How can I support a friend through their mental health struggles at University?

Over the last few years, the UK has seen a steady rise in mental health issues being reported by students and young adults. Driven by a marked rise in depression and anxiety in young women, The Prince’s Trust has indicated that young people have the lowest levels of happiness and confidence in their emotional health since reporting began in 2009.

This is not something to be ignored; the number of student suicides and attempted suicides is also starting to increase, most notably in the last few years. It’s not hard to see why, though – immense pressure and unnecessarily high expectations combined with a failing NHS mental health system is resulting in a worrying number of students falling through the proverbial net.

If you’re a university student, it’s statistically the case that around 25% of the people on your course are experiencing mental health struggles. Sometimes, it can feel like you’re all drowning together, but if you’re able to offer a helping hand to your friend, they may be able to make it through until they’re able to access professional help.

How do I know if a friend is struggling with their mental health?

Just as a cold exhibits physical symptoms, a decline in someone’s mental health will impact how they look, feel, and behave.

Habit changes

If you notice a friend eating more or less than usual, or having trouble sleeping properly (sleeping too much is often just as telling as sleeping too little) they may be struggling to keep their mental health steady.

Mood-swings/changes

In some cases, you may find that your friend’s outlook on life has changed to become more negative, or that they’ve started saying things indicative of low self-worth, stress, and worry.

Self-destructive/harmful behaviour

Engaging in behaviours that are harmful to the self may include things like suddenly engaging in a lot of risk-taking behaviours like dangerous drinking, illegal drug use, harmful sexual activity (like deliberately practising unsafe sex with strangers), and cutting off friends.

Changes in social patterns

This could be a friend skipping social events or retreating to their room more often, just as it could be someone trying to fill their usually empty calendar with social engagements.

So, how can I help a friend struggling with their mental health?

The first thing to do is ask. Although not everyone is going to spill their guts to you, there’s no harm in letting them know that should they feel able, they can ask you for support.

Follow leads. If they tell you they’ve booked an appointment with the university counsellor, they might appreciate you reminding them and offering to walk them there.

Often, people struggling with mental health issues find themselves disorganised, forgetful, and unmotivated. By helping them remember things they may not be able to themselves, you offer them a bit of clarity in what may otherwise be a very crowded mind.

Now, we know that students are not trained professionals. It’s especially difficult to support your friends when you, too, are struggling. If you’re finding it difficult, look for help yourself. Speak to your friends about shared responsibilities, and try to make each other’s lives a little easier with practical support and an honesty policy.

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