When the going gets tough

There is plenty of support if you need it

If anyone tells you university or college was the best time of their life, they're probably lying - or their memory is selective. Not that you won't be happy, just don't expect pure unadulterated fun in the first few weeks. Freshers' weeks tend to ooze fake bravado, and colourful personalities float to the top leaving the majority of more reserved students feeling like also-rans.

Homesick, lovesick, sick of study, scared of failure, socially anxious, laden with debt - the list of potential student ills is lengthy - but certainly not insurmountable.

"It's not an easy transition to make from home. You're terrified of looking a fool by asking for help," says Dr Annie Grant, director of the educational development and support centre at the University of Leicester. Research shows between 50 to 70 per cent of new students suffer some degree of homesickness early on, so the person next to you looking as if he or she is coping admirably probably isn't.

Fortunately, universities and colleges are wise to the pressures on today's students, and have set up a safety net of welfare, academic support, financial guidance, peer-to-peer and professional counselling designed to rescue the most forlorn of fledgling students.

Don't soldier on regardless through the first few weeks - that's the time you need help the most, says Dr Grant. "The longer you leave it, the more difficult it becomes," she says. "Never think staff can't be bothered with you."

Assume your institution has the following: a student union welfare officer, a personal tutor system, and a dedicated counselling service. Additionally, halls of residence may have student wardens, institutions may run "buddy" systems where older students are assigned a first year, and more often than not, departmental secretaries can be unexpected mines of information and sympathetic listeners. Many institutions also offer study centres to advise on the likes of taking notes in lectures and exam revision. Financial planning and support is often available too.

Where you go for help depends upon your specific problem, but your personal tutor is a good first port of call, and can point you in the right direction for more specialised help. Or you can contact the counselling service directly - some establishments run drop-in clinics. Great emphasis is placed on confidentiality. Expect an initial assessment and direction to further help - either further counselling - most commonly a series of six or so weekly sessions.

"Counsellors work by talking and encouraging you to find your own solutions," says the Association for University and College Counselling.

There are recommended ways of bonding with peers or reviving flagging spirits. "Lectures are OK for meeting people but they tend to be large and impersonal," says Dr Grant. "Find ways of being in a smaller group of students. Everybody says this, but it really does help to get involved in activities and clubs."

Don't ignore outside sources of help - helplines and centres such as the Samaritans or the student-run service Nightline.

"They understand many of the pressures of student life," says Ellie McRonald, co-ordinator of Leeds Nightline. "This can often mean it's easier to talk to a Nightliner rather than a personal tutor." Volunteers don't dole out advice, but are patient listeners. They also provide information - from library opening hours to taxi numbers.

WHERE TO FIND HELP

WITHIN UNIVERSITIES AND COLLEGES

University and college prospectuses, websites and fresher information will give details of university counselling services, GPs and health centres.

PERSONAL TUTORS: good first port of call for general and study anxieties.

STUDENT UNION: a welfare officer can listen and give information and advice.

Many institutions run support and financial advice centres.

USEFUL WEBSITES

www.studentcounselling.org
Advice, links and contacts to counselling services.

www.nightline.niss.ac.uk
Local student-run night-time listening and information services.

www.studenthealth.co.uk
See advice section on anxiety.

www.samaritans.org.uk, 0345 909090
The Samaritans provide emotional support and listening service.

www.mhf.org.uk
Leading charity, the mental health foundation - advice on where to find help and identifying problems.

www.stressbusting.co.uk
Practical advice on dealing with stress.

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