Will your student child sink or swim at university? Independent study, time management, personal hygiene and maintaining a healthy diet are just some of the challenges they will face. Although dropout rates have risen slightly, they’re still only at 6%, according to the Social Market Foundation – most students have a happy, successful time at university.
Mental health is high on university radars, with the number of students seeking counselling having doubled at some institutions and a quarter of students saying they’ve experienced depression, anxiety or similar conditions, according to YouGov.
“I would say in the first month, forget about the academic side – just concentrate on building a social life,” says Karen Levi, a university lecturer. Her son chose to quit the University of Sussex in his second term after a lonely start – but will be returning in September. “He loved his course,” she says. But he struggled to bond with his flatmates and was mostly alone, sometimes not getting up until dark. “The computer in the room is a curse,” says Levi, who believes academic staff could do more to help students mingle. “When I was a student we sat around after lectures, shared chips and chatted. That just didn’t happen for him.” Nor did her son enjoy freshers’ events: “Everyone was too plastered.”
Happily he did keep in touch – enough for Levi to realise all wasn’t well. But confidentiality prevents universities from contacting parents even if something is wrong – unless the student consents. And, as Levi points out, those who really need help are often the least likely to ask for it. She secured private counselling, her son found a job and is now travelling before returning to student life – “learning all the stuff he really needed to know before going to uni”.
And how a student copes with new study affects their wellbeing, says Hilly Janes, who teaches first-years at two universities. “At school there’s little time for digging, thinking around things, exploring ideas or arguing, so some students struggle.”
Here, parents can help, she believes – by encouraging them to develop their own interests and broadening their horizons before they leave “so they get a bigger view of the world than their own peer group and family”. Parents could also teach teenagers basic online research skills. But all this is hard, she acknowledges, “when all they want to do is not what mum and dad suggest”.
Once at university, students can tackle study skills, such as note taking, writing essays and using the library.
Unstructured days with few contact hours may leave them feeling all at sea, and panic can set in, says Janes, when work deadlines overlap. Parents should initiate low-key ways of staying in touch, she says, “so that a child having a breakdown or failing a course doesn’t come as a huge shock”.
Soon the technology could be there to help highlight who is floundering. This year some 20 institutions are piloting new analytical software that analyses students’ study habits, looks at their previous grades and pinpoints those who may be falling by the wayside. “Technology is there to provide the [data] universities need to get a quick snapshot of those most at risk,” says Paul Feldman, chief executive at education specialists Jisc, that plan to roll out the technology more widely next year. Students who find that all a bit Big Brotherish can opt out, however.
Veronica Moore, head of counselling and disability at Loughborough University – which comes second in a 2017 student experience survey (Times Higher Education) for welfare support – says it’s about getting the balance of parental communication right. Loughborough and other universities, such as York, have introduced a system where trained wardens keep an eye on new students in halls and seek out vulnerable students.
But it’s hard to get the balance right, says Moore. “One minute they don’t need you, the next they want a big hug. And it can be really difficult for parents to understand that this is the first step towards children moving away entirely, and accept that it’s healthy that they try to manage their own anxieties.”
Top tips for a healthy uni life
- Register with a doctor – some universities even offer GP services on campus.
- Don’t isolate yourself or wait for people to speak to you or visit you. Try to initiate conversation.
- Personal tutors say it’s fine to chat to them about general wellbeing.
- Think about going to events alone if you can’t find anyone to go with.
- Work out course deadlines in advance – online diaries help. Speak to academic staff before the crunch if you can’t deliver work on time.
- Join clubs or societies or get involved, even with a job or voluntary work – the busier you are, the less homesick you’ll be. Try to establish a routine.
- Try not to call or visit home too often. Catch-ups can sometimes leave you feeling worse.
- Speak to student support services, or wardens in accommodation, if you are struggling – many universities offer free counselling sessions, which are confidential.
- Remember that things will improve. Early weeks may feel a huge struggle and it can be tempting to give up, but most students settle during the first term.
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