An expert tells us how to deal with depression at uni

Uni is a breeding ground for mental health issues


Mental health is increasingly becoming an issue at universities across the country, with 78 per cent of students experiencing mental health issues and among those, 33 per cent reporting suicidal thoughts, rising to 55 per cent among non-heterosexual students.

The Tab spoke to Dr Graham Pickup, a clinical psychologist for the NHS about how to look after your mental health while at uni. Here’s what he had to say.

What advice would you give to students on how to look after their mental health at uni?

My first piece of advice would be to talk to friends you already have at uni, there’s this huge expectation that university is going to be a crazy three years of partying and socialising and that’s simply not true. Chatting with people who are maybe a year or so into university will help lower your expectations. Yes, university is a wonderful time for some, but there are bad days too. The reality is, you will spend more time lounging around and watching Netflix than at wild parties.

“The timetable structure of some degrees leads to many students having more free time than usual. It’s tempting to fritter this away, but retaining some kind of routine and structure will do wonders for your health. Long stretches of doing nothing can mess with your sleep, which makes you vulnerable to mood swings and intense emotions, it’s also much harder to fit uni work into a routine like this. Without your friends and parents around it can be hard to motivate yourself and fill your time, I’d suggest taking up a sport or maybe joining a gym, not only will this give you something to do, exercise is proven to improve your mood. Including yourself in societies is also a great way to meet people and provide structure. Do remember though, it is more than okay to spend the odd day doing nothing if you don’t want to, especially if you’re hungover.

“The best advice anyone ever gave me is that the friends you make in Freshers’ Week, you spend the rest of the year avoiding. Lots of students will view university as an experience to somehow ‘reinvent’ themselves, it’s totally fine to just be yourself, and in fact you’ll make more friends this way.”

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Studies show that lots of students become more vulnerable and prone to mental health issues at uni. Why do you think this is and is there anything students can do to avoid it?

In college or sixth form we’re often quite comfortable in our abilities and what we can do academically, once at university you’re thrown in at the deep end with other students from different walks of life, with differing abilities. Something I always remember first years saying is ‘I can’t believe how clever everyone is’, or that they feel intimidated by others in their lectures. This can lead us to compare ourselves with others and feel like we’re not good enough. Remember, you made it here. You wouldn’t have a place if you weren’t up to it. An important lesson I learned at university is that, in all aspects of my life there’s going to be someone that I think is better than me, the best I can do is just my best, but also, this person who I think is so  amazing is normally feeling exactly the same way.

“I know that one of the biggest shocks for a new student is the increased workload, the expectation of you to hand in assignments more frequently and work on them independently can feel very stressful. It’s important to try and stick to some sort of study schedule, but also to give yourself breaks. I think many students are too hard on themselves. In first year especially, you shouldn’t be feeling so stressed that it starts to affect your life outside of studying. If you are feeling that way, you’re working too hard.”

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Is there anything that needs to change about the university lifestyle to help improve the quality of students’ mental health?

“Obviously nights out, drugs and alcohol are part of people’s uni experience, so I’m not going to explicitly say stay away. My advice would be not to use it as a crutch, or try to use it to impress new people. Once you stop having fun with it that’s when you should stop; whether it’s affecting your mood or stopping you from attending lectures and things. Just stop. I also think that the ridiculously high expectation of university needs to change. There’s all this pressure to constantly be having a great time, especially on social media. I think this needs to be addressed in the media, but also among students and their peers, so many people attend university these days, and yet so many of them still struggle with all the feelings bought on by  their experience not meeting the expectation set up for them. There needs to be more candid and free discussion about every aspect of uni life”

If you feel like anything mentioned in this article is affecting you or someone you know, get in touch with your GP or your university’s counselling service, or have a look at the NHS student mental health page here.