If you're about to head to university, you're probably focused on one thing. The pure, sublime joy of intellectual challenge? The knowledge that you're about to embark on a life-changing journey of personal growth? Nah, mate. Freshers week.
As we all know – as we are told by our elders and that one weird guy who's definitely too old to be hanging out with 17-year-olds – freshers is primarily about downing more fluorescent alcopops than is medically advisable, getting off with and then instantly hating new course mates, and learning new and exciting ways to be sick along the way. You will probably be sick in several sinks. You will probably be sick on, or near, someone you fancy. You will definitely be sick on yourself.
This, however, is just one side of freshers week. Alongside the drinking, the desperate attempts to make friends and your futile attempts to forget that you may, at some point, have to actually learn something, there's the less fun stuff. There's moving miles away from home, living alone for the first time, being away from support structures, having basically no idea what your personality actually is. And for some people, it'll be their first experience of mental illness.
A report released today by the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank says the scale of mental health problems among university students is "bigger than ever before". It also found that some universities need to triple their mental health funding.
"There are lots of burdens on young people today," says Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind. "From stress about exams and student debts, to worries about appearance and pressures from social media. All of this can trigger feelings of low self-esteem, depression and anxiety."
For me, freshers week was a shock. I wasn't too far away from home, but it was the first time I had no real support network. My best friends from school were scattered across the country and I felt a nagging pressure to not rely on my parents. After all, wasn't I supposed to be supporting myself? I engaged in all the usual freshers week stuff – drinking way too much, kissing regrettable people, sleeping in until 3PM – but I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something deeply wrong. Spoiler alert: I was mentally ill!
Even though I already knew I had problems with my mental health, it just didn't factor in when I thought about starting uni. I was nervous about moving out, but that was more to do with practical stuff: could I cook dinner without poisoning myself? Could I wash my clothes without shrinking them? Could I be bothered to change my sheets?
Thinking back, I didn't even consider what a huge impact uni would have on my mental health. So here are a few tips to hopefully help you get through freshers week if you're experiencing mental health problems yourself.
You could be the most mentally stable person in the world, but freshers week might still knock you back a bit. Your sleep schedule is totally fucked because your parents aren't there to drag you out of bed; you're probably eating like shit because OH MY GOD YOU CAN EAT POTATO WAFFLES AT LITERALLY ANY TIME OF DAY, WHAT THE FUCK; you're drinking about 56 times more than usual; and you're potentially taking quite a lot drugs, maybe for the first time. This has an impact on your mental and physical health.
"For someone with anxiety, freshers week was naturally challenging for me," says Tom, a trainee psychotherapist. "Socialising isn't just obligatory; it's forced upon you. My life became a blur of drinking, socialising, sleeping, eating, repeating. I barely had enough time or space to think, and it was exhausting." Buckley agrees, saying that not getting enough sleep can "seriously impact our mental wellbeing and quality of life".
So make sure you take some time to get some proper sleep, have a day off drinking – or at least limit your units – and eat something green (even if it's just a green juice or a smoothie or, like, one apple). Nobody's expecting you to eschew 2AM kebabs for a full on #cleaneating regime, and it's extremely important to note that even if you did, it is absolutely not going to make you Not Mentally Ill. But keeping on top of things like diet, alcohol consumption, hydration and sleep can help you stay slightly more stable.
KEEP IN TOUCH WITH EXISTING SUPPORT STRUCTURES
One of your main worries about university will probably be whether you'll make friends or not. It's scary, obviously – what if you hate your flatmates? What if everyone on your course is a dick? What if you're a dick? It's a natural worry when you start out.
What that often means is you start to neglect your old mates in the first few weeks of uni. Because who wants to be the saddo Skyping their schoolmates for three hours a day while everyone else is out making their BEST FRIENDS FOR LIFE? Even worse: who wants to be the saddo texting their mum at pre-drinks?
The good news is: you don't have to worry. Yes, everybody is going to desperately be trying to hang onto their new mates, but they're also going to be a bit adrift without their friends from home, and they're also going to be missing their mum. There's nothing wrong with spending a few hours – or even just a few minutes – a day talking to your existing support structures, checking in with them, and letting them know how and when you need them, and this can often be easier and less exhausting than telling your new flatmates your entire mental health history.
MAKE A LIST OF RESOURCES
You might think you're not prone to mental illness, and you may be right. But you may also be wrong. Lots of people have their first experience of mental health problems as students, and an NUS study in 2015 found that around 78 percent of students had experienced mental illness at some point during the previous year.
Even if you're aware of existing mental illnesses, they may start to manifest in different ways – what I thought was unipolar depression turned out to be bipolar during my first term, and I had my first psychotic episode after I went back to uni after the Christmas holidays. It was an experience that was totally alien to me, and I was wholly unprepared for it, meaning I had no idea where to get help.
Before this happens, prepare yourself. Look up the number of your uni health service, enrol at a GP surgery on campus and make sure you have the numbers of services like Nightline or the Samaritans. Universities also have specialised counselling programmes, which can be a good starting point, and if you're really worried, you can also talk to friends and family about what they can do in a crisis. Draw up a plan in case of emergency and write down a list of people you can contact if you need help.
Fifty-four percent of students say they sought no help for their mental health problems. Make sure that you do.
REMEMBER, YOU HAVEN'T FAILED IF YOU HATE IT
It can be hard to realise you're not enjoying freshers week, or that it's having a negative impact on your mental health – this is meant to be the best time of your life, right?! Not necessarily.
"I came to uni thinking it was going to be the best experience of my life – especially freshers week," says Sarah, an editorial assistant. "So when I realised how unhappy I was, I felt like I'd failed somehow."
Tom had the same experience: "As an 18-year-old male going off to university, there's a seemingly universal stereotype to which you're expected to conform. You were expected to drink like a man, snort like a champ and fuck like an animal." It might have been fun for some of his peers, but Tom found it to be a "dangerously self-destructive environment". He suggests establishing boundaries early, protecting personal space and trying not to "fall prey to expectations".
"I think if I could give myself any advice, now that I have a bit of space from freshers week, I'd tell myself not to stress out so much about it," says Sarah. "Even though I thought that making friends and being popular and going out loads was the most important thing, it wasn't. It was my mental health."
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