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Becoming an undergraduate during a pandemic: Priory expert offers advice


Over the next few weeks, thousands of young people across the country are preparing for that well-established rite of passage – heading to university for the start of the new academic year.

But restrictions caused by COVID-19 will make starting university this year a unique, and potentially difficult, experience; many universities are having to adapt courses to online learning rather than face-to-face lectures while some are requesting students only socialise with those living in their halls of residence.

And studying for a degree already means dealing with the combined stress of academic work, tight finance and much higher levels of debt than in the past. The pandemic, and concerns about a second wave, add another layer of pressure to this mix.

The stresses placed on students can have serious consequences both on their mental health – and their future career; official figures show that two thirds of universities and colleges have seen an increase in the last five years in the proportion of students who ‘drop out’.

And only one in four (27%) of existing students feels that their university provides adequate mental health support, according to the newly-released NatWest Student Living Index 2020.

This is despite efforts made by many universities in recent years to tackle the mental health crisis among students head-on – the pressure to socialise (albeit with social distancing thrown in this year), to live independently in an unfamiliar environment, and to thrive academically.

Every year there are widely reported incidents involving young people and excess alcohol. Others struggle with acute feelings of loneliness, fear they have chosen the wrong course or university, and homesickness.

However, as reported in the Hippocratic Post this week, against this worrying backdrop there are plenty of pragmatic steps undergraduates can take to look after themselves and their mental health as they adjust to student living.

Firstly, starting university can be an exhilarating experience, combining being away from the watchful eyes of parents with being surrounded by like-minded teens. But it may not feel like that for everyone. Priory consultant psychiatrist Dr Andrew Iles says; “Do not feel pressured into drinking alcohol, or at least more than you would like to, and remember that you are your own person. Stepping outside of your comfort zone to please others is never going to work out well.”

University is primarily about studying, not partying, but this brings its own pressures. Students who are used to being at the top of their class may suddenly find themselves surrounded by people of equal or higher ability. Undergraduates should remember that what they are feeling is perfectly normal. “A significant number of my patients are university students and practicing in Oxford means that I am used to seeing people who fear that they are not intelligent enough to keep up with university life,” says Dr Iles. He continues; “Usually this is simply untrue, but it does not stop people experiencing ‘imposter syndrome’.”

And, this new phase of academic life may often be the first-time young people have been required to structure their own reading and learning, and some are not prepared. “Adapting from A levels and other courses like the International Baccalaureate and BTECs, is tough”, says Dr Iles. “The structured learning environment of sixth form and further education colleges is replaced with much greater emphasis on self-directed study and learning objectives may become less well-defined.”

Because there will be a dizzying array of things to do and people to meet, students need to remember that there is only so much a person can get through, and that taking the time to rest and recuperate is very important. “Speak to any established undergraduate and they will tell you that staying up late and the pressure to find new friends is exhausting. Burning the candle at both ends leaves many feeling homesick and isolated”, says Dr Iles.

If students do find the whole experience starts to feel overwhelming, it helps to remember that everyone is in the same situation. Dr Iles reminds new starters that; “You have worked hard to get into university, so try and remember that many people will experience similar problems when they start. However, some people may have greater problems, maybe because of existing mental illness or maybe because they are experiencing a mental health condition for the first time. Should you find yourself in this situation, make sure you tell someone. It is never good to suffer in silence.”

So, it’s good to remind yourself – or friends you might be concerned about –  if you’re feeling stressed or anxious, there are people to help, whatever the underlying cause. You can access medical professionals such as GPs, or counsellors, psychologists, welfare advisers, university counselling services or student union representatives. Your GP may also refer you to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist – confidential services that will not affect your job prospects negatively (a common worry).

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