By Lisa Salmon
A psychology lecturer tells Lisa Salmon that simple measures like exercise and challenging themselves can help students stay balanced at university.
Record numbers of students are set to start university this autumn, according to admissions body Ucas. And while they’ll be ready for lots of learning and socialising, what they may not be as prepared for is how their new student life could affect them mentally.
While being a student can be a lot of fun, living away from home for the first time and having to be financially independent, cooking for yourself and making new friends, on top of huge, and sometimes very tough, academic expectations, can also weigh heavily on young minds.
In fact, The Insight Network found more than one in five students had a mental health diagnosis, primarily depression and anxiety disorders. In addition, one in three university students had experienced a serious issue for which they felt the need for professional help, and a third often or always felt lonely. And that was before the pandemic, which has had a profound effect on the nation’s mental health – research by the Mental Health Foundation shows between 42%-62% of adults have felt anxious and worried due to the stress of the pandemic at different times during the lockdowns.
So it’s clear mental health should be a priority for everyone, and now, as the start of a new academic year approaches, psychologist Dr Nic Hooper has written a book, The Unbreakable Student, to help students “stay sane” at university.
Hooper, a lecturer at the University of the West of England, says: “For young people, university represents a monumental change in context. Students move from a place of social and physical security to a place where they have to throw themselves into uncertain social situations, manage their own financial, eating and sleeping habits, deal with the pressures of coursework and exams, and do all of these things while missing their loved ones.
“Given these changes in context, it’s unsurprising that some students have mental health struggles during this period of their lives.”
His book suggests six “simple and obvious” rules students should try to live by to prevent and reduce mental health struggles, training them to relate to their thoughts and feelings in better ways, through a cutting-edge psychological approach called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
“When I see students struggling at university, I think of my six-year-old son as an 18-year-old, and I think of myself as the parent of that boy, living far away from him and not being on hand to pick him up and protect him when life gets tough,” says Hooper. “And I think how I’d be a happier father if I sent him to university with a book that can help him to flourish in what can sometimes be a big, scary world.”
Hooper’s six evidence-based ‘rules’ are…
Physical activity, whether that’s going to the gym, joining a university sports club, or getting into a running routine, has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and other psychological troubles in people from all generations, says Hooper. “One study found that improvements in mood could happen after only a single 10-minute session. Even those with severe depression can show marked improvement after following an exercise regime, and exercise can outperform psychotherapy and antidepressants as treatments for depression,” he points out.
- Challenge yourself
By challenging yourself, Hooper means trying things like learning to play an instrument, learning a new language, or even just writing a blog.
“People who are psychologically healthy tend to be those who continue to challenge themselves in some way or another,”he explains. “For example, people who challenge themselves through learning tend to have better mental health and can expect improvements in a bunch of other things too – cognitive skills, confidence, resilience, civic engagement, life satisfaction and even health behaviours.”
- Connect with others
Connecting with others involves actually making an effort to be social, by doing things like joining one of the many university societies or clubs, going to a bar with housemates, or simply having coffee with other students on your course.
Hooper says: “Having good social relationships is the best predictor of wellbeing in people of every age category. Feelings of worth, love, intimacy, support, meaning and purpose are all higher in those who have high-quality social relationships. It’s also linked to better health behaviours and living a longer life.”
People who don’t have good social relationships are more likely to develop mental health problems, he stresses.
- Give to others
This involves doing something like volunteering for a local charity, caring for a loved one, or donating money to someone in need – although donating money is, of course, likely to be tougher for cash-strapped students than giving up their time.
“People who volunteer or help out with community activities, and even those who commit to one act of kindness per week for six weeks, show improved psychological wellbeing,” says Hooper. “Additionally, human beings [tend to be] happier when they spend their money on other people relative to spending money on themselves.”
- Practice self-care
Hooper explains that being disciplined with regards to sleep and developing healthy cooking skills can have a marked effect on a student’s wellbeing, pointing out that low wellbeing can cause poor sleep habits and poor sleep habits can contribute to low wellbeing.
“Better sleep quality, and not duration, incidentally, is related to better mood regulation, motivation, quality of life and mental health,” he says. “Diet and nutritional habits are just as important, with healthy eating associated with better psychological wellbeing and cognitive functioning.”
- Embrace the moment
Taking part in mindfulness exercises, being curious about everyday experiences, and simply becoming aware of how quickly time can pass can all have a positive effect on a student’s mental health, says Hooper.
“When we spend all our time ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, then our present moment isn’t really a nice place to be,” he explains. “Mindfulness can help us to slow down, to become better at noticing when our minds have wandered, and to bring our attention back to the now. Doing so allows us to embrace the moment, and this results in better mental health and wellbeing.”
The Unbreakable Student by Nic Hooper is published by Robinson, priced £13.99. Available now.