Student mental health

Mental health problems are as common among students as they are in the general population.

However, Alan Percy, head of counselling at the University of Oxford, is keen to stress that many of the students who come through his doors don't have a mental health condition.

"Students often come to us expecting to be given a prescription of some kind, but a lot of difficulties are not caused not medical problems, but by normal life problems, such as family or relationship issues, or anxiety about their work,” he explains.

“While these problems are distressing, through counselling we can help students to understand them, and then suggest strategies for dealing with their feelings.”

Getting help if you're struggling

If you feel persistently unhappy or that you can no longer cope, don't keep it a secret. Telling someone how you feel, whether it's a friend, counsellor or doctor, may bring an immediate sense of relief.

Initially, it's a good idea to talk to someone you trust, such as a friend, member of your family or a tutor. This is especially important if your academic performance is being affected. Many mild mental health problems can be resolved this way; many will also resolve themselves and many can be helped by seeing someone who is professionally trained. Read more about coping with student stress.

Many colleges and most universities have a free and confidential in-house counselling service, with professionally qualified counsellors and psychotherapists, that you can access. The BACP Universities and Colleges, a division of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy, has 615 individual members who are counsellors or psychotherapists, and around 95 colleges and universities have organisational membership.

You can usually find information about what they offer and how to make an appointment in the counselling service section of your university’s website. This free service in universities is available to postgraduates as well as undergraduates.

Many student unions also offer student-led services. Although the students involved aren't qualified counsellors, you may prefer to talk about problems such as stress and depression with another student. There are also online self-help services that you may like to explore, such as NHS Choices' Moodzone.

So what are the main problems that affect students, and how can you recognise them?

Signs of a mental health condition

"Many people have symptoms such as low mood or lack of motivation, but it's important to evaluate these in terms of how long they have been going on, the severity of distress and having a cluster of symptoms – and also to evaluate them in relation to the context of someone’s life," says Alan Percy.

Key signs of a mental health problem if you're a student include weight loss or gain, decline in personal hygiene and poor attendance at lectures. You may also do too much work, become withdrawn, or be more agitated or anxious than usual.

Sleep and mental health

Sleep problems can have an effect on mental health problems, and vice versa, as well as being a possible indicator of the onset of difficulties.

Sleep problems can also be an indicator of how severe a mental health difficulty may become, how often it may reoccur and how difficult it may be to resolve.

There are effective self-help programmes online for insomnia that can be more effective than medication, and other sleep difficulties can be treated with specialist help. You can ask your GP or counselling service about help with sleep difficulties. NHS Choices also has a section on sleep problems, where you can find information and self-help tips.

Depression in students

Depression is when you feel sad or low for weeks or months, to such an extent that it interferes with your life and studies, and it can make you feel hopeless or suicidal. The warning signs are:

  • a loss of interest in life and a feeling you can't enjoy anything
  • feeling tired
  • loss of appetite
  • finding it harder to make decisions, or feeling disengaged from, or unmotivated to do things 
  • having problems getting to sleep, then waking up too early
  • loss of interest in sex

Bipolar disorder in students

Bipolar disorder is a condition that affects moods, which can swing from one extreme to another. If you have bipolar disorder you will have quite extreme periods, or "episodes", of depression and mania lasting several weeks or more.

Some studies show that exceptional intellectual ability may be associated with bipolar disorder.

Eating disorders in students

Anorexia and bulimia are eating disorders that can affect students, and both are more common in women. Anorexia involves severe, sometimes life-threatening, weight loss. Bulimia is more common and involves bingeing (eating lots of food) then vomiting or purging with laxatives.

Schizophrenia in students

Schizophrenia affects around one person in 100 and is equally common in men and women, though more men seem to develop schizophrenia when they're young (between the ages of 15 and 25). In women, it usually occurs later in life. The use of drugs can sometimes provoke the start of psychosis, especially in people who may have schizophrenia within their family.

The symptoms may include:

  • hallucinations (especially hearing voices)
  • paranoid delusions (false or very unusual beliefs)

Drugs, drink and mental health in students

If you're feeling low or stressed, you may be tempted to drown your sorrows in alcohol or relax by smoking cannabis. Consider how this may make you feel in the longer term though, as your mood could slip, making you feel a lot worse.

Around one cannabis user in 10 has unpleasant experiences, including confusion, hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia. There's also growing evidence that long-term cannabis use can double your risk of developing a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia.

Ecstasy and amphetamines can also bring on schizophrenia, and amphetamines can induce other forms of psychosis. Any underlying mental disorder could be worsened by drug and alcohol use.

Read more articles about drugs.

Getting help for mental health

The Students Against Depression website has some good self-help tips, and it can be helpful to see what has helped others in similar situations.

If you have a history of mental health problems, or have recently been concerned that you may be developing them, contact the mental health adviser or counselling service at your university or college. A mental health adviser is available at most UK universities, although mental health support is sometimes coordinated by the university's disability adviser.

You may also be entitled to "reasonable adjustments" such as extra time in exams, extensions on coursework and specialist mental health mentor support. The mental health adviser can help to provide this support.

For more serious or persistent mental health symptoms, you will need to see your GP to get prescribed treatment or referral to specialist NHS services, such as the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme.

If you have or develop a mental health condition that requires treatment, it's important to arrange continuity of care between your college doctor and your family GP. The mental health adviser can support this communication. If moving between university and home results in a gap in treatment, your condition may worsen.

Counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) offers an opportunity to explore the underlying issues of your unhappiness or any worries you have in a safe environment, including helping you to develop ways of coping.

As well as university or college counselling services, you might be able to refer yourself for NHS counselling. To find out what's available in your area, search for psychological therapy services

The University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN) represents the network of mental health advisers working in higher education dedicated to providing practical support to students experiencing mental health difficulties.

Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA)

At all UK universities, you have the opportunity to apply for a Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA). Your mental health adviser can help you apply for a DSA, but you will need to provide evidence of a long-term mental health condition.

The DSA pays for:

  • specialist equipment, like a computer if you need one because of your mental health condition or other disability
  • non-medical helpers
  • extra travel due to your mental health condition or disability
  • other disability-related costs of studying

Even if you decide not to apply for a DSA, the mental health adviser will still be able to let you know what support is available.

Page last reviewed: 20/08/2014

Next review due: 09/12/2016

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