Going to university is a time of great transition. And while those first moments at university can be very exciting, transitions are also times when young people face an increased risk of mental health difficulties. We also know that the years between 16 and 25 are when people are most likely to experience mental health difficulties for the first time.
Students have always experienced pressures, such as worries about their finances, including housing costs and managing the cost of living. They also need to get used to a different type of learning than at school.
Plus, they are also leaving behind all their existing social support, the teachers, friends and family that are typically protective for young people’s mental health.
There are specific points in students’ lives when there can be additional pressures. These might occur a few weeks into term when people start to feel homesick, when they move into new accommodation with different people or transition out of university into work. Even going home for Christmas can be difficult because students quickly become used to expressing their own identity and living independently.
The effect of all this on mental health led to the founding of the charity Student Minds in 2009. Today Student Minds works across the UK. It aims to empower students and members of the university community to develop the knowledge, confidence and skills to look after their own mental health, support others and create change. We train students and staff in universities across the UK to deliver student-led peer support interventions as well as research-driven campaigns and workshops.
When the pandemic hit, we started thinking about what emerging needs and pressures might be experienced by students.
Results day, the clearing process and the move away from home already create nervousness among undergraduates, and this year’s predicted grades system will add to an already tricky period for young people. Many students have lost their part-time jobs due to coronavirus and a recent National Union of Students survey found that 80% of students are worried how they will manage financially.
Universities have been sharing with students how they will be blending online and on-site learning but even so, for some young people, the uncertainty as to how this will work in reality might be hard to deal with. And socially-distanced socialising may seem daunting.
Particular groups of students face additional pressures. These could be healthcare students who have been working on the frontline and international students who may feel isolated far from home. We think it’s vital that there is also targeted support provided for those from BAME backgrounds, students with less financial backing, LGBTQ+ and disabled students.
Some students will also be experiencing the same ongoing health worries and struggles around coronavirus that many people are facing right now.
To help, Student Minds has just been allocated £3million to put together a new package of help for students in the form of Student Space. This newly launched website is designed to be a free, easily accessible, non-judgemental online port of call which has been specifically designed to support students during the pandemic.
But it’s not just for pandemic-related anxieties. Any student who feels overwhelmed for any reason, who faces learning or relationship problems or has experienced bereavement will be able to access confidential therapeutic support. This will be available through a phone helpline and a text service.
Student Space will also contain trusted mental health information and resources, including a directory of local university services in England and Wales. These include mental health and counselling support and independent advice around issues such as housing and finances.
While this information has been available in the past, negotiating it could be confusing. We’ve provided a comprehensive directory with all the information in the same place for the first time, which should make life easier. We’ll also be listening to students and creating new content over the next six months that reflects their needs.
Most students are probably experiencing mixed feelings right now. They’ll probably feel excitement because this is an opportunity to make new friends and connect with other people to learn different things. But they also know that their university experience might be different. However, it’s important to realise that his new way of doing things won’t be forever, and it needn’t be a disaster.
Students at school and at university have already dealt amazingly well with the shifts they’ve experienced during the pandemic. They have learned from their experiences and adapted to the new normal. For many, this has created a good foundation for dealing with the natural ups and downs of university life.
At Student Minds, we frequently see that in the face of adversity, young people do incredibly well. They draw on positive strategies for how to manage uncertainties and change.
But it’s important to say to them that if things do feel hard, and if they are struggling to adjust, it’s OK to reach out to get support. In fact, the ability to ask for help is really a sign of strength. I want to normalise the fact that all of us will need some assistance, especially at times of significant changes in our lives.
We want to do everything we can to help students create memories and skills that will last a lifetime.
How parents can help
One of the best things you can do for your children is to listen in a non-judgmental way. Ask open questions such as ‘how are you feeling about preparing for uni?’ and allow them to talk.
You don’t necessarily have to have all the answers. Just by giving someone the space to be heard, they can work through many of their worries and problems independently.
Educate yourself about the practical help available to your child at university. Student Space can help with this.
If you are struggling to cope with a child’s mental health issues, reach out for support yourself. Speak to friends and family or a professional counsellor.
Respect the fact that your children are now adults. What they want might be at odds with what you think they need. You can support them in finding their own path.
It’s OK if your child doesn’t want to speak to you about everything. Let them know where they can get support outside the family, such as via Student Space.
Rosie Tressler OBE is CEO of mental health charity Student Minds