Mental Health at University: 6 Tips on Self-Care

[Image description: Pencil and watercolour drawing - a person sitting in front of a desk rests their head against both hands. Their brain contains a swirl of pinks and yellows, with further swirls circulating the head. At the drawing’s bottom, the laptop cord spells out ‘UNI MENTAL HEALTH’.]
Article by: Amelia A J Foy
Art and Playlist by: Vivian Liao

I have recently completed my first year of university (college to those in the USA) and it was full of ups, downs, and new experiences. In all honesty, I can understand the hype around university as “the best years of your life” - you meet new people, have more freedom, narrow your subjects, and party. But if you’re not neurotypical (or if you don’t fit with campus culture), it can also be very, very difficult. Personally, my mental health took a knock for several reasons: I was in a different city while all my friends stayed back home in London; I’m working-class and queer and university is not; I’m socially anxious and living in accommodation with limited privacy didn’t help; my “High Achiever Mentality”, nurtured through high school, made my average grades this year feel like failures; and I have depression, and reached my worst point at uni.

But I got through it, and it’s important to recognize you will too - whether you’ve started uni/college or you’re about to. This isn’t meant to be discouraging: university was also a lot of fun, my course was very interesting, and I’ve made wonderful new friends. But you should know that if you suffer from mental illness(es) or low mental health that it is going to be difficult, and build up a defence for when it does.

Here are some tips I’ve compiled to help. Read till the end for a self-care playlist!

  1. Your Grades Probably Don’t Suck As Much As You Think
University work is not the same as high school work. If you were a high achiever in high school, you may be expecting to get high grades in uni, too - but getting a 55/100 in your first year is good. Getting a 65 at university is so good. Getting a 70 is amazing. Getting an 80 means you’re a literal super-genius. These are adjustments we have to come to terms with, and it can easily feel like you’re failing when you’re not if your mental health isn’t good: but I promise, you’re doing well, and self-doubt has nothing on you. Remind yourself this and try not to compare your grades to others. They aren’t you, they don’t deal with what you do mentally on top of the uni workload. Give yourself credit for even completing assignments. That’s a hard feat when you struggle to get out of bed in the morning.

  1. Join Societies
Maybe campus culture doesn’t fit with you - I know it didn’t for me. This is when societies and clubs come in handy, especially if you have social anxiety! Societies offer you spaces where you can meet like-minded people and offer you a topic to talk about, whether that’s Baking Society, Harry Potter Society or LGBT+ Society. Societies are an amazing way to make new friends if you feel lonely or isolated at university - and even if you don’t talk to anyone there, the events that societies hold will get you out of the library or your room and occupy your time.

  1. Keep In Touch With Old Friends - Not Just Through Text
For me, the move to university, living in accommodation surrounded by new, unfamiliar faces, in a new, unfamiliar environment, was very daunting. It was one of the things that gave me a lot of anxiety. By keeping up with your old school friends, you can ease this anxiety a little - it’ll make sure you’re still connected to other people even if you feel very disconnected where you physically are. Of course, the easiest form of communication in this situation is messaging. However, if you can, calling or Skyping your friends or family, even for a little while, might make you feel much better. It’ll keep you talking and stop you from closing up. Skyping my girlfriend and other friends is one of the things that got me through the first year of uni, even though calling people is quite difficult - don’t underestimate the power of a verbal chat!

  1. Keep Up Your Hobbies
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of setting time aside to do the things you love. For me, it was art: I don’t know what I’d have done if I didn’t set aside time each day to doodle or paint or sketch. Especially during the exam season, when it was sunny, drawing outside effectively kept me stable. It will be tempting to spend all day cooped up in your room revising, or in the library working on that one assignment that you just don’t get - but for at least 20 minutes of your day, do a hobby of yours, whether it’s art, sports, singing, or something completely different. It’ll help stop you from spiralling and becoming overwhelmed by giving you space to recharge, stopping uni from overtaking your life, or even becoming burnt-out.

  1. Seek Mental Health Help
You may feel reluctant to seek help at university for your mental health for whatever reason: maybe it’s daunting, or your previous experiences have put you off it, or you just don’t know where to go. Maybe, even, you feel okay at the moment and so you don’t see the point. Even if this is the case, I’d recommend finding out what resources are available as soon as you get accepted to university. As we all know, mental wellness fluctuates like the British weather - you need to be prepared for your very, very rainy days. At my campus, Student Services is where you find all available help at the university - from counselling, both online and face-to-face, to group yoga. However, don’t expect this to work miracles if you have a long-term mental illness or several. In my experience and the experiences of others I’ve heard from, these services aren’t really specialised enough to be a treatment, per say, for a mental health condition - but they can offer someone to talk to, get advice, and recommend places to go. Beyond campus services, you can register with your local GP (usually a university Medical Centre) and through them get long-term, more specialised help in the form of medication or therapy. Medication is something that allowed me to function at university, so I would recommend reviewing your options with a GP. Bear in mind that mental health services are more-often-than-not not going to be what you expected, and sometimes will be very dismissive - but there are good GPs, counsellors and therapists out there. Be persistent and assertive!

  1. You Don’t Have To Drink
University campus culture is very alcohol-enthused - everyone knows that. For those of us who aren’t neurotypical, this could be both a good and a bad thing. For example, drinking can ease social anxiety, helping you to socialise and enjoy your night; on the other hand, you can’t drink on many, many antidepressants, and alcohol itself is a depressant, so not great if you’re already depressed. This isn’t exactly something you can bring up in a room of people encouraging you to join their drinking game, and going clubbing sober is an anxiety nightmare. (Note here that I am speaking from my experiences with anxiety and depression - alcohol will react differently to different mental illnesses, and more generally has a different effect person-to-person, so please do your own research!) Look for alcohol-free events, or events where alcohol is optional, if you are for whatever reason nervous about drinking, or can’t drink. Believe it or not, they exist at uni, and there are other people like you organising them! Always prioritise what is good for you in these situations - not what the peer pressure wants of you. You can’t hold yourself to neurotypical social standards if you aren’t neurotypical, and shouldn’t have to.

Self-Care Playlist
[Image description: Ink drawing - a person rests cross-legged atop a bed. They are contemplative and relaxed. Fairy-like wings extend behind them while a hot drink sits before them.]

soco amaretto lime - brand new
tender- blur
heaven knows i'm miserable now - the smiths
they say that everything’s alright - the zeroes
september - earth wind & fire
everyday is like sunday - morrissey
feel good inc- gorillaz