From education to employment

Managing students’ wellbeing during the transition to university

Dr Lesley French, Head of Clinical Help in Schools at the Anna Freud Centre

Young people go through many transitions in their lives, but one of the most critical ones is leaving school – and, for many, this involves going on to university. For the majority of young people, the challenges are manageable and quickly overcome. For others, the transition can create significant distress and anxiety, and potentially worsen pre-existing mental health conditions.

Drop-out rates of first year students have risen

At many universities, drop-out rates of first year students have risen, and UK universities have seen an increase in demand for student mental health support services.[1] Heading to university can be an exciting time, an opportunity for a young person to meet new people and explore their own independence. It can also be a difficult time, with many new experiences and changes. There is a lot to navigate and it is important for them to prepare for this as best they can. The transition and first year of their studies are significant in determining student success, confidence, sense of belonging, and wellbeing.

Starting at university can make you feel like a small fish in a very big pond. It is so important to know that, at this time, everyone is feeling anxious. But some young people may find that they struggle to adjust, don’t feel that they belong, and fall behind with work. Encourage your students to ask others about their experiences, perhaps friends or family members who have gone to university before them – they will find a lot of people felt nervous too. It is ok if they find this time difficult, and do remind them to be kind to themselves. They are not alone and they are in the same boat as a lot of their fellow students trying to navigate the university maze. It is normal to have these feelings, but if these feelings persist – or are particularly distressing and unmanageable – then it is essential they seek the support they need.

Make sure your students feel prepared with information, and ensure they know where to go for support to prevent their wellbeing declining as they start this new phase of their lives. Be mindful of this particularly in relation to any students who have had mental health difficulties previously, or who have suffered with anxiety. Change is a normal part of life and can provide opportunities to develop resilience. The absence of a school routine, managing new responsibilities, making difficult decisions, and stepping into what feels like the unknown might feel overwhelming for some young people. If they are feeling overwhelmed, encourage them to think about what they have already overcome.

There are many transitions in life

We go through many transitions in life and recalling a previous transition, and how we coped with it, can remind us of our own strengths and resilience. It might be helpful for students to set expectations for their university experience, so they are realistic about what they want to achieve (and not just academically) in the early months. A transition marks an ending, but also a new beginning. It is important to mark both the ending as well as the new beginning.

Of course, staying connected with loved ones is essential to help young people in this important stage of their lives. They need to continue to be able to talk with people they trust – about how it all feels to them and about any concerns they may have. This will provide them with the support to cope with any readjustments and challenges along the way.

By Dr Lesley French, Head of Clinical Help in Schools at the Anna Freud Centre

The Anna Freud Centre is pleased to offer free webinars for any students who will be transitioning from sixth form or college to university this autumn. The webinars will be led by our education and mental health experts, taking place between 22 August and 2 September. The webinars will share an overview of what to expect in this period of transition, share strategies for students to manage their own wellbeing when starting out at university, as well as providing an opportunity for students to ask questions. Do encourage your students to take up this offer if you think it will be helpful to them.


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