Supporting Student Mental Health: The Transition to University

Offered By Professional Wellbeing

The transition to university can be both an exciting and anxious time for both new students and their loved ones. After all, it’s the beginning of a very important phase in terms of learning to be an independent adult in a community full of previously unknown strangers; whilst studying at a higher level than their previous academic experience has taught them to.

Mother and son smiling whilst looking at laptop together

I have had the pleasure of working in the University setting as a health professional for over 10 years; and I hope that some of the content that I’m putting forward here may be helpful to both the families of, and the soon to be higher education students in this process.

There can be myriad reasons why a young person may struggle in the initial transition to university and commonly and in my experience, homesickness can be one of them.

However, these feelings can settle down with the full student ‘experience’, although the pandemic has temporarily changed the face of social interactions both in the student community and in the wider environment.

Mixed group of university students together outside.

Knowing who can advise and provide support within the University may help to alleviate some of the anxieties.

Available Support

For example, there may be Student Mentors allocated to specific course groups and a Student Health Support team.

Students who have a health condition that may affect their transition both to university and a higher level of study where self-directed learning is expected, can apply for the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA).  Unfortunately, the word ‘disabled’ can be seen as a misnomer in this context because it means any health condition that’s enduring.

Young female university student with prosthetic arm studying.

It is worth looking at the Student Finance England (SFE) website for more information, but suffice it to say that a student who is awarded DSA can access extra health and academic support which is funded for them by SFE. This will provide them with a specialist mental health mentor and/or a Study Skills Support Worker who will meet with them weekly or twice weekly depending on the number of support hours allocated to them, for the entirety of their degree course.

This is a specialist service where the student gains 1:1 confidential support; and with the student’s agreement, can link to other teams within the University to ensure that the best support is given and an equal opportunity to study successfully to achieve their degree.

Social Anxiety

Social anxiety and/or a lack of social interaction and inclusion can play a large part in lowering one’s self confidence when away from home.  Reassuring and encouraging conversations with family members may be really helpful.

Sadly, Covid-19 has complicated matters here and many more students have reported isolation and feelings of loneliness as ongoing issues for them.

As a Parent or Guardian, if you are worried however, the best option is to contact the relevant Student Support team within the University; to both alert them and to understand what services are available.

Female student support worker with male student looking at paperwork.

Student Support teams may also be able to liaise with course teams for their perspective on the student’s progress and any general concerns that they may have about the student’s welfare.

Some Student Support teams may also liaise with the student’s new GP ahead of time to explore and report any emerging concerns.

In my experience Student Support teams generally use a confidentiality statement which they will ask the student to sign to enable professional conversations and joint working to avert situations from reaching a crisis point.

Student Confidentiality

However, there could be an issue with confidentiality if your child is over 18 years of age, disallowing parents or guardians from being contacted if there are concerns for their safety.

It may be wise to explore this issue with the relevant Student Support team prior to the start of the academic year so that clarity is gained on what support is possible, safety plans put into place ahead of time and a smoother transition can be made.

Male student counsellor with male student talking together.

The National Union of Students (NUS) have undertaken research into student health during the pandemic, due to the enforced isolation and ensuing loneliness experienced by many since early 2020.  Around 52% of students reported increases in the deterioration of pre-existing mental health conditions and that there was an increase in students interacting with their families during this time.

Common Student Concerns

I have worked with some of the students affected in my local higher education establishment.  Interestingly there are a number of common concerns surround the start of the 2021/22 academic year, including:

 

  • Navigating the Campus
  • Finding Lecture Theatres and Seminar rooms
  • Fear of being in closer proximity to other students

 

Student Minds, the UK’s Student Mental Health charity have very helpful material concerning transitions and other pertinent student information on their website which may also be helpful for the families of those who are becoming higher education students in September.

Warning Signs and Red Flags

Recent research has reported that student mental health and suicide are increasing, currently with a gender difference of males being almost twice as   likely to attempt to end their life and for those within the LGBT and non-binary community.

Again, there can be myriad factors contributing to suicidal ideas and active intentions to complete, not least of which can be a lack or loss of meaningful social connection.

Some of the warning signs can be a lack of engagement with family, friends and their studies, although this may be hard to quantify depending on what ‘normal’ contact is with family members.

Depressed female student holding her head in her hand.

The student may be more tearful than usual and express concerning ideas about how they’re feeling and how things are going for them. A structured and empathic approach here can helpful in order to assist their independence, emphasising the positives and asking where you can help.

If you find that you do have concerns, it may be best to talk with the Student Support team to explore support options.

Many students have reported, both in the past and present that they would like ‘someone to talk to’ about their mental and emotional health and the way that they feel, be it a Counsellor, a Student Advisor or an individual from an outside organisation.

Planning Ahead

It is very wise to research what services are available both within the University environment and the wider community before the students arrive or return to university.

Happy smiling male student.

If the student is currently receiving mental health and psychological support in their home town, ask for referrals to be made to services local to the University to enable continuity in their care. This prior planning can help ensure that the student and their family feel confident with their transition to university.

Making a safety plan in case it is ever needed can be handy with helpful contact numbers; both local and national along with websites where helplines are available.

It may also assist the student in feeling more in control of their individual support needs.

Preparation for this important phase is key because statutory mental health services have been under funded and oversubscribed even before coronavirus.

There is pressure from many Universities for greater investment by the Government to be made into mental health to address the shortfall that currently exists in many areas of the UK, where some students struggle to access services.

The Student’s Union often run events, groups and societies to enable social interactions and friendships and there may be volunteer opportunities in the wider community. Often there is a Chaplaincy too which may be multi-faith, allowing students with all or no faith the opportunity to chat in confidence in a calm, quiet environment.

 

Interested in learning more about the author?  Read more about Julie Rae, RMN and founder of Professional Wellbeing.


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