University can either be the most amazing experience of your life, or the most challenging. I think most of my fellow students would agree that more often than not, it’s both of those things at the same time.
Having struggled with my mental health from a young age, moving away from home for the first time did bring with it a lot of anxiety. Of course there were the usual worries of “will I make friends” and “will I enjoy my course”, but more than anything, I worried about how I would cope mentally with such a huge change.
Going to university for the first time is daunting, but there are a few things you can do to help yourself out. Luckily, I had a good plan of action in place before even making the move, and that helped me so much. Here are the top five things I would recommend doing to take care of your mental health at uni:
- Don’t feel pressured into going out all the time. It can feel like all you hear about during freshers (and even beyond) is this or that party, pre-drinks and going out every night. Before I started University last year, this worried me a bit. Alcohol is a huge factor in my mental wellbeing, and I know that even one night of excessive drinking can make me struggle a lot mentally for at least a few days, and I know that drinking regularly is a huge risk factor for me. Alcohol is a depressant, and if you’re taking anti-depressants and also drinking regularly, it can completely cancel out their effects. I felt as though going out would be the main way to meet people and make friends, but I quickly learnt that this isn’t true. Your best friends will be your flatmates or people you meet via your course. If you know that excessive alcohol isn’t for you, for whatever reason, be assured that that is ok! You will not be the only one, you will not miss out on anything and you will still make friends. When I was a fresher last year, I went out once in the whole two weeks. Bearing in mind I lived on my own and therefore had no flatmates, I still made plenty of friends.
- Be aware of the mental health services your Uni offers, and USE THEM! Some universities may be better than others in this respect, but I can almost guarantee your uni will have some sort of student support services. For example at mine you can develop a ‘support plan’ if you have any sort of mental or physical health issues. This is designed to help you get the most out of your uni life. At the beginning of this year when everything was up in the air about me transferring courses, I was feeling extremely overwhelmed by the work I had to do, and I booked myself in for a therapy appointment. Having access to free therapy services at university is great, and something I really think people should take advantage of more. I literally went to one appointment, had a bit of chat about things, and came out with a good plan of action to help get myself back on track. Take some time to get acquainted with the services your uni offers so you know what support is available should you ever feel you need it.
- Challenge yourself to try new things, but don’t feel obliged to do more than you can. Starting uni is a great chance to grasp new opportunities, try things that scare you and reinvent yourself! If you want to try something, do it, even if it makes you a bit nervous, but also don’t feel pressured to do absolutely everything. Be gentle on yourself and remember, this is a huge change from what you’re used to. You don’t have to be the life and soul of the party every day. It’s fine some days to just get up, chill out and have a day recharging, because going out and talking to strangers everyday can take a lot of energy!
- Learn time management. This is a huge one! There’s no worse feeling than having to cram all your assignments or revision in the week before your due date. Luckily, I learnt this during my A-Levels and became a pro-planner by the time I got to university. I promise, uni will be a thousand times less stressful and a million times more rewarding if you make sure to use your time wisely. Start assignments early, plan when and how you’re going to tackle things and split big tasks up into small, manageable chunks. Your future self will thank you for it.
- Eat well and get some exercise in. It’s very easy to live of takeaways and ready meals with *questionable* nutritional values at uni. But be aware that what we eat does impact our mental health. It doesn’t have to be anything ground-breaking in the culinary department, but just pay a little attention to what you’re putting in your body. Even something as simple as a jacket potato with cheese and beans and a little side salad is pretty good for you, and a lot better than a bowl of super noodles! Eating sensibly doesn’t have to break the bank. For sure, go out and enjoy yourself because that’s what uni is about, just be sure to balance it out with some nutritious foods as well. And of course, exercise is great for your mind. Exercise can be anything you like, whether that’s the gym, joining a sports team or even just deciding to walk to and from uni instead of taking the bus. It all counts and all physical activity is great for your mental health.
I guess the main points to take home from this are to not pile the pressure on yourself to find University AMAZING straight away. Take things at your own pace and be assured that yes, you will still make friends and you will settle in eventually. Just aim for that balance of taking care of yourself mentally and physically in amongst the whirlwind of nights out and new experiences.
And of course, these tips are based solely on my own experience. What works for me, might not for you and that’s ok, we’re all different! If you ever feel your mental health is declining beyond what feels manageable, always make sure to go to your GP and try to get some professional support. It’s not an easy thing to do, but is 100% worth it in the long-run.