For most students, university applications and preparing for university is an enormous life change. Making big decisions, taking on new challenges, and getting ready to move to an often unfamiliar environment and meet new people can be both exciting and daunting. So, it’s hardly surprising that many students experience stress during their last year at school.
However, whilst some stress is normal, excess stress can lead to or exacerbate mental health problems. With a recent YouGov survey of Britain’s students revealing that 27% suffer from poor mental health, it’s clear that steps must be taken to minimise stress and support students.
The causes of stress
University applications are a very stressful time for students, as they include processing large amounts of information, and making decisions that students know will affect the rest of their lives. The YouGov survey also revealed that for students, the primary cause of concern is stress, with 71% of students reporting this as their main source of stress. However, it appears that stressors can be wide-ranging for this demographic, with areas of concern including work prospects and family worries as well as problems with relationships and friends.
According to psychologist Zoe Chouliara from ClickforTherapy, the rapid change associated with applying to and starting university can be a cause of stress in itself: “change, although a normal part of life, is a challenge for us all. Multiple changes are particularly challenging. Students are forming and testing their identity as a ‘grown up’,” she explains.
Joy Grenyer, Student Support Manager at Northumbria University agrees that the causes of stress for students can be diverse: “there’s a whole avalanche of things that happen when students come into higher education,” she says.
Whilst some stress is inevitable at this time, there are many ways in which you can help students to minimise the stress they experience. For example, encouraging them to gather information and learn about all aspects of university life beforehand can be invaluable.
“The first thing is to familiarise yourself with the course so that nothing comes as a shock,” Grenyer advises. “Sometimes, despite knowing their subject, students have little idea of the workload they will face, the manner of assessment and the format of their course as a whole.”
It’s also important that students discover their new surroundings: “get to know the city, your accommodation – often social network pages exist. Join student union societies that represent your interests,” explains Grenyer. “Above all, learn what is involved in being a student – don’t just turn up!”
Of course, despite the best preparation, students may still find themselves struggling when they are finalising their applications or arrive at university. It’s important therefore that students are aware of the support available and how to access it. Make sure your school has clearly defined strategies for dealing with student stress, and that students know who they can turn to if they’re struggling.
“Like most universities, we have a central department to help those who need advice or support,” explains Grenyer for new students. “Often simply providing information can help students to deal with the cause of their stress. For example, some may be concerned about the location of their first lecture. Or perhaps they need some advice on how to budget. We can help to point them in the right direction to get the help they need.”
When it gets too much
Whilst some of the stress associated with university applications and life can be minimised with the right advice, and other concerns will decrease after the stress of applications or an initial ‘settling in period,’ there are times when stress can contribute to or cause more serious mental health problems such as anxiety.
“Change can challenge our self-esteem, highlighting potential vulnerabilities and stretching existing psychological resources,” agrees Chouliara. “If stress feels uncontrollable, it’s important students remember that asking for professional help is OK.”
“Sometimes students will need counselling, sometimes physical or emotional support,” Grenyer agrees. Schools and universities often have multiple services for students, including face-to-face counselling and text support facilities. Encourage students to make the most of the pastoral provision that is there to help them.
Relaxation and prevention
As well as arming themselves with information, and seeking support where necessary, there is much students can do to keep stress at bay in the longer term. “The first line of defence for mild stress is upping your self-care,” explains Chouliara. “Eating regularly and as healthily as possible, reducing caffeine and alcohol and, most importantly, getting enough sleep is vital.”
Exercise can also help with longer term stress reduction and management. “We often recommend to students who are stressed that they give exercise a try,” says Grenyer. “This can help them physically, as well as encouraging them to get out and meet new people.”
“Gentle exercise such as walks in the fresh air, if possible, swimming, dancing and cycling are good ways of combating stress and low mood,” agrees Chouliara. “Relaxation, meditation and yoga are also helpful.”
The importance of communication
Whether it’s requesting information, asking for advice or simply talking about stressful situations, it seems that communication is key. And those concerned with student wellbeing will be reassured to learn that the young are more aware of the importance of mental health than previous generations, with 84% of respondents recognising that mental health problems can be just as serious as physical ones.
However, as many students in a separate survey for YouGov still fear the stigma of opening up about their mental health, it is important that dialogue is encouraged and students are made aware of the services available should stress become a problem.