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Your university years are the hardest on your mental health

QM graduate Amy Lawton knows university is not always great, and offers some techniques to ease the impact on your mental health

For years, as I studied for my GCSE’S and A-Levels, I dreamed of moving away from home and reinventing myself. Having been told that going to university is one of the greatest experiences of your life, I bought into the concept as I wrote my personal statement and attended open days. My acceptance letter was the final piece falling into place. Emboldened by optimism I left home and moved to London.

But like anything in life, when you place high expectations on something it is bound to disappoint. I didn’t fully understand the shock to my body and mind that I was about to experience.

These are the reasons why your university years can be the hardest years of your life on your mental health – and what you can do to take better care of yourself while at university. 

1. Diet 

When something doesn’t feel right in life we often look for an outside cause. We might think ‘I’ve had a bad week’. We will blame our low mood on just about anything in the world around us; social media, stress, relationships.

But there’s one thing that alters the chemical balance in your brain more than anything, and that is what you eat. Nutrition is one of the most obvious yet seemingly overlooked contributors to our mental wellbeing.

It’s no coincidence that our generation has eaten the highest amount of processed food in history, according to Cancer Research UK, and it is becoming more and more common that students report mental health issues.

A vegetable is something scarcely seen in a student kitchen.

According to Mind, students are at higher risk of developing mental health issues, with research showing many people first experience mental health problems or first seek help when they are at university.

Although the relationship between nutrition and mental health is complex, a study conducted in the UK by Stranges et al. (2014) found that vegetable consumption was associated with high levels of mental wellbeing.

Yet a vegetable is something scarcely seen in a student kitchen. My university days were spent avoiding my communal living space, finding my cups had been used as ashtrays, and taking out recycling bags full of empty Mcdonald’s containers (I even found an actual plate with some Mcdonald’s on in the recycling).

TIP: Eating healthily and avoiding processed foods is step one to taking care of your mental wellbeing.

2. Sleep schedule and lack of routine 

For the first time in your life you can go wherever you want, do what you want, and go to bed at whatever time you want. Sounds great right? Well it turns out that life was better when you had a set bedtime, and a morning routine. Starting out at around midnight, my bedtime got later and later, until I was eventually practically nocturnal- even the tawny owls hit the hay before I did.

And when it came to analysing why I hadn’t been feeling my best, this was another thing I foolishly overlooked.

In a study published by the National Library of Medicine, scientists found that there is a direct relationship between sleep quality and mood. Waking up and going to bed at the same time every day can regulate your mood.

Yet, take a stroll around any university campus, it’s likely you’ll see someone in the shop wearing pyjamas, someone walking home in last night’s clothes and someone in your lecture who clearly hasn’t washed. It’s safe to say university life doesn’t revolve around a set schedule.

Going to bed at the same time each day comes with great benefits.

It can be hard to set a routine for yourself when there’s no longer any need. There’s nowhere you have to be at eight-thirty in the morning anymore, so why leave the comforts of your warm bed? Especially when your mental health is low, it can be a catch-22.

And, even if you do love your sleep, how can you sleep with music blasting from the room two doors down, and the sound of students heading out for the clubs after pre-drinks at 11pm?

TIP: Try using noise cancelling headphones, and set a strict bedtime. It doesn’t have to be 8pm, but the consistency of going to bed at the same time each day comes with great benefits.

3. Alcohol 

Everyone has one housemate who drinks too much. If that’s you, it could be having an impact on your mental health. If it’s not you, even the fact that you’re trying to keep up by drinking a few times a week, is probably taking its toll on your mind more than you realise.

When I was a student, I proudly thought I ‘knew my limit’ because I didn’t binge drink on the regular like some of my friends. However, even what I considered ‘moderate’ was still like poison in my system. A lack of education on this was my downfall. I was aware of the effects alcohol could have on physical health, (although they seemed way off in the future), as well as the dangerous situations you could find yourself in as a result of losing awareness, but never once had anyone ever connected the traffic cones between alcohol consumption and mental health to me. I was well into my 20s before I heard this mentioned for the first time.

Having one or two drinks a few times a week was still a habit that would catch up with me. Feeling tired and having a low mood the next day after a night out could set the tone for an entire week. Even now I notice a change in my anxiety levels after having only one drink the night before, so I shudder now looking back on the volumes I drank at University and the high emotions I often felt during those years… wondering if they were related all along.

But forgoing it isn’t easy. University seems to revolve around alcohol, perhaps intentionally to set workers up for a lifetime of 9-5s Monday to Friday and letting it all go on the weekends to feed a capitalist machine.

TIP: Be aware of the effect even a moderate amount of alcohol can have on your mood and mental wellbeing.

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