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Guest blog: How students can help support friends struggling with mental ill health

Between the pressure of university, internships, and finding a job in a related field, students are struggling more than ever to get through university… and it’s not just students saying this.

Proof UK students are struggling

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), accumulated data shows that 1,180 students studying at UK universities left early due to mental health problems in the 2014-15 academic year. Alarmingly, this is a 210% increase from the 380 students who left their studies early from previously recorded data in 2009-10.

Some may argue that these numbers have increased because students are not seeking the relevant available help, however this is incorrect. HESA also found 87,914 students requested counselling in 2015-16 compared to the 68,614 students who sourced help in 2013-14 (a rise of 28%).

Although these figures are concerning, they also only focus on the students who actively seek help – what about those who do not? Each year, many students see friends juggling deadlines and assignments and are unaware that behind closed doors these people are secretly battling with mental ill health. So, what is the best way to approach your peers when it comes to mental health?

The signs to watch out for

While it may seem obvious to look for any ‘irregular behaviour’ in a friend or peer, it is particularly important to look for any of the following signs:

  • They regularly seem anxious or distressed;

  • They are regularly upset and refusing comfort (or have problems that are worsening);

  • They are displaying a sudden change in behaviour that lasts longer than two weeks;

  • They are engaging in behaviour that is hurting themselves or others;

  • They are experiencing problems which are interfering with their usual daily tasks, such as eating, sleeping, and/or concentrating on work.

What you can do to help your friend?

Talking about mental health can be difficult. It may be easier to approach the situation by following this step-by-step guide:

Step 1: Say something. It’s important to voice your concern and show your willingness to support your friends. This may open a door for them to seek help.

Step 2: Listen. It can be difficult for some people to open up about how they’re feeling, so it’s important to be prepared. A few pieces of advice include:

  • Be an attentive listener;

  • Acknowledge their feelings – don’t downplay what they’re telling you;

  • Ask open-ended questions – this will provide an opportunity for them to keep talking rather than giving short or one-word answers;

  • Remind your friend that they’re not alone – you can offer your support along with suggesting the option of seeking professional help through a GP or the university;

  • Regularly check in with emails, text messages or social media to ask them how they’re feeling – they may want to tell you what is happening in their lives without talking face-to-face;

  • Do some research – before initiating the conversation, read up on their symptoms and any potential mental health problems that they may be experiencing so that you have a level of understanding.

Step 3: Provide reassurance. Whether this be through listening, encouraging them to explore different support options at the university, to speak to their GP or to seek an alternative form of professional support, a simple display of reassurance and understanding could be the turning point for them.

If you’re worried about a friend, you can contact your university's wellbeing services for further information and help. Hopefully, your friend will understand that seeing a councillor can be helpful and that they’re not there to judge. From here, a range of support approaches may be suggested, including regular visits for additional support, or setting up measures in anticipation of particularly stressful periods of the academic year.

Olivia works for the Australian home doctor service, House Call Doctor, that offers a GP service after hours via phone, online and by mobile app.


Indicator 3.2.1 of the Student Wellbeing & Mental Health Instrument in the ProtectED Code of Practice requires member universities to formally recognise the role of students as supporters or invisible carers. The Student Minds 'Look After Your Mate' campaign is cited as an example of good practice.

The views and opinions expressed by authors of Guest Blog posts and by those providing comments do not necessarily reflect those of ProtectED. Information on products or services is provided “as is” with no warranties, and confers no rights.

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