to be referred to by your GP,” she adds.
“Most medication has side effects and should be monitored and managed under a specialist but can provide the treatment needed to balance the chemical changes that occur in the brain during a bout of mental illness,” Nihara continues.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that “medication doesn’t work for everyone,” Nihara says.
“The best results for medication are when taken alongside an evidence-based psychological intervention. Young Minds has a helpful page on ‘Thinking about Trying Mental Health Medication’ and Mind has a list of the different types of medication.”
There are also specialist clinics: for “longer term treatments/high-intensity treatments for more complex problems, you will be referred to psychological or psychiatric services,” Nihara explains, adding that “there are separate addiction-based services, eating disorder services, services for psychoses and physical health-associated services which can be accessed through your GP.”
And if none of those options feel right, “there are other forms of support that work better for some individuals,” Nihara says.
“These include guided physical exercise, art, drama, yoga, mindfulness, music and ecotherapy (working with nature and animals). Mind has a helpful page on how to access these.”
How can you access mental health support?
Your university will offer mental health support specifically for its students.
“Visit your university’s website to find out what support is available, where on campus it is and how to access it,” says Nihara.
“Usually, most universities will have a counselling service, student support services and also student support networks including peer support, peer mentors, student advisors and befrienders,” she adds.
When it comes to using the university’s services, Nihara says that “depending on the problem, you may refer yourself directly to student counselling. You can also register with the university GP service, who can make a referral”.
In addition, universities “offer a variety of phone based-services including Nightline, a telephone service run by trained volunteers at night,” Nihara comments.
Another way to access mental health support is through your GP.
You’ll need to make sure you register with a GP that’s local to your university. There will probably be a health centre attached to your university, which may be the most convenient place for you to get registered, but you can register with any local GP.
Find out more about registering with the GP as a student on the NHS website here.
Once you’re registered with a GP, they can prescribe you medication and/or refer you for free talking therapy or to see a specialist, depending on the severity of your symptoms.
If you decide to go down this route, the first thing you will need to do is make an appointment with your GP – you can either “do this online or call reception,” Nihara says.
“You may need to call a few times or be on hold depending on the time of day, but do persist,” Nihara adds.
You should also be prepared to possibly discuss the reason for the appointment.
“Depending on the practice rules, the receptionist or GP may ‘triage’ whether they need to see you face to face or online by asking some questions.
“If you don’t want to speak to the receptionist then you can say it’s for a mental health issue you would prefer to discuss directly with the GP,” Nihara advises.
One you’re booked in, it can help to do a tiny bit of preparation before your appointment – if that doesn’t feel too overwhelming.
“Before you go, prepare what you would like to say, and it is fine to write it down,” Nihara says.
Plenty of people find it hard to talk about mental health, so if you need a bit of help, Nihra suggests checking out Doc Ready to get advice and build a checklist of the things you want to speak about.
The mental health charity Mind also has guidance for talking to your GP about your mental health, and stem4 has a leaflet aimed at teenagers which explains how to ask for help if you’re concerned about a mental health problem, including tips on early warning signs and how to speak to your parents and friends about mental health concerns.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that access to talking therapies through the NHS “may vary based on where you live,” Nihara comments, but “your GP will be able to help guide you to services and make a referral”.
Self-referral on the NHS
If you have mild-moderate symptoms, you may be able to refer yourself for free NHS talking therapies online without having to go through your GP – although you do need to be registered with a GP.
You can do this through a service called IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies), which you can find on the NHS website here.
This service provides “low intensity interventions offered by health practitioners, which are usually limited to certain conditions and a set number of sessions,” Nihara explains.
The problems that can be treated through the service are: depression; generalized anxiety; social anxiety; panic and agoraphobia; other phobias; OCD; PTSD; IBS; and body dysmorphic disorder.
To use the service, you’ll need to enter the name of your GP’s surgery. Next, you’ll be given a list of the services available locally to you, with a link to click on to refer yourself online.
You’ll need to enter your contact details here – and possibly some other information, too. Once you’ve submitted your self-referral, someone from the service will contact you to discuss what kind of therapy they can offer you, and how long you will need to wait for your first therapy session.
If you want to access talking therapy, you could also choose to go private if you can afford it.
You wouldn’t go through your GP to find a private therapist – once you’ve found one that you’d like to see, you would contact them directly to make an initial appointment.
When you’re choosing a private therapist, Nihara suggests that you “look at the directories of professional organisations because then you know you will be seeing someone who is professionally qualified by an accredited training body.
“While each training body has their own register, the most comprehensive will be the Professional Standards Authority (PSA).”
Nihara also advises that the types of things you should check when choosing a private therapist include:
- The type of treatment they offer (talking/listening support, specific interventions, treatment of specific conditions, new or long-lasting conditions etc)
- Do they offer specific, evidence-based treatments?
- Do they have any client/patient recommendations?
“Ultimately any therapy or treatment is a very personal choice and also guided by the person delivering the treatment and best fit. If talking treatments don’t work the first time, try again,” Nihara finishes.
There are plenty of self-help books out there. When choosing one, Nihara recommends “looking out for recommendations from the British Psychological Society or the Royal College of Psychiatrists.”
You can also visit Reading Well to find lists of books chosen by health experts and people living with the conditions covered, Nihara suggests.
In addition, “there are a huge range of blogs, forums, audio and video guides,” Nihara says. “Look out for those recommended by Mind, the NHS and other established bodies.”
Mental health apps can also be used to “support mental health either on their own or alongside treatment,” Nihara adds.
Mental health charities
You could consider getting in touch with a mental health charity.
“Mental health charities offer a range of support which include face-to-face counselling, telephone counselling, peer-to-peer support, crisis support, guidance and advice, resources, research, befrienders, mentoring, campaigns and opportunities to volunteer,” Nihara comments.
National mental health charities in the UK include:
- Young Minds
- The Mental Health Foundation
- Student Minds
If you need urgent help, please call one of the helplines below and contact a health professional.
If you need urgent help, please call one of the helplines below and contact a health professional.
UK - Samaritans (116 123)
USA - The National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1 800 273 8255)
Australia - Lifeline (13 11 14)
Hotlines in other countries can be found here.