The topic of mental health has become more prevalent and widely discussed in recent years, with approximately 1 in 4 adults experiencing mental health issues each year in the UK. It is particularly important to explore the mental health of university students (typically aged between 18 and 21), as 75% of mental health problems are established before the age of 24. Studying at university can be an incredibly exciting, formative, and enjoyable experience, but the high workload, newfound independence, financial worries, and exam stress can cause many students to feel overwhelmed.

In 2021, UCAS estimated that 70,000 students enter higher education each year with a mental health condition, yet 49% choose not to disclose this information on their university application. While sharing this information is a personal choice, UCAS research suggests that the most common reason that students choose not to disclose their mental health conditions is due to the belief that it will affect their chances of being offered a place at university.

As someone who experienced a mental health crisis whilst studying for my A levels, I felt a sense of reassurance after disclosing this information to my chosen university. I felt that my lecturers and the wider university staff would be in a better position to support my studies, because I had been honest about my mental health from the very beginning. While talking about our mental health can be daunting, and was a cause of extreme anxiety for me to begin with, starting the conversation about mental health problems can be the first step towards finding help.

What kind of mental health problems affect university students?

Shout 85258 is a free, confidential text messaging service powered by Mental Health Innovations, which provides around the clock support for individuals struggling with their mental health. Around 21% of people who contact Shout are students. Between January and September 2021, 27,600 students sought help for their mental health from Shout; 40% expressed concerns about anxiety, 33% spoke about depression, and 28% discussed suicidal thoughts.

According to Mind, a leading mental health charity in England and Wales, 1 in 5 students have a diagnosed mental health condition. The most commonly diagnosed mental health condition amongst students is depression, with anxiety disorders also affecting a high proportion of students. Worryingly, death by suicide is more highly reported amongst university students than in the general population. Between 2007 and 2017, there were 1,330 student deaths by suicide, 83% of which were undergraduate students, and 66% of which were male. It is thought that the stigma surrounding speaking out about mental health issues is a contributing factor to the high rates of suicide amongst students, particularly men who feel that talking about suicidal ideation goes against societal expectations of masculinity.

How has Covid-19 affected the mental health of students?

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, university students have experienced significant disruption and uncertainty, having to get to grips with online learning and remote working environments, whilst also experiencing anxieties about their health and that of their loved ones. Reports have found that 82% of students feel that Covid-19 has negatively impacted their academic experience, while 74% of students say that the pandemic has contributed to a decline in their mental health.

The National Student Survey (NSS) 2021 found that only 41.9% of students felt that their university or college had taken sufficient steps to support their mental wellbeing during the pandemic. The good news is that universities are becoming increasingly aware of the essential need for mental health support for students, and as such, they are dedicated to improving their wellbeing services. In a survey of senior leaders from the UK’s 165 universities, more than 80% of respondents said that mental health and wellbeing was a specific strategic focus for their university in 2022 (Kortext).

What support is available for students?

Speaking out about your mental health, or expressing concerns about stress at university, can be challenging to begin with. But most universities offer safe spaces for students to talk to trained professionals in confidence, and can refer you to additional services which may be in a better position to treat your specific needs. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your university wellbeing team, it can be easier to speak to a trusted friend or family member. It is vitally important to seek help or advice if you are struggling with your mental health, as starting the conversation can be the first step towards feeling better.

Who can you talk to about mental health?

  • Student wellbeing services: Many universities have dedicated student support teams which offer advice and guidance on all aspects of university life, including mental health problems, exam stress, and financial support. You can usually find more information about student wellbeing services on universities’ websites, so it can be helpful to do some research before choosing your university.
  • Mental health support charities: Organisations such as Shout 85258, YoungMinds, Student Space, and the Samaritans have dedicated phone lines, text support services, and email addresses that students can contact to access support for their mental health.
  • Friends and family: Reaching out to friends and family to discuss your mental health can be the first important step in accessing professional support. If you have concerns relating to your academic performance, such as exam stress, you can also contact your personal tutor.
  • Your GP: Booking a doctor’s appointment to talk about your mental health can feel daunting, but your GP can offer professional support, refer you to a counsellor, or prescribe medication if it is deemed necessary.

What can you do to take care of your mental health?

Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health, and there are various things you can do to improve your mood and stay healthy.

  • Regular exercise: Just 20 to 30 minutes of exercise per day can improve your mental health. This could include going for a walk or jog in the fresh air, cycling, swimming, joining a sports club at university, or doing yoga at home.
  • Make sure you get enough sleep: We tend to spend hours staring at screens during the day, from using laptops for studying and essay writing, to checking social media on our phones. Refraining from using screens for an hour before you go to bed can improve the quality of your sleep. Make sure you get plenty of sleep, and try not to spend too many late nights revising!
  • Join a club or society: Most universities offer a wide range of clubs and societies, including sports clubs and subject specific or general interest societies. These can be great places to meet new people, discuss your common interests, and give you the chance to relax.
  • Use wellbeing apps: There are an increasing number of health and wellbeing apps available on smart phones. These include Calm, Finch, Headspace, and MindShift.
  • Find new activities and hobbies: Discovering a new hobby which helps you relax and takes your mind off of the stresses of everyday university life can be really helpful. This could be anything from running, meditation, and yoga to writing, drawing, reading, and journaling.