Going to university is a hugely exciting time: you'll meet new and interesting people, live independently, and no doubt have experiences that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
But making such a big move – may it be geographically or purely academically – can also be stressful.
As a university Head of Student Support, I’ve listened to many students who have told me about the difficulties they’ve faced adapting to life away from home. Fortunately, there are a few easy steps you can take to prepare yourself for and overcome these difficulties, whether you are worried about university or not.
It’s important to bear these steps in mind because ultimately, if high stress situations go unmanaged, they can sometimes develop and even lead to mental illness.
A useful place to start is preparation before you head off. It is helpful to know about the town, city or area you are going to before you arrive.
Work out where the centre of town is in relation to your accommodation and the university campus. Is it within walking distance? If not, it is a good idea to explore the public transport so you know what to expect ahead of arriving.
It’s also wise to register with a doctor’s surgery. Don’t wait until you’re ill - it’s no fun form-filling if you’re sat there feeling rough.
In addition to the local area, you can also explore what – and who – awaits you in your more immediate surroundings. When I went to university, the first time I met my flatmates was when I arrived. Nowadays, you can join social media groups, chat to second year students, find out who is in your halls and prepare for your course before you’ve even finished packing.
Technology is your friend here; spend time building networks, meeting like-minded people and finding out about support services the university offers. Once you have arrived, take a follow up tour and find out where those services are on campus.
If you can, keep active. Regular exercise can boost your self-esteem and help you concentrate, sleep better and feel better. Exercise keeps the brain and other vital organs healthy, and is a significant benefit to your mental health.
Exercise doesn’t have to be running miles and miles on a treadmill. Street dance, rock and roll class, self-defence and playing a recreational or competitive sport can give you a real buzz and keep you in shape.
Eating well and drinking sensibly are also important, as both can have a long lasting effect on mental health. Your brain needs a mixture of nutrients in order to stay healthy and function well.
A healthy diet should include different types of fruit and vegetable, wholegrain cereals or breads, nuts and seeds, some dairy, oily fish and plenty of water. Drink alcohol in moderation and not too often; excessive alcohol can have serious effects on your mental and physical health – not to mention the dent it will put in your finances!
You may also want share your skills more widely and do some volunteer work.
Most universities will offer students the opportunity to do this and it can make you feel valued, boost self-esteem and help you settle in to your new town or city. It may also enable you to see any problems you are facing from a different angle, or put them into perspective, and will look fantastic on your CV when it comes to applying for jobs.
As well as students taking it upon themselves to stay healthy, there is also a responsibility on universities to ensure the provision they are offering is adequate.
That means support services that are fit for purpose and meet the needs of their student body – not just a one-size-fits-all. Most services, such as the one here at the University of Bedfordshire, are strong and will include qualified counsellors and mental health advisors who are used to supporting students.
Students with mental illness may be entitled to additional support via the Disabled Students’ Allowance, so it’s important for university teams to understand the processes well, and do refresher courses when regulations change.
University should be a time of great excitement and a time of growth, both mentally and academically. But if you do feel down at any point, I would always suggest speaking to someone about what you’re feeling. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, just wait for the conversation to develop naturally; you’ll be amazed what a difference a friendly chat can make.
Ruki Heritage is Assistant Director of Student Experience and Head of Student Support at the University of Bedfordshire
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