Looking after your mental health at university
Help and advice
University is exciting, but it can challenge your mental health too.
Having good mental health means you can cope with daily life and manage your stress. Taking care of your mental wellbeing is for everyone, whether you've ever experienced mental health issues or not.
Looking after your mental health at university will help you to perform at your best during your studies. Read our tips below to find out how to take care of yourself at university.
What is mental health and why is it important?
Mental health refers to your emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Your mental health can impact your thoughts, feelings, relationships, physical health, and ability to enjoy life and cope with stress. Your wellbeing impacts how you feel day to day, how you make decisions, and how you respond to situations.
Someone with good mental health can:
- recognise and meet their potential
- cope with the stresses of daily life
- work successfully at jobs and hobbies
- contribute to their community
Most people experience mental health issues at some point in their lives. Mental health problems can affect anyone at any age and from any background, and are common in times of stress or change.
Going to university involves making a lot of changes so it's important to monitor your mental health and build a strong support network so you can look after yourself during your degree. Staying healthy yourself will help you perform your best at uni.
To read more about mental health, visit the World Health Organization website.
Helping your mental health
There are lots of steps you can take to support your wellbeing and stay mentally fit and healthy – such as making daily lifestyle changes, changing unhealthy situations or accessing professional services.
The techniques below are available to you whether you want to improve your general wellbeing, are beginning to experience mental health difficulties, or have been diagnosed with a condition. You can work on these on your own or with a friend.
Create time and space for your mental wellbeing
We all lead busy, fast-paced lives and have lots of commitments – so it's easy to let our mental health slip down our priorities.
Schedule time each day to focus on your mental wellbeing. This could mean 10 minutes of stretching before breakfast, some time reading in the afternoon, a midday walk, or something else. Consider keeping a journal and writing down what you've done each day to look after yourself so you can see what works well for you.
This time is for you. You aren't trying to live up to anyone's expectations – if you want to spend your time dancing in your room to pop music, or drawing quietly in a coffee shop, it's up to you. You can tell someone how you spent your time or you can keep it to yourself.
Activities you can do to support your wellbeing:
- Take a break – relax at home, visit the park, walk along the beach, or take a break wherever you feel comfortable
- Do an activity you enjoy – listen to music, read a book, bake, get creative, or something else
- Do some exercise – dance in your house, go for a run, take up a sport or try swimming
- Speak to a friend or family member – discuss a new TV show you've found, an upcoming event, or something funny you've read
- Meditate – sit comfortably, close your eyes and focus on your breathing as you empty your mind or think through a problem
- Keep a journal or diary – track your mood, activities, and thoughts by writing them down
- Spend some time alone – take some time to recharge and take a break from other people
Be kind to yourself
Like physical health, mental wellbeing needs attention. Good mental health needs maintaining.
Even if your mental health is generally good you may struggle sometimes. You could be dealing with stress, loss, or something else – or you could just feel low. It's okay if your mental health dips and you need support. Take the time to look after yourself and reach out if you need it, and spend some time figuring our what works for you.
Allow yourself to work through the low days and forgive yourself if you slip up or don't meet your expectations.
Challenge your thinking
Being aware of negative thoughts and challenging them can have a positive impact on your mental health. If you often think negatively about situations or yourself, take some time to evaluate your thoughts.
Take 5 minutes. Examine your thoughts. Reframe negative ones.
Take 5 minutes. Examine your thoughts. Reframe negative ones.
It's hard to look at your thoughts objectively when you're feeling stressed or upset. Take a deep breath and step away from stressful situations to give you the space to do this.
Choose one thought to explore. If you often think "I'll never finish my degree", try to figure out why you think that. Understanding your worries can help you challenge them and explore ways to cope with stress.
Questions to ask yourself about negative thoughts:
- Do I believe this?
- Is it true?
- What happens if it is true?
- Why do I think this?
- Can I change this?
- What would I say to a friend if they said this?
Once you know why you feel a certain way, you may be able to change your situation.
If you're struggling to sort through your thoughts, consider writing them down. Keeping a diary or journal can help you get on to of your thoughts and figure out what works for you. You could also speak to someone you trust.
Change your daily habits
Small changes to your daily lifestyle can have a big impact on your mental and physical wellbeing.
Small changes you can make today include:
- getting up earlier
- eating healthier – commit to one more home cooked meal a week
- taking a short daily walk
- turning off your electronic devices an hour before you go to bed
- limiting your time on social media
- setting 10 minutes aside to write in a journal or diary every day
- starting a new hobby
- learning something new – a language, craft skill, or a podcast are great places to start
- drinking less alcohol
- giving up smoking
Look after your physical health
Your physical health affects your mental wellbeing. Learning to take care of your body as well as your mind is important.
Staying active and exercising regularly helps boost your mental health, mood, and concentration. Make sure to take care of your physical wellbeing as well as your mental health.
Tips for looking after your physical health:
- Eat healthily – enjoy fruit snacks and home cooked meals in place of takeaways and sugary snacks. Invite friends over and cook a meal together. Choosing the right foods will help boost your mood and energy, and even help you sleep. Start the day with a good breakfast and eat regularly throughout the day.
- Drink plenty of water – water will help refresh and hydrate you throughout they day while drinks high in caffeine or alcohol won't. Monitor your drinks on a night out to make sure you stick to your limits, and drink water before you go to sleep.
- Sleep well – try to get at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. This could mean going to bed earlier, turning off your phone overnight, or developing an evening routine. Try not to eat right before you go to bed, as this could wake your body up rather than relaxing.
- Exercise and stay active – exercise is good for short term stress relief as well as your long term wellbeing. Think about joining a society for a regular activity with some new people.
- Get outside – go for a walk alone or with a friend to get some fresh air, reconnect with nature and take a break from your home or the library.
You can help combat symptoms of mental health issues – like losing motivation to do things or feeling helpless – by making plans.
Plan things to look forward to – either for yourself or with friends – and follow through on them. Use these plans to reward yourself for handing in some work, completing revision, or whatever feels right for you. Sticking to plans gives you control over your time.
Planning your studies and keeping up with your revision can reduce your stress during exam season and around deadlines. Write a study schedule and stick to it. Learn how to build a revision timetable or read more about time management and study skills.
You could also write a daily to-do list, and cross items off when you complete them and look back at your list at the end of the day to see how much you've achieved. Don't worry if you don't cross everything off it – your list is simply a tool to motivate you, and help you identify if you're putting something off.
Connect with others
Speaking to friends and family you trust – and sharing with them how you feel – can help reduce anxiety and stress.
You might feel pressure to take care of your mental health alone, but you don't have to. Support from friends and family can help. Make time to spend with friends, family and loves ones – this could be a visit or trip away, a text message, or a phone call.
If you're struggling, reach out to someone you're close to and speak to them about how you're feeling. Tell them about what helps when you're having a bad day, if you can.
Consider mapping out your support network so you always know who you can reach out to. Your map can include close friends, family, professional support, university study support, and more.
Build relationships by connecting with others. Try starting a conversation with someone on your course – most people are welcoming and friendly. If you're nervous about getting to know new people, they probably are too.
Looking out for others
Positive relationships can help people through hard times and support their mental health, but you might not know how to help at first.
If you think someone you know is struggling, create an environment where they can speak to you about it.
Maybe they've already reached out to you about some issues, or maybe you want to open the channel and let them know you're here for them. Invite them to talk to you one-on-one, somewhere you won't be interrupted. Give yourselves plenty of time to talk and let the other person lead. They'll tell you as much or as little as they want to.
You might feel like you need to support someone alone but this isn't the case. Medical professionals, wellbeing services and organisations like Mind and Student Minds are trained to help people who are experiencing mental health problems.
They can provide targeted support in ways that are often difficult for you as an individual. Encourage your friend to reach out to professional services if they need it. You can offer to go with them to initial appointments to help them get started.
Remember to take care of yourself too while you're looking out for your friends. Learn to recognise your limits – you won't be able to help if you're burnt out to begin with.
When you don't feel okay
There will be days that you don't feel up to it at uni. You might feel overwhelmed by your commitments, or lost. A lot of students experience homesickness in first year. Deadlines and a changing workload are a part of university life, but you might find that you're not coping as well as you'd expected.
Everyone has days where they feel stressed and that's okay. You can always take steps to take care of yourself.
A lot of the advice above can help on low days too – taking the time to cook and enjoy a healthy meal, enjoying a cool drink in the park with a friend or exercising can help you feel better.
Things to remember when you feel low:
- You are not alone
- Your problem is not insignificant
- It’s OK to have bad days
- The bad days will pass
- Don’t be ashamed of your health
- Be patient with yourself
- You can’t heal in the same environment that makes you ill – it's okay to leave a situation that isn't helping you flourish
- Talking to someone can help
- Ask for help if you need it
Sometimes you'll experience a low mood or period of sadness for a few days. You can do things to improve your mood in this time as well as following the general wellbeing tips above.
Things you can do right now to boost your mood:
- Write a list of all the things you’re grateful for
- Go for a walk
- Listen to some music or a podcast
- Dance to yourself
- Write down how you feel
- Speak to a friend
If one of these activities isn't enough, continue working through the list. Go out and explore your local area if you can. Visit a free museum and learn something new. Invite friends too.
Some days going out may feel like too much. Have a shower, listen to some music you enjoy, and switch off your social media for a few hours. Open a window for some fresh air. Pin the curtains back to let the sunshine in.
If you experience a low mood or lack of motivation for a longer than 2 weeks consider speaking to your GP or university support. They can diagnose specific issues and may be able to offer you specific support if something is wrong.
Create a safety plan
Build a safety plan for when you feel low. A safety plan can help you stay safe when you're at risk, and help you make sense of self-destructive or suicidal thoughts and explore strategies for surviving them.
Use this safety plan worksheet from Students Against Depression to develop your safety plan.
Mental health disorders
It's natural to experience periods of stress or sadness. Sometimes these feelings can last a short time before you feel better – but if you have ongoing symptoms you should consider speaking to your GP or University support services.
If you have a consistent problem with your mental health you could be diagnosed with a mental health disorder by a medical professional. It's important to look after your mental wellbeing even if you don't have a disorder.
Psychological, social and biological factors can impact how likely you are to experience specific mental health problems. Life experience, such as uprooting or bereavement, can also impact your mental health.
What to look out for
Common symptoms of mental health disorders include:
- Lack of energy or being tired all the time
- Loss of interest in hobbies and skills
- Lack of focus or concentration
- Extreme emotions
- Significant changes to sleeping or eating habits
- Constant worrying or struggling to cope with stress
- Addictive behaviours
- Suicidal thoughts
You might experience some of these symptoms if you're having mental health issues. You may recognise these symptoms in your daily life or a friend may point them out to you.
Mental health issues are an illness like any physical illness – it isn't your fault if you experience problems but you have a responsibility to look after yourself.
You wouldn't walk on a broken ankle and expect it to heal, so try to take the same approach to your mental wellbeing. Figure out how you can support your mental health, start any treatment, and give it time to work.
Having a disorder doesn't have to stop you finishing your degree. Lots of people with mental health problems study and work successfully with the right support and lifestyle changes.
If you've been diagnosed with a mental health condition, prescribed treatments often include professional support, therapy or medical prescriptions – but the advice above can also help you improve your wellbeing.
Your mental health is unique, so treatments and therapies that work for others might not work for you, and those that work for you won't necessarily give others the same results. You may need to try a variety of options to find something that works for you.
Support in a crisis
If you feel unsafe or are at risk of harming yourself there are a few things you can do.
In an emergency, or if there is an immediate risk of serious harm to you or others, call 999.
Lots of wellbeing services have bookable appointments on the day. Ring your university wellbeing services and see how they can support you during working hours. Speak to your GP if you can – they may also have an appointment available.
If you've harmed yourself, or intend to do so, contact the emergency services and make it clear you feel at risk. Go to A&E with a friend if you can, or phone 999 and let the staff know you're feeling unsafe and at risk.
You can contact these groups at any time:
- Samaritans on 116 123 provide a 24-hour listening service
- CAM Crisis Messenger service by texting CAM to 85258
- Your GP who has 24-hour responsibility for your care
- Emergency services on 999 if you or someone else are at risk of suicide or self harm
Additional suicide support
You might also find these websites helpful:
- Papyrus – The national charity dedicated to the prevention of young suicide. They can provide you with confidential advice and support.
- SupportLine – Confidential telephone helpline and web pages with support on the issue of suicide.
- Students Against Depression – Student-focused advice and resources for those affected by low mood, depression and suicidal thinking.
Find out what support services your university offers before you need them.
Most university wellbeing teams will be on hand during open days so you can find out what's available before you start your degree. Your university wellbeing team may offer 1-to-1 support, counselling, mindfulness workshops, or wellbeing events. They might have relaxing spaces like the Chaplaincy too.
Your personal tutor will support you throughout your studies. You should speak to your personal tutor if you're worried or if your wellbeing is impacting your studies. They can highlight what support is available and direct you to other services if you need them.
Learning well at Portsmouth
Discover the vital roles of emotions and emotion regulation in your studies and explore advice from our Student Wellbeing Service.
Organisations that can support your metal wellbeing include: