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Tips for starting uni during the COVID-19 pandemic if you have a mental health condition

Starting uni during the COVID-19 pandemic may be daunting for anyone, but if you have a mental health condition you may have additional worries. Rachel, 21, shares her tips for coping.

Congratulations! I hope that starting your course will help you to move forward from the hurt and stresses of this year.

It is okay to be scared. Your bravery for taking this leap if you’re also tackling mental health challenges is amazing and something to be proud of!

I was definitely nervous about all sorts of things before I started uni: meeting new people, getting used to a different city, finances, accommodation and transferring care teams. I was also filled with self-doubt and worried that I had got in by mistake and that as soon as the work started I would be kicked out! Worst of all, I felt like I was the only one struggling.

It is okay to be scared. Your bravery for taking this leap if you’re also tackling mental health challenges is amazing and something to be proud of!

Here’s some advice about coping with these fears:

Mental health support

  • Check out university support services - for example your tutor, disability and counselling services. These services in general have been improving (such as increasing diversity of counselling staff). They may have long waiting times but can be useful as they can contact other uni staff more directly when it comes to things like asking for extended deadlines or finance/specialist equipment applications. Knowing what’s available can help you to know where to go if you’re struggling.
  • If you are currently supported by a local mental health team, it is likely that you will be transferred to the local team at university. In my experience, this took a LOT longer than was suggested to me, so have a plan of how to cope in the meantime (e.g. remote appointments with your current team, GP monitoring or saving helpline numbers on your phone).
Knowing what’s available can help you to know where to go if you’re struggling.

Meeting people and socialising

  • Your fears may be different to mine, but you are not alone - look at fresher’s groups/societies to see if there’s a community support group you identify with (e.g. LGBTQ+ groups, BAME groups, disabled student groups, ‘access’ groups, religious groups, carers groups etc.). I think knowing there are others out there with similar experiences to you can really help reduce fears as well as connect you to potential new friends.
  • Societies - hopefully there will be information online so you can plan what you think is ‘doable’ for you. You can be selective but also don’t be scared to try something new. I felt really under pressure to do everything and try and make friends straight away and it all just became very overwhelming. Take it slow - you have years to get involved with things, so it’s okay to settle in first - you won’t be the only one! If you are not in residence maybe email societies to see if there is a way for you to get involved.
  • Start small - try and introduce yourself to one person in your ‘household’ as opposed to everyone together. Even a simple question like ‘what are you studying?’, or a message in a group chat if you are remote learning, can be a start.
Look at fresher’s groups/societies to see if there’s a community support group you identify with.

Getting to grips with your studies

  • The difference from school is significant and may feel chaotic or frustrating at first (especially if prior knowledge is being assumed). But again, you don’t have to get it perfect straight away. Seek help (e.g. study skills sessions/second year students) and keep working at it - you are good enough to be there.
  • Try and stay organised and attend lectures etc. - skipping one quickly becomes a bad habit! If you feel unsettled, try to create a routine. You can include meal times and lecture schedules and identify weeks that are likely to be stressful in terms of deadlines so you can plan ahead.
  • Take breaks from work and get some sleep (even if you think you don’t have time) otherwise you will burn out and work will become harder. You deserve to rest. Try and get outside too - especially if all your lectures are online.
  • Don’t be afraid if you think you have made a mistake with your course. Find out what your options are about switching/reapplying - it’s more common than you might think!
Take breaks from work and get some sleep (even if you think you don’t have time) otherwise you will burn out and work will become harder. You deserve to rest.

Other practical tips

  • If you have specific accommodation needs, ensure you have informed the accommodation office – you may need a medical letter for this.
  • I ‘streetviewed’ on Google Maps potential routes from my halls to campus to help it feel less ‘new’ when I arrived.
  • Stay in contact with your current support network, especially given the potential of local lockdowns. I felt like I shouldn’t phone home as I didn’t want to worry my family or feel like I wasn’t coping but I realise now that they were worrying about me anyway so I might as well have phoned!
  • There may be more independence than you experienced in school and that can be great but it can also be overwhelming. Try and have ways to stay accountable - when my mood crashed it became quite easy to self-neglect without anyone noticing. If you struggle to eat right or get yourself out of bed on time when you feel down, maybe arrange to check in with someone you feel comfortable with and let them know you’ve done these things. If you are struggling, try and speak as soon as possible to prevent going down a ‘slippery slope’!
I felt like I shouldn’t phone home as I didn’t want to worry my family or feel like I wasn’t coping but I realise now that they were worrying about me anyway so I might as well have phoned!

If you are 'locked down'

  • It is even more important that you take time for yourself - maybe try some inside exercise like yoga, or try working, relaxing, eating etc. in different parts of your room to try and separate these things. Also see how support services are operating remotely.
  • If you are struggling to get food/being overcharged, see if you can get a joint food order with your household. Try to get some long-life fruit, vegetables and ready meals and snacks so you have some spares. Especially if you struggle with an eating disorder, create a plan of safe foods that you can keep in your room so you don't let this become an excuse to not follow a meal plan.
  • Let your student reps (for example a disabilities or welfare officer) as well as uni officials know about any specific problems you are having.
  • Remember it is 100% reasonable and understandable to find this situation unfair and distressing so don't blame yourself if you feel overwhelmed, just keep talking and keep safe. Your tutors will have to take this into account in any assessments etc.
Remember it is 100% reasonable and understandable to find this situation unfair and distressing so don't blame yourself if you feel overwhelmed, just keep talking and keep safe.

If I can leave you with one tip, it’s this: remember why you applied. The start is always the hardest, but you will get through it!

 

Author: Rachel, 21

Where to get help

For more information, tips and advice if you're struggling with your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, have a look at our page on coronavirus and mental health.

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