Whether you’re a fresher or a final year student, university comes with a unique set of pressures and priorities. Living independently, managing your studies, budgeting, socialising and learning can take a toll. Whether you’ve got a mental health condition or you’re having a hard time adjusting to a new environment, here are our top tips for mental health self care at university.
1. Look after yourself
Not to sound too much like your mum but eating regularly and as healthily as possible (pot noodle three times a day doesn’t count as a balanced diet), can help in many ways – boosting your immune system, keeping energy levels up, stopping those horrible blood sugar highs and lows that can impact your moods.
We’re not going to pretend students don’t partake of the odd alcoholic beverage. But alcohol and illegal drugs can have a huge impact on mental health, especially if you already have a pre-existing condition. It’s not a good idea.
Exercise – it’s not a dirty word. Any sort of exercise, you don’t all have to be playing netball, on the rugby team or entering triathlons. No, just a brisk walk can help – perhaps with a friend, or joining the salsa society. It sounds trite but just some fresh air, a change of scenery and the endorphin boost might just help get you through that day when things are seeming overwhelming.
Finally, sleep – easier said than done, especially as lack of sleep can both be an indicator of mental health issues or trigger for them. But do try to get a regular eight hours sleep a night. If you struggle to drop off then practising mindfulness or meditation – or just unwinding with a good book or some music can help. If you’re really struggling though, consult your care plan or check in with the GP.
2. Check in with people
It’s easy, when you’re feeling low, to hole up in your room, tucked up in bed. To avoid other people and think they’re not interested and they don’t care – or you don’t want to bother them. That’s not the case. Hard as it may be, it’s good to try to reach out to others – go for a coffee, try a new society, have a study date, call your mum even! If you’ve stopped talking to your friends that can be an indication that something isn’t right. It can be difficult to trust new friends and new people, but if you’re not feeling right, try confiding in someone about how you’re doing – they might surprise you. If you can’t talk to your friends, reach out to an academic or residential tutor, or call a helpline; just a few words of support might get you through that time.
3. Have a care plan
What’s a care plan I hear you ask? A care plan is something written down – it doesn’t have to be long – of things that you can do to check in with yourself and what to do if things are getting difficult. These are usually set up if you’ve already had a mental health issue diagnosed. It might include things like what medication to take and how much, exercises that you might have been given by a therapist, noted triggers to watch out for, what to do if you are having self-harming impulses. It can also include lists of support contact details. If you don’t have a care plan but do have a mental health condition, it might be worth putting something together – perhaps involve your parents or therapist if you want.
4. Follow your care plan
It’s great having a care plan! Yay – support, medication, who to call if things get bad – all that kind of stuff. However, a care plan only works if you follow it. Trying to keep on top of triggers and medication and appointments – along with studying/working/socialising – might seem overwhelming at first, but once you get into a routine, it can provide a real safety net – and help catch you if things start to get unmanageable. Check in with yourself regularly, take a note of how you’re feeling. If there’s a problem, check on your care plan, who do you need to see/what do you need to do?
5. Find out where to get help
This one might sound obvious, but it’s best to plan ahead. Don’t wait until the work has piled up, your overdraft has gone crazy or you’re struggling to get out of bed to find out where you can get support – at that point it can be a battle just to get up and dressed. Instead, make sure you know where your GP surgery is, your chemist, any student support services and counselling helplines. Just a quick post it list pinned up in your room, listed on your phone or tucked away in a notebook can be a life-saver in times when even making a cup of tea is beyond you.
6. Ask for help
Really, it’s that simple. You haven’t failed or done anything wrong, you’re not letting anyone down. If you’re having negative thoughts, scary impulses or just finding things overwhelming, please do seek help. And that help can take many different forms – speaking to a friend, talking to your tutor, contacting student support services, calling home – whatever sets you off on that journey to being well again, it just takes one initial step.
Sometimes things get too much. For whatever reason. If you’re having thoughts around suicide or self-harm, or other negative impulses, please seek help. Check your care plan for those crucial contact details, or that list of numbers you made – can you call the student support helplines, or make an urgent appointment with the GP. If things are very serious, you can take yourself to A+E and ask for psychiatric help. Also don’t forget that you can always call The Samaritans on 116 123 (UK + ROI) – the number is free from any phone, any time.