It's *mumble* years since I started university, but I still remember how stressful and exciting it was. But how are you supposed to cope with it all if you're struggling with your mental health? I've got some tips.
There are so many things that you're likely to be experiencing for the first time when you start university, it can be really overwhelming. For example you might start living away from home, which comes with its own complicated rules (just how many times can you wear a t-shirt before you have to wash it? Which one of your house-mates is eating your pasta? How much hot water does one person really need to use in the shower?), and it can be difficult to negotiate living with new people, all of whom may be struggling with similar things. You need to learn how to learn, because that rote regurgitation of facts you did for some of your exams at GCSE and A-level won't save you now, and each of your lecturers will have a slightly different interpretation of the syllabus topics. You need to work out how to balance the fun socialising element of university with the serious work-based element of university, and take the consequences when you invariably swing the pendulum too far in either direction (hungover for lectures? Check. Revising so hard my house-mates staged an intervention? Double check).
Whether you've struggled with your mental health prior to going to university, or you start to notice difficulties whilst you're there, there are a number of things you can do to try to make things easier on yourself.
Don't blame yourself
This is really important. University is tough - it might seem like lots of people just slot into university life and adapt really well, but lots of people don't do that as well. And if you have slotted in well, coming out the other side can often be really hard too. Struggling doesn't mean that you're "not cut out for university," or that you need to drop out and never try again - it just means that at this point in time, you need a bit of extra help to manage your studies. That's not a bad thing, it's an honest thing and it holds you in good stead for being honest about your internal feelings and emotional state throughout your life - something that a lot of people need lessons in.
Contact Student Support Services
Your university will have a team of people who are literally there to help you. It's a good idea to go into any meetings with them with a rough idea of what you might need, so work out what you're struggling with most and what they might be able to do about it. They might suggest some things that you never even thought of, but ultimately they'll be able to help you more if you can give them a good starting point.
Find your friends
University is one of the easiest places to make friends, but after the first few weeks it's also one of the hardest. It can feel like everyone already knows everyone else, and that there's no room for you in their friendship group - that's not true. It's important to try to find some people you'd like to be friends with early on if you can, possibly through one of the university's societies or groups (never played tag rugby? Now might be a good time to start!), or through a quiz or comedy night. Even though it might be tempting to go it alone for three years, especially if you're an introvert or you don't want people to know about your mental health, it really will be easier if there are people you can confide in when the going gets tough. Everyone needs a friend who will bring them coffee to the 24hr library on campus, or watch bad horror movies with them at 3am - they're out there, I promise.
Invest in self-care
University is a thrilling, full-pelt experience - a whirlwind of fresher's fairs and societies and lectures and clubs and weekly karaoke nights (just me?!). Unless you're also looking after yourself you're not going to be able to manage it all. Self-care is always important, but never more so than when you've got a thousand different things that you want to do, and you're paying thousands of pounds for the experience.
It's okay to leave
Ultimately, university isn't for everyone and it's okay to think about the unthinkable - delaying your studies by a year, or making the choice not to continue with them. This will feel like a failure - it's not, it's making a decision that benefits you. Even if that decision goes against the cultural norm, even if it feels like you're giving up, you have the right to prioritise your own mental well-being and not stay in a situation that is causing you harm just because you feel like you're 'supposed' to. That's a good lesson for life, too. Just make sure you have a plan for what you're going to do instead (put a time limit on things like "recover from university" as they can be potentially unending tasks) and make sure that those around you know what's happening - they can't support you if the first they hear about it is you turning back up on their doorstep with a bag of washing.
Do you have any more tips for university starters? Let me know in the comments.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects