Students are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems, with research showing that many people first experience mental health problems or first seek help when they are at university. Kathryn Rogers, a recent graduate of Durham University, explores how to look after your mental health as a student

UNIVERSITY is well-publicised to be the best years of your life and, in my experience, university was great. It opened so many opportunities for me that I would never have expected to be available, and I loved the new level of independence that moving away from home brought.

However, sometimes a student lifestyle can impact your mental health and, as someone who had already had a history of some mental health struggles, that is definitely something I experienced.

Moving away from home, or even just moving on from sixth form or college, can mean you’re thrown into a new environment.

That brings so many exciting possibilities, but it also means a lot of opportunities to notice instability. Your support systems change: you’re away from home and family or those who have supported you before; maybe you need to find a new team of professionals to help support your mental wellbeing; your friends are probably spread a little bit more widely across the country; and your academic work is at an intensity you’ve never experienced before.

One of the biggest things that has helped me is to know myself and what I need to function optimally: staying active, ensuring you get enough quality sleep (and knowing what that looks like for you) and eating well. Giving time to others really helped me too, but also being aware when this was just a distraction from anxiety I needed to address, and having something that I learned just for fun – from experience, rowing is a great option at Durham, but I’m sure there are plenty of others.

Durham University graduate Kathryn Rogers

Durham University graduate Kathryn Rogers

I also loved throwing myself into all aspects of college life and embracing the ready-formed community within my college – Hatfield. From sports to societies to events like formal dinners, balls and College Day, there is always something going on and it’s great to feel that sense of belonging within a community. I would definitely recommend trying things out and finding where you feel part of a community.

Keep on top of how you’re feeling. Sometimes you can get really carried away with term and lectures, working too late, socialising a little bit too much and so on, and you don’t prioritise the little things that help you to feel 100 per cent.

I tried to schedule in a little bit of time each week that is “me time”, for me to check in with myself, notice how I’m feeling and come up with a bit of a plan if anything isn’t as I’d like it. And I’d always have a list of things that take five to ten minutes but will instantly make me feel less overwhelmed.

Another thing that really helped me was recognising that being honest with friends if I was struggling was a really positive thing. I’d often kept my mental health as something private before university, but I quickly learned that good friends really want to help and they can’t help without knowing how or that you’re struggling.

Left, members of the Welfare Team at Hatfield College, Durham University. Above, Kathryn with a friend at Hatfield College, Durham University

Left, members of the Welfare Team at Hatfield College, Durham University. Above, Kathryn with a friend at Hatfield College, Durham University

Just make sure that you know that most effective management of mental wellbeing worries involves support from many areas and not just friends – have a plan for if they don’t feel able to help you at a given time.

My last piece of advice is to know and utilise the support services on offer. Durham as a university can be such a supportive place, probably down to its collegiate system, due to the sheer volume of different options you have for support. There’s support within colleges, both staff-led and student-led.

Being involved with Hatfield Welfare throughout my degree was really important to me as it enabled me to convert my experiences of mental health and student support into something really positive.

Working on awareness campaigns, holding drop-in sessions for students just like me to feel heard, and providing signposting to other services as appropriate really helped to contribute to a really accepting community and useful support system that operates within each college.

It’s also natural to have worries about reaching out, and different pathways are helpful for different people so there’s also support within your department too. And don’t forget your GP (and to register with one), the University Counselling Service and Disability Support.

Members of the Welfare Team at Hatfield College, Durham University

Members of the Welfare Team at Hatfield College, Durham University

Even though it’s hard and can take resilience, if you don’t feel like you’re getting the support you need then try to voice this even if it’s down a different support route.

University can be the best years of your life, but they can also be tough years, and everyone will face their own battles as they go through it. Make sure you look after yourself, put your wellbeing above your grades and any pressure to succeed, and seek help when you need it.