I’m back with another addition to my Mental Health and University series – this time, how to prepare for university with a mental illness.
If you have recently received your A-level results and are heading off to university in a matter of weeks – congratulations! This is a really exciting time, once you have had your place confirmed by the university, reality seems to sink in very fast… It can seem pretty overwhelming. Suddenly, there are a million and one things to sort, plan and do!
These are just a few (hopefully) helpful suggestions to make the transition to university go as smoothly as possible – whilst keeping your mental health as best it can be!
1. Disclose your condition(s) to the university, sooner rather than later. The sooner they are aware, the sooner they can provide you with the appropriate support and organise the correct adjustments for you. This can be done as early as your UCAS application. If you didn’t include it, not to worry, just try to let them know as soon as you can – it’s better to be prepared in advance.
- It can also be useful to speak to your friends, family, loved ones and professionals before going to university. Ensure that you have a support network available. Make sure you are mentally strong enough to tackle this new change. Talk through your concerns, especially to those who have been to university so they can put your mind at ease. Let them know how you feel so they can check in with you.
- Develop a rapport with your Personal Academic Tutor and Dissertation Supervisor. To be honest, my PAT and I didn’t get on for a while. She thought I was just another lazy student until I told her I had bipolar. Then for both of us, it just clicked. I realised there were ways she could actually support me. She realised that something greater than a ‘lack of effort’ was hindering me. Towards the end, she was one of the most useful support systems I had at uni.
2. Research what support is on offer. Being aware of what support is available before, both at the university and within the local area, can be really useful. Most universities offer a counselling service – it can be useful to look this up in advance to see how the application process works and how many sessions are offered.
- Know about the resources before you need them. Don’t struggle to find help whilst you are struggling. Try and talk to someone about issues which are bothering you, before they become a problem for you. Please use resources when you need to, that’s what they’re there for. I have made a list of helpful resources here on the blog.
- See if you are eligible for support from the DSA. The DSA is the ‘Disabled Student Allowance’, which can be accessed from Student Finance. They can help with many things – including the costs of getting specialist equipment to help you with your studies. In my second year of university, they provided me with a laptop and lots of specialist software on it. The application process does require medical evidence, so it can be useful to collect this with your current healthcare provider.
3. Know that there is no time limit on how long it takes you to adjust to university. Don’t worry if it takes you longer than others. It is going to be worth it. Everyone starting out is in the same boat as you. Honestly, despite how much better everyone seems to be doing than you – I promise, no one is. I am yet to meet a student who isn’t struggling with something – whether it is inside or outside of uni. Everyone is just trying to find a way to get by.
- Have expectations, and then get ready for them to completely change! There is not a single person I met at university who didn’t agree that it is completely different from what they were expecting…
- Stretch your legs. Go for walks. It will help to clear your head, get some exercise from sitting at a desk all day and get to know the new place you are living in.
- Call your family. It feels like you’re so busy all the time, that you can often forget that their lives are passing by too. Make sure they are okay too.
4. Get your finances sorted. Set up a student bank account. Arrange an overdraft limit. Try to work out a weekly or monthly budget. Understanding your total expenses compared to how much money you receive is important. It’s vital to know where your money goes.
- Things to account for… rent. groceries. socialising. transport. takeaways. bills. clothes and shopping. presents for others. course materials. books. stationery. prescriptions. phone contract. gym and society memberships. netflix and other subscriptions. laundry. tuition fees. internet. toiletries. printing etc…
5. When you register with a new GP at university, you will no longer be registered at home. Having a local GP is so necessary, especially if you are experiencing a mental health issue. However, it is important to know that you will only be registered in one place at any one time, so you will/have to try and be a temporary resident when going home for the holidays/summer if you require medical assistance.
6. Get yourself organised. Being organised when transitioning to university will help you manage your time, reduce your level of stress, and really help you to settle in.
- Things you are responsible for… your money and your budget. your bills. your laundry. your physical health. your behaviour. knowing when to call it a night. planning your meals. asking for help. your personal hygiene. your friendships and relationships with others. your limits. your organisation and tidiness. your mental health. keeping on top of your workload. your attendance. your medications. going to and arranging your appointments. your time. your actions. your goals. your commitments. your stress levels. your communication levels. your sleeping patterns.
- Colour code your calendar. Trust me, it can be so helpful to highlight your lectures in one colour. Tests in another. Personal or sporting events in another… and so on. If you don’t want to buy/use an actual printed calendar, Google Calendar is really great, easy-to-use and colour-codable. I use it pretty much every day whether it’s term time or not.
- To-do lists. People that know me ‘in real life’ will know I am such a sucker for a to-do list. I make them for literally everything. I tend to split the things I have to do into ‘to-dos’ which are the general list, and a ‘must-do’ for that day’s list.
- Create a study schedule – on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. It can help you to feel less stressed and more in control. Find out when your deadlines and assessments are as soon into the course as possible – plan your time and prepare for your assessments in advance.
7. Give yourself time to make friends. Don’t feel disheartened if you don’t have a ‘massive’ group of friends in your first week. I myself found some of my greatest friends during my third year of university – there is no one right time. Quality over quantity with friends any day. Try something simple like leaving your door open so people can say hello or introduce yourself to the person next to you in a lecture.
- Don’t let FOMO (fear of missing out) rule your life. It’s okay to say no. I n fact, I encourage it! Set your boundaries. Learn to say no without explaining yourself. There will always be a next time.
- Look for opportunities to get involved in activities that are of interest to you. Look for opportunities to get involved in activities that are of interest to you. Your involvement can lead to meeting others that have interest similar to you. It can be unsettling, but rewarding to put yourself out there first instead of waiting for people to come to you.
- Do all you can to be welcoming and open to new people. Engage with others, introduce yourself, listen to others.
- Be open-minded as you meet new people. You’ll be exposed to new cultures, values, and beliefs. Some of the people you never expected to be friends with, become some of the most important and interesting people you will have in your lives.
8. Make your room a safe space. Change is never easy. It is normal for you to feel lonely in your new surroundings. If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a fair amount of time in your room – whether it’s studying or just relaxing. So make it comfortable. Make it feel like your home. Make it yours. Bring photos, take new ones! Whatever will make you feel like it’s yours.
- As cosy as your room will now be, try to spend some time outside of it. Your best friend could be living in the very next room. Leave your door open so people can pop by and say hi. In most halls, the kitchen is the place to be.
- If you start to experience loneliness and other negative feelings over an extended period, try to change your daily patterns and connect with more people. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other people, they might be feeling the same way as you.
- When moving into halls, try to choose your accommodation wisely – granted you might not have that much say over the final decision but… Attend an open day to get a feel of whether you would like it there. You can swap if you change your mind, but it just might take a little while.
9. Be open about your story and experiences – it makes you more of a person, not less. It will help others to understand you. I have been thanked by SO many people for talking openly, they have said ‘it makes it easier to talk to me’ and ‘to talk about themselves’. I have been told that I show ‘it’s nothing to be ashamed about’ – which obviously, there isn’t! It will show you who will stick around and who is just there for show.
- Be confident in who you are. University can be an opportunity to reinvent yourself into the person you’ve always wanted to be. Back in your hometown, people may have preconceptions of you – but that can all change when you go to university. Think about who you are right now and make a list of the things you enjoy doing or don’t. This can be useful to decide if any, societies you would like to be a part of. You can become your best self.
10. Plan your healthcare in advance – well, as much as possible. If you are currently undergoing treatment for a mental health condition and you register with a new GP – the support you receive is likely to change. You might have to go through assessments again, even if you have already been diagnosed, and may be offered a new treatment plan.
- Speak to your current GP about how your medical notes will/can be transferred. What can they do to ensure your new GP understands your medical needs? Is it worth having a medication review before you go? It might be worth asking/ paying for a medical history letter to give to your new GP to help speed the process up when you arrive.
- Get vaccinated. Make sure you are up-to-date with your vaccinations – especially for meningitis.
- If you are thinking about changing your treatment or medication plan, consider delaying it to the summer period wherever possible. Sometimes medications have to happen – and they can’t be delayed. But, try and be a driving force in your own treatment – you are the one who will have to live with the decisions once you leave that doctor’s room. Do what is right for you. Wherever possible, try to avoid big changes occurring during your studies when you have enough going on. Trust me, it’s hard to juggle it all.
- If you receive a lot of prescriptions each month, invest in an NHS Medical Card. From the very start of my time at university, I was constantly changing medications or levels of medication. One month my prescriptions would have totalled to £60. Who can even afford that anyway?! An NHS medical pre-payment card costs £100 for the whole year, and you can use it as many times as you need. Bargain!
- Prepare mental health necessities before you arrive. This might include… medications. prescriptions. medical notes from your previous GP/ psychiatrist/ psychologist/ therapist. proof of diagnoses. DSA approval if applicable. pill pots. headphones. Self-care items. It is better to be over-prepared than under – especially when changing doctors, as each may offer different treatment to what you have received before.
11. Exams are tough, yes, but you will cope. In the first year, it is important not to take it too seriously and burn out. The most important thing to do is to get to know whether the course is right for you and that you pass with 40% (based on a standard course, you may need to check your specific course details).
- Talk to your university about their additional exam arrangements. Check your eligibility. The additional arrangement rooms are usually quieter with fewer students requiring the services, which I found really helpful. I used a laptop in all of my exams instead of a pen, which greatly helped my performance and ability.
- Aim to collect all the information you can regarding the exams you’ll be sitting – as soon as possible. Confirm how you will be examined. What kind of assessment (written, multiple-choice…). Look for past papers – learn the style of writing. Compare questions over previous years. Practice questions in timed conditions.
- The only way to pass a test is to take it. The test is inevitable, but you cannot achieve without them.
12. Keep an eye on which substances you are using. During difficult and stressful times or even good times, you might be tempted to drink more or use drugs. If you are experiencing a mental health condition, it is important to consider how this may affect your mental health and how you feel in the long term.
- An underlying mental disorder could be worsened by extensive drug and alcohol use. It can impact the performance of your prescribed medications and the state of your moods, thoughts and behaviours. I’m not trying to be a party-pooper, just raising awareness of the effect that some people don’t realise. Whilst people may believe it is making things better for them, the reality may be it’s making it worse.
13. Of course, it’s hard, it’s supposed to be. If it were easy, everyone would do it and it wouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg to do so! So, don’t give up on your dream because of the time it’ll take to accomplish – that time is going to pass regardless. Fill it with action. You will do it.
- Mistakes are proof that you are trying. Remind yourself regularly that no one has their shit together – especially when you feel like you are the only one who is struggling.
14. Don’t be afraid to change. Change modules. Change courses. Change friendship groups. Change where you live. Change your personality. Change your relationship status. Change can be a wonderful thing and your happiness is so important.
15. Give yourself breaks – even when it feels like you have a million and one things to do. Make time for self-care and the things you find fun. Put yourself first.
- When we are going through transitions, spending a certain amount of time alone can help us to pause, recharge and reflect on our lives. It can show us what is going well, we can identify changes we would like to make and plan how to move ahead.
- Having time to yourself can also make you self-aware. It can be important to the types of relationships you choose, how you function, what your expectations and needs are. Spend some time getting to know yourself – it will be time well spent.
16. Write down stuff when you think of it. When I was writing my dissertation, I would constantly get random ideas on the bus home. But I would forget them by the time I went to sit down and actually start anything. So, I created a note page on my phone, for when these random ideas popped into my head. This saved my arse. There is no such thing as too organised.
17. Sleep, and sleep well. Everything will seem better and more manageable in the morning.
18. Don’t bring clothes you know you aren’t going to wear. You are provided with such limited storage as a student – fill it with things you love. If you have fallen out of love with something – donate it!
- Try to only buy the essentials beforehand. You can pick up most of the things you need when you actually move into the (new) city.
- Don’t bring as many clothes as you think, just the clothes you’ll actually wear – with a mixture of both summer and winter clothes. We all know how unpredictable the weather can be.
19. Make your time meaningful. These years may be tough, but they are like no other. Make them meaningful. Find your circle, however big or small, and make some wonderful memories. Have nights you won’t remember and days you won’t forget. Even though I didn’t get drunk once, at uni, I still have treasured memories and stories I reflect on now.
20. Just because your path is different, doesn’t mean that you are lost. Sometimes, taking time out of university or doing things differently to others may be compulsory or voluntary – but usually, necessary. You don’t need to do what everyone else is doing. The whole time I was there, I was constantly asking myself ‘why isn’t it that easy for me?’ ‘why can’t I be like that/them?’ ‘what have they got that I haven’t?. Truth is, all those hours I spent comparing, it never got me any closer to an answer. When I started to celebrate my own little achievements, my whole outlook changed and things got a little easier.
- I was so tough on myself when I had to defer exams and apply for extensions – thinking it made me ‘less of an able student’. But it was the best decision I ever made. I knew I couldn’t have carried on during those times. I needed to recover. I went from low grades to some of the highest I achieved after these periods. You cannot pour from an empty cup.
21. Try to avoid ‘what if’ situations. In the weeks leading up to going to university, I would think ‘what if this happens…’, ‘what if I don’t make any friends…’. Instead, I suggest focusing on… “I worked hard for my place, so I deserve to be here.” There are a lot of things to take in when you first arrive, so it will be less overwhelming if you process things having open mind than pre-conceived ideas of how things will happen.
22. You are not stuck. Don’t think that once you get there, there is no going back. Of course, there is. If you get to university and realise it’s all a bit too much for you and your mental health is struggling – you CAN take a step back and re-evaluate. No one will be disappointed in you. It does not make you a failure. You’ll be the strongest you’ve ever been, having made a decision which will benefit you and your wellbeing. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself.
23. Recognise that your mental health matters – over everything else. As important as uni feels at the time, you should always come first. Always. You are your longest and most important commitment. If it’s a half-decent uni, they’ll be flexible for you. You are human. Chances are, it seems a lot more daunting than it really is, and you CAN do it.
24. Never stop looking for help. Don’t give up. Don’t try to hide what you are going through. You don’t need a ‘good’ reason to seek help or talk to someone. Check-in on yourself and others regularly. Mental health conditions are so common around campus – you are not alone. So, be kinder than you feel, most people are struggling too.
I hope you feel incredibly proud of yourself for how far you’ve come already. It’ll be such an exciting journey to come, hopefully this blog post has helped! If you’ve been to university with a mental disorder, what are some tips you can share?