The Student Experience

Of all the transitions that we go through in life, the move to higher education is one of the most challenging, particularly if it often means moving away from home and what we know so well.

It can mean a change in environment, in social circle, and even in priorities. Student life is often portrayed as an energetic stream of partying, staying up all night and enjoying yourself as much as possible before you have to join the real world.

And to some, that is an accurate representation, but becoming a student also brings significant new pressures, which, if not managed properly, can have a serious impact on your mental health.

Creating A New Lifestyle

The move away from home can be a daunting one. Suddenly you find you have to fend for yourself. Not just in terms of doing chores like your own washing, but also things you may not have experienced before, such as buying groceries and feeding yourself. Those you normally turn to are no longer immediately by your side, and you need to learn the basics quickly.

You have to build a new social circle and form new friendship groups, working within a community drawn from a wider spread of society, and learning to fit in all over again. Didn’t you just do this at school?

For others it’s a simple case of geography. Home might be hundreds of miles away, or even in a different time zone if you are an international student. Or it might just feel that way, if you are from nearby but missing more familiar surroundings.

Exams of course bring pressure to succeed, and for some students, there is an additional expectation, at least in their own minds, to try to live up to the results that they were getting in school. Failure to do so can bring a feeling of letting their parents down, a loss in confidence, and often, the infamous imposter syndrome.

Fighting On All Fronts

In my experience as a counsellor, it’s clear that these pressures can affect any student, at any stage of their studies, no matter the university or city.

The pressures that are placed on students today are a warm up for what is to come in the next stage of life, where even more commitments and demands are placed on them.

But for those years studying, the intensity of a new environment, a different education model, having to start a new social circle, and just looking after yourself, can make you feel like you are fighting on all fronts.

A common response is often to ignore the pressures and soldier on, hoping it will get better, which only tends to lead to a bigger build up.

The results can be depression, anxiety, stress, lack of sleep or isolation, or a combination of all of them, making it even harder to see a way clear, or the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. For some students with a history of mental health difficulties it can mean a return or worsening of their symptoms.

Whether it is a light bulb moment or finally hitting the wall, the moment you realise that you need help is an important one. But knowing where to get it, or what will work best for you, isn’t always as easy as it should be.

Getting Help

I’m delighted to say that Exeter University has counselling services for students, although due to demand, they can only provide short term support. They do however help students find longer term counselling if required. The University also provides online counselling and programmes like the Mental Health Pathway provide advice and support to students with a range of mental health difficulties.

Based in central Exeter, not far from the University, PAC Exeter is a centre for clinical excellence for psychotherapy and counselling and is another excellent source. Run by John Paradise, the Centre is a professional community of qualified and experienced therapists, including myself, who are there to provide support when you need it. With a range of practitioners covering varying fields, PAC Exeter offers the opportunity for you to see which therapist feels right for you.

This is a period where the importance of mental health is slowly being realised, but a lot more needs to be done to provide and promote the appropriate services there to help.

We need to learn to listen to our own emotional needs, and even more importantly, to get help when we feel we require it, not when it has gotten to breaking point. Taking that first step is often difficult but doing so as early as possible means you can stop issues building to the point where they become overwhelming.

So, whether you are a student who would like to talk to someone, or you are worried about someone you care about, there is help out there.