Mental health problems are more common among students than the general population. The Association for University and College Counselling (AUCC), which represents 530 counsellors and another 120 higher education institutions, says 3-10% of the student population will have contact with its counselling service in a single year.
Key signs of a mental health problem if you're a student include weight loss or gain, decline in personal hygiene or poor attendance at lectures. You may also do too much work, become withdrawn, or speak in an unusual manner, for example, more loudly or showing more agitation than usual.
What are the main problems that affect students and how can you recognise them?
Depression in students
Depression is when you feel sad or low for weeks or months, to such an extent that it interferes with your life and studies. The warning signs are loss of interest in life and a feeling you can’t enjoy anything, feeling tired, loss of appetite, finding it harder to make decisions, having problems getting to sleep then waking up too early, and loss of interest in sex.
Bipolar disorder in students
This used to be called manic depression, but is now known as bipolar disorder. It's a condition that affects your moods, which can swing from one extreme to another. If you have bipolar disorder you will have periods, or ‘episodes’, of depression and mania lasting several weeks or more.
Eating disorders in students
Anorexia and bulimia are the main eating disorders that affect students, and both are more common in women. Anorexia involves severe, sometimes life-threatening weight loss. Bulimia is more common, and involves bingeing (eating lots of food) then vomiting or purging with laxatives.
Schizophrenia in students
Schizophrenia affects around one person in 100, and is equally common in men and women, though more men seem to develop schizophrenia when they’re young (between the ages of 15 and 25). In women it usually occurs later in life.
The symptoms may include hallucinations (especially hearing voices), paranoid delusions (false beliefs), difficulty concentrating and difficulty finding the motivation to do things as simple as washing up or laundry.
Drugs, drink and mental health in students
If you’re feeling low or stressed, you may be tempted to drown your sorrows in alcohol or relax by smoking cannabis. But this won’t make you feel better in the longer term, and could make you feel a lot worse.
Around one cannabis user in 10 has unpleasant experiences including confusion, hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia. There’s also growing evidence that long-term cannabis use can double your risk of developing a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia.
Ecstasy and amphetamines can also bring on schizophrenia, and amphetamines can induce other forms of psychosis. Any underlying mental disorder could be worsened by drug and alcohol use.
Read more articles about drugs.
If you feel persistently unhappy or that you can no longer cope, don’t keep it a secret. Telling someone how you feel, whether it's a friend, counsellor or doctor, may bring an immediate sense of relief.
- Initially, it’s a good idea to talk to someone you trust, such as a friend, member of your family or college tutor (this is especially important if your academic performance is being affected by your disorder). Many mild mental health problems can be resolved this way.
- Most universities and colleges have counselling services staffed by qualified professionals, who offer confidential one-to-one counselling. Counselling offers an opportunity to explore the underlying issues of your unhappiness in a safe environment and develop ways to cope. Find details of university counselling services.
- Many student unions offer student-led ‘pastoral’ services. Although the students involved aren’t qualified counsellors, you may prefer to talk about problems such as stress and depression with another student.
- You might be able to refer yourself for NHS counselling. To find out what's available in your area, search for psychological therapy services.
- For more serious or persistent mental health symptoms, see your GP. This is the only way to get prescribed treatment or referral to specialist NHS services.
If you have or develop a mental health condition that requires treatment, arrange continuity of care between your college doctor and family GP. If moving between university and home results in a gap in treatment, your condition may worsen.