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Mental Health at University: A Student’s Survival Guide

A photo of two KCLSU workers at King's Freshers' Fair. They are both wearing purple t-shirts, one has her back to the camera. Her t-shirt says "here to help". The other is smiling.
Photo by Emma Carmichael

Staff writer Jana Bazeed offers her advice on how to survive, and even thrive, over the next year of your studies.

It’s that time of year again. Whether you’re returning for another year at King’s or are an incoming Fresher, the new academic year can be an exciting and terrifying time. We’ve heard it a million times before, but it’s definitely true: while fun, university can be a taxing experience. That’s only natural, what with looming deadlines and exams, leaving home for a strange environment (often for the first time) and the uncertainties of the future.

Student Mental Health on the Decline

Although it’s natural and healthy to feel short periods of stress, recent years have seen a sharp rise in the prevalence of mental health problems among university students. Factors like Covid-19, the cost-of-living crisis and the ongoing UCU strikes have all played a part.

A research team, including academics from King’s College London (KCL) and University College London (UCL), has found that there has been a sharp rise in the number of young adults in England who report feelings of severe psychological distress. According to the study, one-in-five 18 to 24-year-olds reported experiencing severe distress at the end of 2022 — an alarming increase from about one-in-seven in the previous year.

All is not Lost

Although things may seem bleak, there are plenty of ways to look after your mental health at university and to ensure that you make the most of your time here.

Socialise!

Social withdrawal can often be the first warning sign of underlying psychological distress and studies suggest lonelier students tend to struggle more with university. Of course many of us are introverts and alone-time is essential, but it’s also important to maintain social connections and build a support network. Get to know your flatmates — you’ll be seeing them a lot — and attend a few Freshers events. Don’t feel pressured to instantly click with everyone you meet, but getting to know others who are probably sharing the same experience makes it easier and a lot more enjoyable. It also helps to form study groups with people on your course for when the dreaded assignments start rolling in.

Find a Balance

We’ve all seen the movies where students seem to spend their every waking hour partying (which can be tempting, especially since we’re all told that first year doesn’t count). But, ask any older student, a good grasp of the basics that you’re taught in first year makes it far easier to get better grades in later years. Even if the grades technically don’t count towards your final degree classification, first year is a good opportunity to build study habits and see what works for you.

That said, try to keep a healthy work/life balance. It’s important to look after your mental wellbeing and have some fun alongside your studies. One of the best parts of studying at King’s is its active student community: try joining a society or explore the city with some new friends. There’s always something to do in London, and Freshers is an excellent time to get to know what’s available.

Get Some Sleep — Seriously

As students, we’ve all been there: you ‘forgot’ about an assignment and before you know it, it’s four in the morning and you’ve only got a few hours until the submission deadline. Pulling all-nighters seems to be an unavoidable rite of passage for students, but it really shouldn’t be that way. Those last few hours of cramming might be doing you more harm than good.

Sleep deprivation impairs your cognitive functions by affecting your memory and concentration, which actually worsens your performance. Plus, all-nighters can increase false-memories and make you more likely to make ‘silly’ mistakes, so maybe proof-read that essay one last time and put down the coffee well before dawn.

Look After Your Physical Wellbeing

Ever feel ill right after exam season or during a week busy with deadlines? There’s probably a reason for that: studies have shown that those suffering from psychological stress are more susceptible to infectious diseases like the common cold. It’s easy to get lost in the stresses of university life, but it’s essential to take the time to look after your physical wellbeing.

Try to add some exercise to your daily routine. It doesn’t have to be grueling, just something to stay active and get your heart racing. Take advantage of King’s gyms and BeActive (if you’re living in King’s accommodation, you might already have a membership). Plenty of clubs and societies also provide taster sessions for prospective members, so keep an eye out if you’re thinking of trying a new sport or activity. If walking or cycling around the city is more your speed, look into downloading King’s Move, an app that rewards you activity points which you can redeem for rewards ranging from free hot drinks to KCL merchandise.

Moreover, make an effort to eat healthily. Trust me, as someone who started out first-year just about able to work a microwave, midnight takeaways are going to get old really quickly. Thanks to the internet, we have a plethora of quick, easy and (importantly) cheap healthy dishes available at our fingertips. But if you’re still hesitant or just pressed for time, lots of meal-kit subscriptions like HelloFresh and Gastrostudent offer student discounts. These can be a convenient way of getting started.

Don’t Be Afraid to Reach Out

Finally, speaking from personal experience, a difficult but vital lesson that I’ve learned is that there’s no shame in asking for help if you need it. King’s support services and the KCLSU provide free help ranging from appointments with Faculty Wellbeing Advisors, to various wellbeing events throughout the year. Moreover, King’s Counselling and Mental Health Support Service offer free and confidential in-person and online counseling for students. Don’t hesitate to try talking to your personal tutor for advice – they’re there to help you. As a King’s student, you also have access to free and confidential 24/7 digital mental health support from Togetherall, a safe and anonymous online platform designed to help you get things off your chest.

University can be overwhelming sometimes, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. With these tips, you’ll be in for a solid year at King’s. Good luck!

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