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Dealing with depression at university

While moving to university has always meant a period of adjustment, more students than ever are struggling at university, particularly with depression

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It’s normal to have ups and downs in life. And uni brings its own challenges, with students juggling studies, part-time jobs, internships, relationships – and more – all in new surroundings, away from their network of family and friends back home.

But depression is different, defined by the NHS as a persistent low mood that lasts for at least two weeks.

The number of young people experiencing mental illness is on the rise. One in five 16-to-24-year-olds reported a mental health problem in 2017 (source: Institute for Public Policy Research).

One in five university students had a mental health diagnosis, with depression being the most common condition (source: University Student Mental Health Survey 2018, published by The Insight Network). 

Mild depression can make everyday routines – like going to lectures and socialising – a struggle, but severe cases can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
 

Why students become depressed

What affects one person won't necessarily affect someone else in the same way. Biological factors, such as brain chemistry or genetics, and past experiences can all play a part, which makes mental health a complicated and personal matter.

This can be aggravated by social media, where it's all too easy to slip into comparing yourself against others. And when we're browsing the likes of Snapchat or Instagram for two hours and 22 minutes on average each day (source: Globalwebindex), the steady flood of status updates and filtered photos might come at a price: social media use has been linked to sleep disturbances, and feelings of isolation and inadequacy in some young people. 

Meanwhile, two thirds of students worry about their finances ‘all the time or very often' (source: National Union of Students Insight, on behalf of Future Finance). Around a third of students surveyed by Which? University in 2018 said that money issues had negatively affected their mental health.

But money and social media aren’t the only triggers for student depression. ProtectED found that a quarter of students ‘always or often’ felt depressed, citing the following top five causes of their depression:
  • social pressures and fitting in
  • personal, family or relationship problems
  • balancing study with other commitments
  • loneliness
  • coursework deadlines.

These social and academic concerns reflect some of the experiences students have shared with us. University of Keele student Sophie was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety:
My biggest reason for worrying was being unable to complete assignments to a high quality because life had pitched me a curveball.

While Ellie, a student at Cardiff Universityrecalls:
I was extremely homesick during my first few weeks at university. It’s only when you have a moment to yourself that the weight and reality of the situation really hits you.

Which? University's student survey in 2019 found that over half of students had struggled with loneliess at university see the full list below:
 

How depression can affect students

Students Against Depression (SAD) highlights that depression can cause:
  • poor concentration
  • memory loss
  • sleep disturbances 
  • low confidence. 

Mental health issues such as depression can also affect students differently over time. Below are two key moments when students may feel overwhelmed:
 

1. Busy periods on your course

The symptoms of depression can be particularly difficult to manage. Some people can be triggered when the demands of their course increase, such as leading up to and during assessments. Second-year and third-year students reported the highest rates of anxiety, loneliness, substance misuse, and thoughts of self-harm (source: University Student Mental Health Survey 2018). 

Sophie emphasises the importance of speaking to your university, whenever you begin to struggle: 
Keele Student support notified my tutors and lecturers that I may be absent from seminars and lectures due to health issues so they wouldn’t question me when I emailed in. This was particularly helpful when my anxiety presented itself in second year and communicating became difficult.

A University of Surrey student said they turned to the university’s dedicated support services when struggling with exam preparation: 
What I found most useful were the counselling and stress-relieving sessions.

Watch now: How to revise for exams


Check out our full revision and exam advice area.
 

2. Missing home

Ellie’s experience above is common: the National Union of Students (NUS) says that 50-70% of new students feel homesick at some point, with symptoms being self-doubt, difficulty sleeping and frequent crying.

This passes for most students, as Ellie found: 
I found that the best cure was to keep myself busy and to make regular calls to my parents. Although it won’t feel like it at the time, you will eventually settle in at your own pace.

Cardiff University’s #LetsShare campaign encourages students to speak out if they are struggling and lets them know where to get help:


Don't lose touch with friends from home  here are five fun ways to stay connected
 

But remember….

Everyone’s mental health fluctuates and can be impacted negatively by circumstances we can all face, such as stress, heartbreak and bereavement. 

Natasha Devon MBE, a writer and campaigner who was formerly a government mental health champion, says:
While a dip in your mental health might temporarily impair your ability to function, it won’t necessarily lead to a mental illness.

However, if a dip in mental health continues for a long period of time, or has no outlet, then it may lead to symptoms of mental illness. For example, long-term stress can lead to panic attacks and irrational fear of everyday events, both of which are symptoms of anxiety disorder.

You may have had a period where it seems impossible that things will ever feel 'right' or 'OK'. The key thing is to seek support if things do persist...
 

What to do if you're depressed at university

Current students

Understanding the possible trigger points for mental ill health at university helps you realise that other students have experienced and overcome these feelings. 

You’ll also be better prepared for these situations and able to seek help early, if needed. 

Lisa Banks, director of student services at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), says:

I would encourage every student to ask for help as soon as they think they might need it. Don’t wait until you feel really bad. Good mental health is such an important part of successful studies.

Lily Green, vice president for welfare at the UCLan students' union, observes that there is a huge pressure for students to be 'perfect', and to have an 'all rounder CV'. She urges you to find out what independent support is also available at your students' union: 
Experts within the union can offer advice and information on how to get support for a range of issues impacting student wellbeing. We also know that it is important to have an open and frank conversation so that students understand how information is shared and received: we do not share information without their consent.

Telephone and online services are also available if you don’t want to speak to someone face to face. Many universities run a confidential, student-run Nightline phone service, while others – like the University of Reading – have launched a free online mental health service for students.

Lisa Banks tells us that at UCLan:
There is a range of support from online communities such as Big White Wall. We have regular student drop-ins where you can just come for a chat and specialist staff such as Mental Health, Wellbeing and Financial Advisors and Counsellors, all of whom are used to working with our student population and will really listen to your needs.

Learn more about mental health services available for students.
 

Prospective students

There are a few things you can do if you're going to uni with an existing mental health condition. Knowing in advance how the things above might exasperate how you feel along with what support is available to you, can make a positive difference. This way, if a problem does arise it's less of a shock (and asking for help might feel a little less daunting).

Support varies between universities, so it’s important to ask about these services at open days and find out what might work for you.

Alternatively, if you feel self-conscious about talking about this openly, get in touch with a university you're considering applying to via email, online chat or over the phone. A staff member will be able to tell you more and answer any questions you have.

When you arrive in freshers' week, support services should be signposted to you too at freshers' fairs, orientation sessions, social events and similar events. So make a note of what's available.

Remember to register with a GP when you start university too, so there are fewer barriers if you need advice for any health issues, mental or physical.

You can also consider living at home and going to a university that is nearby.

Learn more about a university, including student comments, satisfaction scores and graduate stats search now


Knowing that this support exists on campus can be comforting and save you time searching for it later.

Emily, a recent Plymouth Marjon University graduate, explains why it's so important to use these services if you need them:
Really, to me, the most important thing to make sure you’re doing while at uni is to take care of your mental health. If you can do that properly, then everything else can fall into place.

Check out our full guide to student mental health and wellbeing, including warning signs to spot, free services and support, and more.



Lucy Winrow, ProtectED

About Lucy

Which? University provides guest spots to external contributors. Lucy Winrow is a researcher who works with academics at the University of Salford on the ProtectED project, a new accreditation scheme assessing university support services.

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