Dr Dominique Thompson, a bestselling author and student mental health specialist, looks at some of the unique pressures that face students, and their potential to impact on mental health.
As a student, you have to learn to juggle many responsibilities and experiences, some of them for the first time in your life… academic commitments, money, new friendships, living with strangers, and new activities or sports, to name but a few. This is undoubtedly stressful, though it can also be really rewarding.
According to the Office for National Statistics, Results from three different surveys conducted during November 2020 concluded that more than half of students reported that their wellbeing and mental health had worsened as a result of the pandemic. For many young people who started – or returned to – higher education in the last year, the experience fell far short of their original hopes and dreams. They have had to adjust their expectations and live with disappointment. Some have felt isolated, many have been very anxious. Unsurprisingly, this has taken its toll… and although there may now be light at the end of our pretty dark pandemic tunnel, life won’t be returning to normal any time soon, and we can’t even be sure what the new normal will look like. This is where taking positive steps to support our mental health can help.
As we wait for the world to open up, there are things students can do to help themselves to feel less worried, ready for new challenges, and (hopefully!) prepared to go back to life on campus some time soon.
Here are my three top tips for looking after yourself right now, and preparing for post-pandemic life as a student:
1. Nurture your social network
Our friends, family and new acquaintances are what keep us feeling well in life, so it is really important to keep building those connections – to keep meeting new people, creating new friendships and turning to old ones when we need extra support.
We are not designed to sail through life solo (humans are social animals). Make sure you nurture the relationships that matter to you, and explore new ones, perhaps through volunteering or trying new activities, even if that’s online for the time being. This will allow you to keep a balanced approach to your studies alongside other priorities, such as socialising, which are really important for your mental wellbeing.
2. Take care of your physical wellbeing
Looking after your physical and mental health cannot be separated of course, so choose to do things wherever you can that make you feel good emotionally and help to keep you fit. When you go outside and are in nature (even if it’s just your local park) it is good for your soul, as well as your heart. Keep moving, however you can, with a friend if it helps to motivate you. Try to get outdoors every day, whatever the weather! Exercise and spending time outdoors are both now prescribed by doctors as part of an holistic approach to mental health recovery. They are great ways to manage issues that can be associated with student mental health, such as anxiety and even mild to moderate depression.
3. Develop healthy tools for coping
When life gets stressful, it’s normal to want to do things to ease that pain or even numb it completely. Life is going to get better soon but on some days, it can feel hard to cope. Firstly, it’s important to try to keep things in perspective and cut yourself some slack. Acknowledge that of course, in the middle of a pandemic, studying becomes even harder on top of the ‘normal’ strains of student life.
There may be times when we drink to forget, or we use drugs, food or even turn to gambling in an attempt to distract ourselves from our distress, anger or boredom. This is completely understandable but if you notice that you are doing this, and are keen to find a healthier way to cope (which will be more sustainable throughout life) then now is as good a time as any to try reducing the harmful behaviours and try out some more helpful, resourceful, tools for coping. For example, if you reach for cake or wine at the end of a long day then try having a lovely scented bath, or watching a funny film instead. Make yourself feel good and happy, but by using a different approach. Life is always going to have its ups and downs, so it is a great idea to start discovering ways to support yourself through the ‘downs’ that are positive and uplifting, without being damaging to your physical or mental health.
In short, there are plenty of pressures that are unique to students, which can impact on student mental health. That’s before we even consider the effect of living in the midst of a pandemic (and emerging from one!). However, by prioritising your wellbeing and equipping yourself with a mental health toolkit you can turn to, it is possible for you to thrive as a student, even during challenging times.
About the Author
Dr Dominique Thompson is an award winning GP, young people’s mental health expert, TEDx speaker, author and educator. She has over 20 years of clinical experience caring for students, as well as being a clinical advisor for NICE, the Royal College of GPs, the Anorexia Bulimia Care charity, and for Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity. She was the GP member of the NICE Eating Disorders’ Guidelines Development Group and the Universities UK StepChange and Minding Our Future committees, as well as the Office for Students’ Challenge Fund advisory panel. Dominique is also a member of the UK Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education group (MWBHE), and the lead clinical advisor for Aardman Animation’s ‘Whats Up with Everyone?’ campaign. She is a regular commentator on student health matters and has appeared on the Today programme (BBC Radio 4), BBC News 24, Sky TV , The Guardian and in Financial Times.