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What to do if you know a student who is struggling with their mental health

Talya Honebeek
Last Updated: 17 July 2021 • 4 min read

University Mental Health Day is a national campaign promoting the mental health of people who live, work, and study in higher education.

Jointly run by Student Minds and University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN), the day aims to inspire conversations about mental health, as well as promote awareness and support for students at universities to manage their wellbeing. 

Between deadlines, budgeting and leaving home for the first time, being a student can be really tough. With a global pandemic in the mix, thinking about mental health in students has never been more important.

Around one in five students suffer with a mental health issue, with anxiety and depression most likely to affect students and young people. 

Pre-pandemic, roughly one in three students admitted to often or always feeling lonely. This has only become more of a problem this year, with students locked down in halls or away from university completely, studying from home.

It can be hard to know what to say to someone who is struggling with mental illness. 

5 things you can do to help a student with mental illness

  1. Notice changes in behaviour
  2. Find out what help is available to them
  3. Listen to what they need
  4. Take time to understand the whole situation
  5. Make some plans to look forward to 

1. Notice changes in behaviour

Though everyone is different, there are some common signs that someone is struggling with their mental health and needs some help.

Look out for any sudden changes in behaviour. This could be anything from them losing interest in things they’ve always enjoyed, to trying to avoid friends and family, to drastically changing their eating or sleeping habits.

The added challenge when trying to support a student at university is that during term-time they may live too far away to visit often. 

But if pandemic life has taught us anything, it’s how to keep in touch with people online. Try and keep in regular contact, even if that just means a weekly Zoom catch-up.  

2. Find out what help is available to them

Another challenge of trying to support someone from a distance is knowing what services are available to them in their area.

Most universities have mental health support services available within their student unions. From ongoing counselling to drop-in appointments and group meetings, there is lots of help available in regards to mental health for students.

It is a good idea to make yourself aware of these services so that you can give advice relevant to their university and local area. 

Another organisation worth being aware of is The Samaritans, who provide a 24/7 confidential helpline. They can be reached at any time by email or phone.

3. Listen to what they need

Sometimes the best way of helping students with mental health issues is to simply ask them what you can do to help them. 

In some cases, it could be exam stress or financial worries making them act differently temporarily. On the other hand, it could be an indication of something more serious. Keep communication channels open and talk honestly.

Try to listen to them without judgement and encourage them to seek out extra support. If they aren’t quite ready for that step yet, don’t force the issue. Check in with them regularly and take your lead on how to act from them.

It can be challenging to confidently provide emotional support when you have no experience of what they are going through. If you’ve never attended university, avoid trivialising their issues or dismissing them as “typical student problems.” 

4. Take time to understand the whole situation

Being a student at the moment is a strange and isolating experience, and unless you are going through the same experience, empathising is (understandably) difficult.

Take time to really try and understand the person you’re trying to support. Be aware of what is going on for them both at university and in their personal life and work with them to set some bitesize manageable goals.

It is also important to fully understand the mental health issues they may be suffering from. Do your research and find out what the common symptoms, triggers and treatments are so you can look out for changes or patterns in their behaviour

5. Make some plans to look forward to 

Right now we can’t do very much, but that doesn’t stop you from making some future plans to give you both something to look forward to.

 When struggling with a mental illness, it can be harder to look forward to things. Don’t put any pressure on them to make big post-lockdown plans, but try suggesting a few things you know they enjoy doing, even if that just means going for a long walk together.

In the meantime, why not arrange a weekly Zoom meet-up, either one-to-one or with a group of friends or family. This allows you to keep an eye on them, whilst providing them with an easy-going activity which they can leave early if needed.

If you are worried about a student who is unwilling to reach out and access support themselves, you can always contact their university’s support staff or counselling service to make them aware of their concerns. 

It is perfectly normal to experience feelings of stress, anxiety and loneliness whilst at university, but it is important to recognise when these feelings might be indicative of something more. 

The most important thing is to encourage open and judgement-free conversations about mental health. Take the chance today to reach out to any students you know and ask how they are. It might be just what they need.

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Talya Honebeek
Written By
Talya Honebeek

Talya is a part-time journalism master's student living in North Yorkshire.

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