How to Support University Students’ Mental Health

April 23, 2024
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University Mental Health Day is an annual event which last took place on the 14th March 2024. The day is jointly organised by Student Minds and University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN), with the purpose of encouraging staff and students to increase awareness of university students’ mental health and promote their wellbeing.

Far too often, students struggle in silence and don’t access the support they need. Whether you are university staff, Students’ Union staff or a student, you should know how to recognise the signs of someone who may be struggling with their mental health and what you can do to help. Encouraging discussions and advocating for more support for students will help to break the ongoing stigma surrounding mental health.

university seminar

What is Mental Health for Students?

Mental health issues are a widespread problem across all universities and all student bodies. The transition to university is often the first big change that students experience and can be challenging for individuals to adjust to. In 2022, 57% of respondents (students) self-reported a mental health issue during a survey by the mental health charity Student Minds. Of which, only 24% of students reported having a diagnosed mental health condition.

It’s important that you understand the difference between good or poor mental health and mental health conditions or problems, as the two are often confused. Everybody has mental health, whether it be good or bad, but not everyone has a mental health condition. The Mental Health Foundation defines mental health as “how we’re feeling inside, or how we are emotionally” and refers to it as our internal weather. Our mental health changes depending on what we experience and how we react to things. On the other hand, someone with a mental health condition, such as social anxiety, experiences symptoms of the condition in the longer term. This article covers supporting students who are struggling with their mental health, which may mean they are currently experiencing poor mental health or have a mental health condition.
If you want to learn more about mental health, take a look at our articles What are the Different Types of Mental Health? and Mental Health Myths vs Facts: What are the Realities?.

Causes of Mental Health Issues in Students

University students are at high risk of experiencing poor mental health. While university can be an incredibly rewarding and fun experience, it often comes with an extensive amount of stress, pressure and intrusive emotions. Additionally, these pressures come in many different forms, as we explain below.

Moving Away from Home

Whilst not all students move away from their family home for university, the majority move to different cities that can be miles away. For many, this will be their first time living away from home, which can bring a whole range of emotions such as homesickness and loneliness. Furthermore, students often move into accommodation with people they’ve never met before, which can carry a heightened feeling of worry. Students have to quickly learn how to live independently, make new friends and navigate university life.

Academic Pressure

When they start their degrees, students face the daunting prospect that they will be studying this subject for the next few years. Some students also find that their course is different from their expectations. Furthermore, although students are used to exams, deadlines and expectations, the intensity of university can still come as a shock. Students are asked to learn independently and think originally, which can differ from previous studies.

However, this isn’t only true for first year students. The building workload as students near the end of their studies further enhances feelings of stress and the pressure to perform well academically. Students also have to consider what they will do after graduation and begin applying for jobs, all in the midst of their final year studies.

Financial Pressure

With tuition fees, accommodation costs and the cost of living adding up, university can be very expensive. On top of academic and social pressures, trying to budget and arrange finances only adds to the growing amount of pressure. Some students may not be used to having to budget or live more frugally and find it difficult to know where to start. For some, the current cost of living crisis is making it challenging to manage and changing their university experience.

Social Pressure

Students are always being told that ‘university is the best time of your life’. For many people this will ring true, but for others it adds another level of pressure that they must enjoy themselves and have a great time. Moreover, students may feel pressured to attend all social events to try and make friends or because they feel pressured by their friends, even if these activities aren’t what they enjoy doing.

Making Friends

Often, students go to university not knowing anybody. This means that they have to juggle trying to make friends with other types of pressure. They may feel lonely and isolated as they try to settle in. 
For some, all this change can be difficult to adjust to. Some students may develop a lifestyle which isn’t good for their mental health, such as drinking alcohol more frequently or not eating a healthy, balanced diet. These factors, and others, can increase the risk of students developing poor mental health. An individual may experience a combination of signs and symptoms, or just one aspect can have a significant impact on their mental health.

upset student

The Effects of Poor Mental Health

Poor mental health and mental health conditions can be incredibly damaging, isolating and difficult to deal with. At university, the effects on a student may include:

  • A disruption to their ability to live a normal life.
  • An inability to make friends.
  • Lower grades.
  • Being left out of activities or not being invited.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Sleeping problems.
  • Missed lectures, seminars, tutorials, etc.
  • Missing deadlines.
  • Dropping out of university altogether.

The effects of mental health on student learning are profound, with a strong relationship between mental health and academic performance. Students who experience poor mental health, and particularly those with mental health conditions which aren’t managed, can suffer academically.

demotivated student

Spotting the Signs of Mental Health Issues

With over half of students self-reporting a mental health issue, it can be assumed that the majority of students will experience poor mental health at some point during their studies. We all have a responsibility to look out for the mental wellbeing of students. 

University staff must be able to recognise when students are displaying signs that they may be struggling, and know what support to give or signpost them towards. Meanwhile, students can be in a good position to identify if their friends or peers may be struggling with their mental health. They should understand what support to suggest and what else they can do to offer help.

The following are some of the signs and symptoms that a student struggling with their mental health may display: 

  • A noticeable change in behaviour.
  • Absence from or lateness to lectures, seminars, personal tutor meetings and other university sessions.
  • A sudden drop in grades and/or the quality of work submitted, or missing deadlines to complete tasks.
  • Seeming sad or having a persistent low mood.
  • Irritability.
  • Aggression.
  • Forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating.
  • Becoming withdrawn and isolated.
  • Disengaging from seminar discussions.
  • Neglect of personal care.
  • Loss of interest and lack of enthusiasm for the day-to-day or things they previously enjoyed.
  • Lacking energy, or displaying an excess of energy.
  • Displaying feelings of low self-esteem.
  • Eating too much or not enough.
  • Sleeping too much or not enough.
  • Drinking more.

Someone struggling with their mental health may exhibit other signs, including physical ones such as persistent headaches or digestive problems. The signs listed here may indicate something else and not result from poor mental health.

How to Improve & Support University Students’ Mental Health

As we’ve seen, mental health problems are widespread and can have many damaging effects on students. If you’re a personal tutor, or work directly with students, you play a vital role in supporting students with mental health problems. If you’re a student yourself, you can offer support to your friends, and know how to improve your own mental health or seek help if required.

Here, we explain how you can improve and support university students’ mental health. Their relevance will depend on whether you are university staff, Students’ Union staff or a student.

Encourage Conversations About Mental Health

Unfortunately, there remains a stigma around mental health, particularly when it comes to men. Annual figures released by NHS Digital show that only 26% of referrals to NHS talking therapies for conditions such as anxiety and depression were for men in 2020/21 (England). Student Minds found that male students reported finding it hard to open up about their mental health due to a lack of knowledge, feelings of isolation or the impact of gender stereotypes. This often means they are less likely to discuss or seek support for their mental health. Students should be encouraged to reach out if they are struggling with their mental health, knowing they will get the support and help they need by doing so. 

Students’ Unions should speak about the importance of recognising and managing mental health problems and encourage students to do the same. They should spread awareness about how to recognise when someone may be struggling with their mental health and give them the knowledge to understand what support students can access.

Personal tutors should arrange to meet up with their students at the start of a new semester and during it. That way, they can ask how things are going as the student’s studies progress.

Starting a conversation about someone’s mental health is a crucial first step to help them, but it can often be difficult to know what to say. If you have identified changes in a student and are concerned about their wellbeing it’s important to address this. 

Tutors must ensure that students know they can reach out to talk to them about any work and personal issues. Students should feel comfortable to do so and reassured that it’s part of their tutor’s role to offer this type of support. Tutors should enable this ease by establishing a clear and easy way for students to talk to them, such as having an open-door policy.

However, they must never push a student to talk to them or disclose more than they are comfortable with doing. Personal tutors must be appropriately training to recognise what they can offer their students in terms of guidance or signposting them to support.

If you are a member of university staff and need to initiate a conversation about your concerns for a student’s mental health, the Mental Health Foundation offer the following tips: 

  • Set a space and time that has no distractions.
  • Allow them to share as much or as little information as they want to. You shouldn’t push a student to talk about something they don’t want to discuss.
  • Don’t try to diagnose them. Although you want to help, you aren’t a trained counsellor or medical expert. Don’t make assumptions or jump in with your own diagnosis.
  • Keep your language neutral and ask open ended questions. For example ‘How are you feeling?’
  • Discuss some activities that encourage positive wellbeing, such as taking a break, exercising and calming activities like meditation.
  • Listen carefully to what they have to say. Show that you are understanding and let them know you respect their feelings.
  • Ask if they want your support in getting help. For example, if they want you to discuss their situation with their parents.
  • Know your limits. Whilst talking is a great way to help, there is only so much help you can offer. If you think they need help beyond your means, encourage them to seek professional help, such as from the university’s counselling service.

Whilst you should talk to students and offer your help, you may not be trained to deal with certain types of difficulties. In these situations, you should recommend that they speak to the university counselling service or other support that’s available at your university. Ensure that you offer your support throughout this process and, if appropriate, ask them how they’re getting on.

Students also play a key role in improving and supporting the mental health of students through open conversations. Talking about good and bad mental health and different mental health conditions will encourage others to do the same. This can make people feel as though they aren’t alone in their struggle and makes them aware that there is help available. It can also increase awareness of some of the risk factors for poor mental health and encourage people to acknowledge this and possibly make lifestyle changes to better their overall wellbeing.

Have a look at our article How to Talk About Mental Health for further advice about having a conversation with someone about their mental health.

Make Access to Resources and Support Easy

The Students’ Union staff team also plays an important part in supporting students experiencing poor mental health by signposting them towards services that are available. This includes ensuring that students and staff have an understanding of what help is available and how to access it. There must be clear processes in place to enable students to receive the support they require in a timely manner. The necessary people must understand what these processes are and know how to follow them; for example, personal tutors must know when to signpost students to alternative services and what form these take.

Examples of student mental health resources and services which may be available to support someone who is struggling include:

  • A university-run disability service to give support to students to manage a physical or mental health problem.
  • A free university-run counselling service. 
  • Guidance from the Students’ Union’s welfare team.
  • An academic contact to give support and advice about the student’s studies.
  • Peer support groups on campus.
  • Support to see a GP.
  • External charities and organisations.

Mental health charities and organisations including the University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN), Student Minds, Mind, Students Against Depression, Nightline, Young Minds and Samaritans have published useful guidance and resources which you can access. Many of these offer mental health support services for struggling students who reach out.

Be Open and Flexible

If you are an academic tutor, you must understand how you are expected to support your students with their mental health. It’s important that you are flexible, where appropriate. For example, if you are aware of a student who is struggling to manage their workload and their mental health, it may be appropriate to offer extensions on certain pieces of work or mitigating circumstances. Remember that every student is different and you must consider this on a student-by-student basis.

You should also offer as much academic support to students as possible. If students feel fully prepared to do their work, you will ease some of their academic pressure. Ensure that your students know they can come to you with queries and questions.

Promote Understanding of Mental Health

Finally, to improve and support university students’ mental health, there needs to be a clear understanding of mental health and what can make someone’s mental health worse. Students’ Unions in particular play an important part in ensuring there is knowledge of mental health university-wide. This means students and staff knowing what can improve poor mental health and what can help to prevent it. 

This must be delivered in a sensitive manner, acknowledging that many diagnosed mental health conditions can be managed rather than cured and can’t be avoided. However, there are strategies which can be implemented to help improve someone’s short-term poor mental health. It’s important to note that some of these strategies won’t be effective for some individuals, as what works well for one person may not for another.

Students’ Unions may choose to produce resources on how to improve mental health with the following suggestions: 

  • Mindfulness. 
  • Exercise, such as running, swimming or yoga.
  • Breathing exercises.
  • A balanced diet. 
  • Seek support.
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Want to Learn More?

We have created additional resources which you can use to help improve students’ mental health. Our Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health article explains how exercise can be used to improve mental health, while Reading and Mental Health: What are the Benefits? covers the positive impact reading can have on mental health. If stress is causing poor mental health, Stress Management Activities to Try at Home may help students to identify the causes of their stress and learn how to manage it.

students writing

Mental health problems can be isolating, damaging and incredibly difficult to deal with. At university, these problems can either begin or escalate. Universities have a responsibility to increase awareness and discussions of mental health and ensure students have access to the support and services they need. Whether you work as a university lecturer, personal tutor, at the Students’ Union or are a student yourself, you play an important role in supporting the mental health of university students.