Moving to university can be a stressful time in itself, and if you also experience mental ill-health, it can be even harder. But there are steps you can take, and help that family and friends can provide, to ensure that you are well-supported at university.
Before you get there
Location: When you choose a university to apply to you might want to consider how close it is to home.
Colin Evans is in the second year of a chemistry degree at the University of Manchester and has schizophrenia. He previously started courses at both Liverpool and Leeds. “Both times my paranoia increased in the unfamiliar cities and I ended up returning home,” he says. Manchester is just 40 minutes from his hometown of Rochdale, meaning Evans can be better supported by his parents. “They come to see me every weekend and the public transport links are great. It makes a big difference to me.” For those who choose to study further afield, parents can still help – by keeping in regular contact and talking about any problems that arise.
Disclosure: Ucas advises: “If you have a disability, mental health condition or learning difficulty, it’s a good idea to contact course providers to discuss what you might need as early as possible – even before sending your application.” Dan Doran, secretary for the university mental health advisers network, says: “Early disclosure can ensure the impact on your studies is considered.” This can include access to counselors and mental health and financial advisers. It also means that you can ask for your needs to be taken into account when it comes to housing allocation. If you have an eating disorder, and have a preference towards either catered or self-catered halls of residence, it’s worth raising this as soon as possible. Though disclosure of mental health difficulties can be daunting, it’s also beneficial: 78% of students who sought support from their university say doing so had a positive effect on their studies.
Register with a GP: Rosanna Hardwick, charity and communications manager at Student Minds, advises registering with a new GP as soon as you get to university – many universities have one on campus – and booking an appointment at the start of term to discuss any support that you’d like. Your mental health difficulties may also mean that you are eligible for Disabled Students Allowance, a grant which can fund any additional support you need. Applications can take some time to process, so it’s worth doing it a couple of months before you go to university. The university mental health advisers network has some useful information about what support you’re entitled to, and you can apply for the DSA here. There are also charities that provide support for people with mental health conditions; Evans is supported by a key worker at Making Space, who has helped with time and stress management skills.
Have a Plan: Create a plan of what you will do if you’re affected by mental ill-health at university. This could start with self-help; the things that you can do to make yourself feel better, such as going for a run. Then include support services, whether these are at the university, or in the local community. “Eating disorders thrive at points where people are particularly vulnerable,” says Emmy Gilmour, clinical director at the Recover Clinic – so it’s important to prepare for the move to university. This could include arranging daily or weekly calls with family and friends, putting in place specific support, or even creating a positive vision board in your room to encourage you when you’re feeling low. Having a plan can be reassuring in itself, as it offers you a means to take control. If you’re the parent or friend of a prospective student with mental health needs, try creating an action plan with them.
You’re not Alone: “When approached by a student with mental health needs, I would firstly let them know that many other students are in a similar situation, and that they are not alone,” says Rosie Dammers, wellbeing officer at the University of Manchester’s student union. Research from the National Union of Students (NUS) shows that 20% of students experience mental health difficulties while at university. Hardwick advises visiting your university’s website to see what help is available locally. Most universities have a free counselling service, or a mental health adviser who can help to arrange support. Alternatively, your GP can refer you on to specialist services. Dammers recommends speaking to the university disabled students office and your personal tutor. “It is always good to let the university know early on that you are unwell and to find out, for example, what evidence may be needed for a mitigating circumstances application,” she says.
Peer to Peer Support: If visiting a professional seems too daunting, then peer-to-peer support is also available. Leah Francis, welfare and international officer at University College London Union, recommends networks such as Student Minds and Nightline. “Talking to other students about your problems can be a bit less intimidating and it helps to see that you’re not the only person experiencing difficulties,” she says.
Finally, “don’t forget the importance of your own support networks,” says Hardwick. “From friends and coursemates to family members. Make time to keep up with old friends, whether that’s meeting up in person, giving them a call or writing letters.” University can be a wonderful experience, and – with the right preparation and support – mental health difficulties shouldn’t get in the way of that.
This article first appeared The Guardian, 25 February 2015.